By DEVLIN BARRETT And EVAN PEREZ
The informant at the center of an alleged Iranian plot to assassinate the Saudi Arabian ambassador marks the latest example of how the U.S. government’s war on drugs has expanded into the war on terrorism.
U.S. authorities say the informant was providing information to the Drug Enforcement Administration office in Houston. They say he began cooperating after facing drug charges in the U.S.
This past spring, the informant told agents that an Iranian-American man named Manssor Arbabsiar had asked him to help put together terror attacks in the U.S. and elsewhere, according to law-enforcement officials.
The U.S. alleges Mr. Arbabsiar, working on directions from Tehran, sought out a Mexican drug-cartel member to carry out terror attacks for money. The Iranian side was ready to pay $1.5 million to kill the ambassador, the U.S. says. Iran has called the allegations baseless.
The terror investigation is now being handled by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, but it is one of several recent cases where the DEA, using its underworld connections, has reached far beyond U.S. borders to investigate, arrest and bring to the U.S. those suspected of terror conspiracies.
Asa Hutchinson, former DEA head, said there was “a significant amount of overlap” between drug organizations and terror networks in parts of the globe, notably Afghanistan. He said the current case was unusual, because the alleged plot involved an attack inside the U.S.
The U.S. often cultivates drug suspects as informants after an arrest. The accused person may plead guilty in secret, then agree to cooperate while sentencing is postponed.
Such informants are highly motivated to deliver useful leads to their government handlers, because in the federal criminal system, cooperation is usually the only way to get a big reduction in prison time. Informants may also get paid for their help.
Those incentives can lead informants to lie. Defense lawyers often try to use that fact to raise doubts about an informant’s credibility, particularly if he is the main witness against a defendant.
Mr. Arbabsiar, who is being held in New York, hasn’t responded in detail to the charges, which rely heavily on the work of the informant, who purported to be a Mexican cartel member. Mr. Arbabsiar’s lawyer said he would plead not guilty if indicted.
Snapshots of the DEA informant’s trade are on display in the 21-page criminal complaint by the Manhattan U.S. attorney unsealed on Tuesday. In multiple meetings in Mexico, recorded by federal agents, the DEA informant allegedly elicited from Mr. Arbabsiar details about his links to the Iranian government.
In terrorism-related sting operations, the government typically wants to get the defendant to show he knows his actions would likely kill people. At a July meeting, the informant repeatedly questioned Mr. Arbabsiar about whether he realized that bombing a Washington restaurant where the Saudi ambassador dined could kill up to 150 other people, including senators.
“They want that guy [the ambassador] done, if the hundred go with him, f— ’em,” Mr. Arbabsiar replied, according to the complaint.
A DEA spokeswoman declined to comment on the case.
Stings built around DEA informants have been successful in helping the U.S. nab alleged top narcoterrorists and arms traffickers. These include Haji Juma Khan—alleged to be a major Afghan supplier of opium and heroin who helped fund the Taliban—and Viktor Bout and Monzer al Kassar, alleged weapons traffickers who both were ensnared in separate sting operations that purported to supply weapons to a Colombian narcoterrorist group.
Mr. Kassar was sentenced to 30 years on terrorism-related charges in 2009. Mr. Bout went on trial this week in federal court in New York; his lawyers contend he was trying to sell airplanes, not weapons.
DEA informants and an unwitting co-conspirator allegedly tricked Mr. Khan into traveling to Jakarta, Indonesia, where authorities denied him entry and turned him over to U.S. authorities, according to the U.S. charges. Mr. Khan has pleaded not guilty and is awaiting trial.
Altogether, the DEA’s network of sources is estimated to number several thousand people working with the DEA’s 227 domestic and 87 foreign offices.
Terrorists are increasingly turning to the drug trade for funding as private and state funding declines, said Michael Braun, managing partner of Spectre Group International and former operations chief at the DEA.
“The fact is that well over half of the designated terror organizations are now aggressively engaged in one or more aspects of the drug trade,” Mr. Braun said.
Juan Zarate, former White House counterterrorism adviser to President George W. Bush, said the alleged Iranian plot illustrated the usefulness of the DEA’s “broad, broad informant base, which gives them a unique platform in disrupting networks of concern to the U.S. government.”