A chewable African plant that investigators in Texas believe may be linked to terrorism groups has quietly launched a lengthy investigation in Houston and produced multiple arrests.
The Austin American-Statesman reported Sunday that Muslim civil rights groups are now questioning whether the Texas Department of Public Safety has crossed a line. The agency last year included the olive-shaped leaves known as khat on a statewide threat assessment.
Khat is grown in the Horn of Africa. State investigators said plant sales are suspected to benefit terrorist groups, but there is wide disagreement over the strength of that link. A Texas DPS' threat overview said the "chewable narcotic plant grown in the Horn of Africa whose sale abroad is suspected to benefit Africa-based terrorist organizations such as al-Shabaab."
That assessment, the newspaper said, is based on a congressional testimony given more than a decade ago by Steven McCraw then-FBI-assistant director, now DPS director, who briefly said that it is likely that khat proceeds "pass through the hands of suspected (Islamic militants) and other persons with possible ties to terrorist groups."
A state trooper noticed two men chewing khat while making a routine traffic stop near Houston last year. DPS spokesman Tom Vinger said an investigation hasn't yet led to terrorism-related charges.
Defense attorney Mark Correro said the Harris County prosecutor seems to believe otherwise. "Almost the very first words out of his mouth were, `You know your clients are terrorists, right?" A spokesman for the district attorney said the prosecutor was unavailable for an interview.
Also unavailable for interviews were Correro's clients. He said they are Ethiopians legally in the U.S. that work as cab drivers or in construction and use khat socially.
A U.S. Justice Department spokesman said he couldn't find any khat cases that had yielded terrorism charges. Past arrests have included money laundering charges based on transfers "to Somalia or other countries where khat originates from," Andrew Ames of the department's National Security Division wrote in an email. But "I am not aware of a case that alleges where that money goes."
Muslim organizations fear the prosecution may be a witch hunt.
Mustafaa Carroll, executive director of the Islamic council's Texas branch, said their "concern is always when you start hearing references to terrorisms... Our concern is that it's not just a witch hunt."
"Initial vague references to terrorism usually don't pan out in court," said Ibrahim Hooper, national spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations. "But the damage is done to Muslims."
Vinger said the investigation has led to the seizure of 1,000 pounds of the plant.
Unlike other plants that contain narcotic susbstances, like marijuana or opium poppies, the khat plant is not illegal. The active chemical substances in it, cathinone and cathine, are. And unlike other drugs found in plants, the active ingredients in khat lose their potency and can completely disappear in a matter of days. That, combined with the restricted use of the plant to small immigrant communities has meant infrequent prosecutions in Texas.