FLATBUSH, Brooklyn (PIX11) — State and NYPD investigators say it’s an addictive drug used in many countries, but many people in the New York area have never heard of it.
Those are not the people in the Tri-State who were using khat, a leaf whose juices have a stimulant effect similar to amphetamine. Enough local residents use khat, however, to have funded what cops call an international drug ring that they broke up on Friday.
The leaves, which users typically eat whole, emit a fragrant smell. Two plastic bags of them filled a display table at the New York State Attorney General’s Office on Friday afternoon, filling the press conference room with a nutty, grainy aroma. But the attorney general himself said that the bags of leaves were part of a large, illegal business that smells foul to law enforcement.
“We’re still tracking the funds,” said Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, regarding the khat ring. “But we know it was millions of dollars.”
He said that officers from his agency and the NYPD arrested 17 people in the U.S. and the United Kingdom.
According to the attorney general, the leader of the operation, Yadeta “Murad” Bekri, would ship khat in boxes to two UPS Stores in Manhattan. His two leaders in the U.S., Bayan Yusuf and Ahmed Adem, would pick up the boxes of leaves and send them to distributors, who would, in turn, store the boxes until they could make a sale, the attorney general said.
For example, according to investigators, two Flatbush, Brooklyn residents, Mustafa Sadeq Ali and Sadeq Hassan Ali, were seen on surveillance video storing boxes of khat in the Islamic Center of Flatbush, a mosque located right next door to their building.
Attorney General Schneiderman confirmed that the surveillance was the result of an ongoing terrorism investigation at the mosque. He said that the investigation did not yield any indication of terrorism.
It did uncover, however, a three layered international narcotics distribution ring, officials said, in violation of U.S. laws against khat sales and distribution, in place for two decades.
“It’s key to understand these networks and how the money flows,” said John Miller, the NYPD deputy commissioner for intelligence. He said that, in his travels to Yemen for his job, he had personally observed the devastating effect that khat can have on people who use it. He declined to elaborate.
He and the attorney general did point out that the alleged khat ring they busted would ship the leaves from Yemen, Ethiopia and Kenya to the U.K., Belgium, the Netherlands and China. From there, the leaves were shipped to New York, sometimes in boxes disguised to be carrying a more benign cargo.
“Some of the boxes had labels that said ‘tea,'” Attorney General Schneiderman said at a Thursday afternoon news conference. “It should not be used as tea,” he said, sternly, but half seriously.