Better late than never, the Obama administration finally is bringing war to the terrorist breeding grounds of lawless Yemen. In 2010, expect many more aerial strikes like those the Yemeni air force carried out Dec. 24. Those strikes took out dozens of al-Qaeda terrorists at a planning confab.
The coming U.S.-guided terrorist hunt over Yemen is a good first, if rather obvious, step. But the time is ripe for a companion tactic that is so ill-apparent as to sound, I admit, almost kooky. Still, the tactic should be part of any stratagem for Yemen. The Obama administration should pressure Great Britain for an immediate ban on the narcotic plant known as “khat.”
Khat is a narcotic flowering shrub widely cultivated — and consumed — in Yemen. Chewing khat leaves produces a euphoric stimulating effect on users similar to the effect of cocaine. Its use is widespread for other reasons. It is so culturally ingrained among the Arab tribes of northeast Africa and the Arabian peninsula, most notably the people of Somalia, that millions of immigrants from the region have taken the habit with them to all points of the globe. The result is an international khat trade by which warlords and criminal gangs — and, no doubt, terrorists back home — are able to import huge volumes of Western currency.
But whereas using or importing khat is illegal in the U.S. and most European countries, it is completely legal in the United Kingdom, where some 250,000 Somali immigrants have taken up residence. Nothing in British law stands in the way of at least 30 tons of freshly cut Yemen khat arriving at Heathrow Airport every month. By allowing this huge khat loophole to persist, our ally in the global war on terror has become a forward staging ground for smuggling to the rest of the world, most notably to Somali immigrant communities in many American cities. Millions (maybe even billions) of British pounds and American greenbacks are flowing back to Yemen, Somalia, and other terrorist-harboring states.
I know all of this because I first investigated the international khat trade almost ten years ago while working as a reporter in Dallas, Texas. I’d noticed that local airport customs inspectors at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport were turning up loads of the stuff on young British citizens, “mules” arriving on flights from the UK carrying luggage stuffed with weird plants most cops didn’t recognize. The plants were headed for local immigrant communities still arriving from Somalia and Ethiopia. I was surprised, for instance, to learn that airport cab drivers were chewing khat to stay on Dallas roads longer. I had no good reason to consider who might be profiting on the back end of the supply chain — not until after 9/11.
In 2005, I traveled to London to further investigate the trade in the context of the post-9/11 war on terror. I easily found the stuff for sale at any north London grocery store. Wrapped by twine in banana leaves, bundles of khat were offered for about five bucks next to bottles of Snapple, Coca-Cola, and orange juice.
British parliamentarians and political experts explained the lack of interest in following other European nations in criminalizing khat. The drug is considered so integral to immigrant culture that any measure to ban it might be construed by a restive Muslim immigrant population as an attack on culture and heritage. I also learned that British customs inspectors had never been ordered to scan for outgoing British khat smugglers boarding international flights. A khat exporter’s dream.