By Kathy Lynn Gray
THE COLUMBUS DISPATCH
Two Columbus men are among 18 people arrested in Ohio and on the East Coast in what authorities say is an international trafficking ring that brought more than 4.8 tons of khat into the country.
Khat is an addictive stimulant popular among some Somalis, who chew the fresh leaves of the plant. Although illegal in the U.S., it's a commonly accepted drug in Yemen, Somalia, Kenya and Ethiopia, and its use has been debated in the large Somali community in Columbus.
Law-enforcement workers rounded up 10 men in Virginia, two in Maryland, four in New York and two in Columbus on Thursday after a nearly two-year investigation. Each was charged with conspiring to distribute cathinone, the stimulant in khat.
Four were from Yemen. The rest were from Somalia, including Abdi Omar Abdi and Abokor Gurreh, both of Columbus. Abdi is a permanent U.S. resident. Gurreh -- also known as Mabarak, Mohamed Farhan and Farhan M. Mohamed -- is a naturalized U.S. citizen.
Both are accused of transporting khat from New York to Ohio and helping distribute it in Ohio.
Ahmed Adan, 30, who produces the weekly online newsletter "Friday Bulletin for Somalis" in central Ohio, said khat is available everywhere in Somalia but is expensive and difficult to find in Columbus.
"But it's still coming in here," said Adan, who has lived here since 2008. He said it is highly addictive and can cause health problems such as infected gums and rotting teeth as well as mental problems. It's difficult for someone using khat daily to concentrate enough to work full time, he said.
Only older members of the Somali community chew khat, said Jibril Mohamed, 31, a member of the Somali Community Law Enforcement Work Group in Columbus. "Even those who chew it do not want their kids to chew it. It's not something the community is proud of."
The man authorities say is the leader of the trafficking ring is Yonis Muhudin Ishak, a naturalized U.S. citizen from Arlington, Va., who also was arrested.
Court documents say he smuggled khat into the country from England, Canada and Holland with human couriers and then sent it through the mail or with couriers to Alabama, California, Georgia, Illinois, Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, North Dakota, Ohio, Tennessee, Virginia, Washington and Washington, D.C.
The couriers were paid about $1,000 each time they brought khat into the United States in their luggage. Some had their children act as couriers, according to the criminal complaint.
It details how investigators used wiretaps to listen to the defendants discuss how and when khat would be smuggled and how the proceeds would be laundered. The defendants talked about how customers would not buy garabo, or old, stale khat, but instead wanted giza, the freshest, most potent khat.
Investigators learned from wiretaps that the khat coming into Columbus sometimes was picked up at a truck stop in Breezewood, Pa. Investigators also got a search warrant to read Ishak's email.
Ishak came to the United States in 1990 on a fraudulent passport and then was granted asylum because he said he was persecuted in Somalia, court records show. He was fined in 2005 for bringing khat into the United States from England in his luggage.
The current case is being handled in the District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement's Homeland Security Investigations led the investigation, with help from the FBI, Drug Enforcement Administration, the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the U.S. Marshals Service, Columbus and Gahanna police, and the Franklin County sheriff's office, as well as other local law-enforcement agencies.