Al Qaeda apparently not very good at drug smuggling

For the first time, alleged al Qaeda members are being charged by U.S. prosecutors on narcoterrorism charges. Oumar Issa, Harouna Toure and Idriss Abelrahman were arrested in Ghana last week in a sting operation coordinated by the Drug Enforcement Agency and Ghanaian authorities and were hoping to move hundreds of kilograms of cocaine through West Africa to finance al Qaeda and its North African offshoot, Al Qaeda in the Maghreb. 

U.S. attorney Preet Bharara says the arrests "reflect the emergence of a worrisome alliance between al Qaeda and transnational narcotics traffickers," but if these guys represent the vanguard of a new generation of narcoterror, we probably don't have too much to worry about:

The operation took shape in August, when a paid DEA informant posing as a Lebanese radical encountered Issa, an alleged fixer for a criminal organization that operated in Togo, Ghana, Burkina Faso and Mali, according to a sworn statement from veteran DEA agent Daria Lupacchino.

The two met in September in Ghana. The informant said he represented members of FARC, which has targeted U.S. citizens with bombings, kidnappings and other violence in recent years. Issa told the informant, in a conversation recorded by authorities, that his associates had circumvented customs agents and could ensure "safe passage" through the African desert, the affidavit said.

The informant later met with Toure, identified by Issa as "the main guy," and verified Toure's identity using a passport he mistakenly left at a hotel that served as the meeting site, the DEA agent wrote.

"Toure stated that he has worked with al Qaeda to transport and deliver between one and two tons of hashish to Tunisia and that his organization and al Qaeda have collaborated in the human smuggling of Bangladeshi, Pakistani and Indian subjects into Spain," the Lupacchino affidavit said.

Toure also allegedly described efforts to kidnap European citizens and to obtain foreign visas, the court papers said.

Granted we don't many details, but I doubt that most serious high-volume traffic drug smugglers -- even if they got taken in by the agent's Lebanaese radical/FARC story -- would brag about all of the other nefarious criminal enterprises they're involved with or be sloppy enough to leave their passport behind when meeting with a cocaine supplier.


What were we expecting from Copenhagen?

With all due respect to Bruce Bueno de Mesquita, I don't think you really needed an advanced computer model to predict that the Copenhagen conference wasn't going to end with binding emissions goals. But even so, the final deal is a crushing disappointment. Developing countries didn't get the deep emissions cuts or level of aid that they were hoping for. Nor did they commit to the binding agreements or outside verification that developed countries were hoping for. (That includes China, which is absurdly placed in the same category as Kiribati and Tuvalu in the final agreement.) And, perhaps most disappointing, we can't even hope for a real deal in 2010 anymore. 

In following international politics -- or any politics for that matter -- one thing that we hear again and again is that meaningful deals and agreements are not reached at summit meetings or international conferences under the glare of TV cameras, but in private, but low-ranking bureaucrats we've never heard of, who have most of the details worked out by the time heads of state arrive.

Yet today, we were treated to the spectacle of President Barack Obama flying in to Copenhagen to play Deus ex Machina and holding last-minute meetings with Wen Jiabao. The conference was leaking like a sieve from the start, with new draft agreements appearing in newspapers and developing countires staging a walkout. 

Given that the essential conflicts involved weren't exactly unknown, one has to ask, where was the backroom advance work? As he so often does, Brazilian President Lula Inacio da Silva summed up the proceedings well:

"We did we face all these difficulties?" Lula said. "Because we did not take the care in advance to work with the responsibility needed."

Couldn't the U.S. and China (the two countries that really mattered in this discussion) have reached some compromise position -- however watered-down -- before Copenhagen and left it to the conference to hammer out the details? A very public two-week conference under siege from both environmentalist protesters and climate denialists was hardly the best place to start from scratch. 

In the end, no one really looks good. Obama has been thwarted for the second time this week by the intransigence of an erstwhile friend. China will once again be painted as the villain (though it's hardly alone in sharing the blame). The White House is already spinning this as "an important first step," but in terms of the prospects for a cap-and-trade bill, it may a step back since U.S. business interests will now be able to say (with some justification) that they're being asked to make sacrifices while the world's largest emitter makes no binding commitments. The poor planning and seeming lack of advance work for the event don't exactly help the U.N.'s credibility as a forum for working out these deals. And the Earth, of course, keeps getting hotter. 

Here's hoping this is the last time Obama has to fly home empty-handed from Copenhagen.