ALEXANDRIA, Va. — Eighteen people in four states, including 10 from northern Virginia, have been arrested for allegedly operating an international trafficking ring that distributed nearly 10,000 pounds of the illegal African drug known as khat, authorities announced Thursday.
Prosecutors in U.S. District Court in Alexandria charged Yonis Muhudin Ishak of Arlington as the conspiracy's ringleader. He allegedly paid a network of couriers $1,000 each for trips to London to fetch fresh batches of khat, a leaf that gives users a high when chewed.
The drug is popular in East Africa. Of the 18 arrested, all were natives of Somalia or Yemen.
John Torres, a special agent in charge for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's Homeland Security Investigations in Washington, estimated the khat's street value at $5 million. The trafficking ring had been in operation since at least 2005, according to court records.
The size and scope of the bust makes the case unusual for ICE, Torres said, because previous cases involving khat have not involved such large-scale trafficking. More than a dozen local and federal law-enforcement agencies participated in the investigation, which began in August 2009.
In 2006, federal prosecutors in New York indicted 44 people in a scheme that allegedly involved 50,000 pounds of khat over multiple years.
In addition to the 10 arrests in northern Virginia, two others were arrested in Maryland, four in New York, and two in Ohio.
MAY 19, 2011, 3:14 P.M. ET
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