This article was produced by ProPublica and co-published with the New Yorker.IN DECEMBER 2009, Harouna Tour\u00e9 and Idriss Abdelrahman, smugglers from northern Mali, walked through the doors of the Golden Tulip, a hotel in Accra, Ghana. They were there to meet with two men who had offered them an opportunity to make millions of dollars, transporting cocaine across the Sahara. Tour\u00e9 wore a dashiki, and Abdelrahman had on tattered clothes and a turban that hid much of his face. They tipped the guards at the entrance and then greeted Mohamed, a Lebanese radical, in the lobby. Mohamed took them up to a hotel room to see David, a drug tra\ufb03cker and a member of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC. \u201cHola, Colombiano,\u201d Tour\u00e9 said, as he entered the room. Abdelrahman tried to call David \u201c007\u201d in Spanish, but said \u201c477\u201d instead. David, who was dressed in a short-sleeved pullover and Bermuda shorts, laughed and offered his guests bottles of water.Tour\u00e9 and Abdelrahman came from Gao, a parched and remote city in northern Mali which has long been used as a base for smuggling of all kinds, from immigrants to cigarettes. In recent years, the surrounding region has also been the scene of con\ufb02ict between violent bands of nomadic insurgents, including members of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). During months of meetings and phone calls, David and Mohamed had told Tour\u00e9 that the FARC had some 30,000 \ufb01ghters at war with the United States, and that it wanted to work with al-Qaida, because the groups shared the same enemy. \u201cThey are our brothers,\u201d Mohamed said. \u201cWe have the same cause.\u201d Tour\u00e9 had explained that he had connections to the organization: he ran a transport company, and, in return for safe passage for his trucks, he provided al-Qaida with food and fuel.Still, David remained skeptical. He needed assurances that Tour\u00e9\u2019s organization was up to the task. The FARC had a lot of money riding on the deal and was willing to pay Tour\u00e9 and Abdelrahman as much as $3,000 per kilo, beginning with a 50-kilo test run to Melilla, a Spanish city on the North African mainland. Loads ten times that size would follow, David said, if the \ufb01rst trip went well.\u201cIf you\u2019re done, I\u2019m going to speak,\u201d Tour\u00e9 said. He told David and Mohamed that he was tired of all the \u201cblah, blah, blah.\u201d He had operatives along the smuggling route, which stretched from Ghana to Morocco. Abdelrahman, whom Tour\u00e9 had introduced as the leader of a Malian militia, said that he had hired a driver with links to al-Qaida. They had also bribed a Malian military o\ufb03cial, who would help them cross the border without inspection.David was reassured. \u201cI want us to keep working together, because we\u2019re not doing this for the money \u2014 we\u2019re doing this for our people,\u201d he said.Two days later, Tour\u00e9 and Abdelrahman went back to the Golden Tulip to collect their initial payment. Oumar Issa, a friend from Gao who was also involved in the plan, waited at another hotel to receive his portion. Instead, the smugglers were met by Ghanaian police o\ufb03cers. David and Mohamed, it turned out, were not drug tra\ufb03ckers but undercover informants for the United States Drug Enforcement Administration. Within days, Tour\u00e9, Abdelrahman, and Issa were turned over to the DEA, put on a private jet, and \ufb02own to New York, where they were arraigned in a federal courthouse. They were charged under a little-known provision of the Patriot Act, passed in 2006, which established a new crime, known as narco-­terrorism, committed by violent offenders who had one hand in terrorism and the other in the drug trade.In announcing the charges, Preet Bharara, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, said, \u201cAs terrorists diversify into drugs, they provide us more opportunities to incapacitate them and cut off funding for future acts of terror.\u201d The case marked the \ufb01rst time that the narco-­terrorism provision had been used against al-Qaida. The suspects appeared to be precisely the kind of hybrid whom the law, which does not require that any of the targeted activities take place in the U.S., had been written to catch. Michele Leonhart, the DEA administrator at the time, said, \u201cToday\u2019s arrests are further proof of the direct link between dangerous terrorist organizations, including al-Qaida, and international drug tra\ufb03cking that fuels their activities.\u201dAs the Malians\u2019 case proceeded, however, its \ufb02aws became apparent. The defendants emerged as more hapless than hardened, childhood friends who believed that the DEA\u2019s informants were going to make them rich. \u201cThey were lying to us. And we were lying to them,\u201d Tour\u00e9 told me from prison. Judge Barbara Jones, who oversaw the \ufb01nal phases of the case, said, \u201cThere was no actual involvement by the defendants or the undercovers \u2026 in the activities of either al-Qaida or the FARC.\u201d Another judge saw as many problems with the statute as with the merits of the case. \u201cCongress has passed a law that attempts to bind the world,\u201d he said to me.The investigation continues to be cited by the DEA as an example of its national-security achievements. Since the narco-terrorism provision was passed, the DEA has pursued dozens of cases that \ufb01t the broad description of crimes under the statute. The agency has claimed victories against al-Qaida, Hezbollah, the Taliban, and the FARC and established the \ufb01gure of the narco-terrorist as a preeminent threat to the United States.With each purported success, the DEA has lobbied Congress to increase its funding. In 2012, Michael Braun, who had served as the DEA\u2019s chief of operations, testi\ufb01ed before Congress about the link between terrorists and drug tra\ufb03ckers: \u201cBased on over 37 years in the law-­enforcement and security sectors, you can mark my word that they are most assuredly talking business and sharing lessons learned.\u201dThat may well be true. In a number of regions, most notably Colombia and Afghanistan, there is con­vincing evidence that terrorists have worked with drug tra\ufb03ckers. But a close examination of the cases that the DEA has pursued reveals a disturbing number that resemble that of the Malians. When these cases were prosecuted, the only links between drug tra\ufb03cking and terrorism entered into evidence were provided by the DEA, using agents or informants who were paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to lure the targets into staged narco-­terrorism conspiracies.The DEA strongly defends the effectiveness of such sting operations, claiming that they are a useful way to identify criminals who pose a threat to the United States before they act. Lou Milione, a senior o\ufb03cial at the agency, told me, \u201cOne of the things the DEA is kind of in the business of is almost all of our investigations are proactive.\u201d But Russell Hanks, a former senior American diplomat, who got a \ufb01rsthand look at some of the DEA\u2019s narco-­terrorism targets during the time he served in West Africa, told me, \u201cThe DEA provided everything these men needed to commit a crime, then said, \u2018Wow, look what they did.\u2019 \u201d He added, \u201cThis wasn\u2019t terrorism \u2014 this was the manipulation of weak-minded people, in weak countries, in order to pad arrest records.\u201dON SEPT. 11, 2001, when\u2028 American Airlines Flight 77 crashed into the Pentagon, DEA agents were among the \ufb01rst to respond, racing from their headquarters, less than half a mile away. A former special agent named Edward Follis, in his memoir, \u201cThe Dark Art,\u201d recalls how he and dozens of his colleagues \u201crushed over \u2026 to pull out bodies, but there were no bodies to pull out.\u201d The agency had outposts in more than 60 countries around the world, the most of any federal law-enforcement agency. And it had some 5,000 informants and con\ufb01dential sources. Michael Vigil, who was the DEA\u2019s head of international operations at the time, told me, \u201cWe called in every source we could \ufb01nd, looking for information about what had happened, who was responsible, and whether there were plans for an imminent attack.\u201d He added, \u201cSince the end of the Cold War, we had seen signs that terrorist groups had started relying on drug tra\ufb03cking for funding. After 9\/11, we were sure that trend was going to spread.\u201dBut other intelligence agencies saw the DEA\u2019s sources as drug tra\ufb03ckers \u2014 and drug tra\ufb03ckers didn\u2019t know anything about terrorism. A former senior money-laundering investigator at the Justice Department told me that there wasn\u2019t any substantive proof to support the DEA\u2019s assertions.\u201cWhat is going on after 9\/11 is that a lot of resources move out of drug enforcement and into terrorism,\u201d he said. \u201cThe DEA doesn\u2019t want to be the stepchild that is last in line.\u201d Narco-­terrorism, the former investigator said, became an \u201cexpedient way for the agency to justify its existence.\u201dThe White House proved more receptive to the DEA\u2019s claims. Juan Zarate, a former deputy national-­security adviser, in his book, \u201cTreasury\u2019s War,\u201d says that President George W. Bush wanted \u201call elements of national power\u201d to contribute to the effort to \u201cprevent another attack from hitting our shores.\u201d A few months after 9\/11, at a gathering of community anti-\u2028addiction organizations, Bush said, \u201cIt\u2019s so important for Americans to know that the tra\ufb03c in drugs \ufb01nances the work of terror. If you quit drugs, you join the \ufb01ght against terror in America.\u201d In February 2002, the O\ufb03ce of National Drug Control Policy turned Bush\u2019s message into a series of public\u2028service announcements that were aired during the Super Bowl. Departing from the portrayal of illegal narcotics as dangerous to those who use them \u2014 \u201cThis is your brain on drugs\u201d \u2014 the ads instead warned that getting high helped terrorists \u201ctorture someone\u2019s dad\u201d or \u201cmurder a family.\u201dIn the next seven years, the DEA\u2019s funding for international activities increased by 75 percent. Until then, the agency\u2019s greatest foreign involvement had been in Mexico and in the Andean region of South America, the world\u2019s largest producer of cocaine and home to violent Marxist guerrilla groups, including the FARC, in Colombia, and the Shining Path, in Peru. Both groups began, in the 1960s and early \u201870s, as peasant rebellions; before long, they started taxing coca growers and smugglers to \ufb01nance their expansion. The DEA saw the organizations as examples of how criminal motivations can overlap with, and even advance, ideological ones.How the DEA invented "narco-terrorism"Now the agency was focused on Afghanistan, which had been one of the largest opium producers in the world until 2000, when the Taliban declared poppy cultivation un-Islamic and banned it. Almost as soon as the Taliban were forced from power, the country\u2019s farmers began replanting their poppy \ufb01elds; the DEA warned that the new crops could become a source of revenue to \ufb01nance attacks by al-Qaida. \u201cDEA has received multi-source information that bin Laden has been involved in the \ufb01nancing and facilitation of heroin-tra\ufb03cking activities,\u201d Asa Hutchinson, the DEA administrator, said during a hearing on Capitol Hill in March 2002. Hutchinson cited insurgency groups in drug-­producing countries around the world, including the FARC, the Shining Path, and the Kurdistan Workers Party, in Turkey, which had historically been a signi\ufb01cant narcotics transshipment point. And Hutchinson mentioned evidence collected by the DEA that the tri-border area of Paraguay, Brazil, and Argentina \u2014 home to a large and thriving Arab business community \u2014 had become a source of \ufb01nancing for Hamas and Hezbollah.With support from Congress, the DEA set up the Counter-Narco-­Terrorism Operations Center, a clearinghouse for any terrorism-related intelligence that its agents picked up around the world. The agency reopened its o\ufb03ce in Kabul, which had been closed since the Soviet invasion, in 1979. And it brought together law-enforcement o\ufb03cials from 19 countries in Asia and Europe to participate in an intelligence-sharing project known as Operation Containment, which was aimed at cutting off the \ufb02ow of Afghan heroin and opium.By 2004, al-Qaida had largely \ufb02ed Afghanistan, and the DEA turned its attention to the Taliban, which agents believed would follow the same guerrilla-to-drugs trajectory as the FARC. The DEA cobbled together informant networks and undercover operations aimed at tra\ufb03ckers linked to the insurgents. The agency had never played that role in a war zone, and it required support from the military, which wasn\u2019t forthcoming. Edward Follis, the former DEA agent, told me that most American combat commanders showed the DEA a \u201cblatant and willful disregard.\u201d He said that the Pentagon \u201ccouldn\u2019t get beyond the idea of capturing or killing enemy combatants.\u201dLater that year, the DEA took its case to John Mackey, a Republican investigative counsel for the House International Relations Committee. Mackey, a former FBI agent, handled counter-narcotics for the committee\u2019s chairman, Henry Hyde, a prominent Republican from Illinois. Current and former congressional staffers recall that Hyde didn\u2019t have a deep interest in anti-drug matters, allowing Mackey to take the lead. \u201cYou know how Congress works,\u201d one former staffer said. \u201cThere are all these unknown and unelected people who wield enormous in\ufb02uence over obscure topics. Mackey was one of them.\u201dUnder Mackey\u2019s direction, Republican legislators pressured the Pentagon to support the DEA\u2019s operations in Afghanistan. Follis said that the DEA received tens of millions of dollars in additional funding, allowing it to increase the number of agents in the country from two to more than 40, and to develop its own special-forces units, known as FAST teams, which carried out raids on opium bazaars and heroin labs. The agency also identi\ufb01ed a high-value Afghan target, Haji Bashir Noorzai, an opium tra\ufb03cker with close ties to the Taliban\u2019s leader, Mullah Omar. In 2004, President Bush put Noorzai on a list of the world\u2019s most wanted drug kingpins. But, because most of Noorzai\u2019s opium and heroin exports went to Eastern Europe and not to the U.S., it was di\ufb03cult for the DEA to go after him. Mackey made numerous trips with the DEA to Afghanistan, and warned Congress that people like Noorzai \u201care going to fall through the cracks unless we broaden our thinking about them.\u201dIn early 2005, Mackey helped to draft a statute that would give the DEA the authority to chase drug tra\ufb03ckers anywhere in the world as long as the tra\ufb03cking was connected to terrorism. When Hyde introduced the legislation, he made a point of drawing his colleagues\u2019 attention to its reach: \u201cThis bill makes clear that, even without direct U.S. nexus, if these drugs help support or sustain a foreign terrorist organization, the producers and tra\ufb03ckers can, and should, be prosecuted for material support of terrorism, whether or not the illicit narcotics are ever intended for, or enter, the United States.\u201dThe statute was passed in 2006.\u2028 But questions among Justice Department o\ufb03cials about how to enforce it delayed implementation for another year. Some authorities worried that overzealous prosecutors might be tempted to use the narco-terrorism statute against teenage addicts caught with Afghan heroin. Follis, half-joking, told me, \u201cThe law was so wide open you could indict a bologna sandwich.\u201d But, when o\ufb03cials from the Justice\u2028Department proposed adding language to the statute that would more narrowly de­\ufb01ne terrorism, Mac­key balked. \u201cThere\u2019s no need to spell out what we mean by terrorism,\u201d he said. \u201cYou know it when you see it.\u201dIn the next few years, the DEA lured two of the most wanted arms dealers in the world, Monzer al-Kassar and Viktor Bout, into drug-related conspiracies before arresting them, in Spain and Thailand, respectively. A former senior DEA o\ufb03cial told me that, although Kassar and Bout were not charged with narco-terrorism, the agency\u2019s expanded investigative license gave it more tools with which to pursue them. David Raskin, a former senior prosecutor in the Southern District of New York, hailed the arrests. \u201cThey were not pure drug smugglers,\u201d Raskin said of Bout and Kassar. \u201cBut they were clearly bad people. And the DEA was pushing the envelope.\u201dBy 2008, the DEA was part of the so-called Intelligence Community, the military and civilian agencies that are the U.S.\u2019s foremost espionage resources. Michael Braun, who is widely considered the architect of the agency\u2019s Afghanistan program, told reporters, \u201cI have briefed more three- and four-star generals over the past 18 months than the agency has in the last 35 years.\u201d He added, \u201cWe are seeing more and more unequivocal connection with respect to al-Qaida being involved in drug-tra\ufb03cking activities.\u201dSome of the DEA\u2019s investigations took the agency to Africa. With large swaths of ungoverned territory, long histories of civil con\ufb02ict, and ascendant jihadist groups, including Boko Haram and AQIM, the continent was viewed by the Defense Department as the next front in the war on terror. The DEA had identi\ufb01ed West Africa as a major transshipment point for South American cocaine. As in Afghanistan, most of the drugs were \ufb02owing to Europe. But the DEA argued that money from that trade was ending up in the hands of terrorists. Lou Milione told me that Colombian drug tra\ufb03ckers who had been arrested in Eastern Europe had confessed to moving drugs through the Sahara with the help of Arab smugglers, along routes that overlapped with areas that had been occupied by AQIM. \u201cIf anything was moving through that region, AQIM had to be involved,\u201d Milione said. At the end of 2008, Derek Maltz, who led the DEA\u2019s special-operations division, was invited to a gathering of senior leaders of the Pentagon\u2019s newly established Africa Command. \u201cI didn\u2019t want these guys thinking I was just another DEA agent coming to talk to them about drugs,\u201d Maltz told me. \u201cI was there to talk to them about a matter of national security. And I wanted them to know from the start that it was personal.\u201dMaltz, who is bald and strapping, began his presentation with a series of photographs. The \ufb01rst showed the Twin Towers in \ufb02ames. The second was a picture of his brother, Michael, a former member of an Air Force pararescue team, waving triumphantly. The third showed a line of helicopters parked on an air\ufb01eld in Afghanistan. There was a gap, where one helicopter was missing \u2014 Michael\u2019s. He had been killed on duty, in 2003. \u201cYou guys are trained to go out and drop bombs on the enemy,\u201d Maltz told the assembled o\ufb03cers. \u201cBut sometimes you can\u2019t drop bombs. And that\u2019s where the DEA comes in. We have other ways of taking bad guys off the playing \ufb01eld.\u201dHAROUNA TOUR\u00c9 WAS BORN in a small Malian farming village called Bamba, the youngest of nine children. The family lived in a one-room shelter made of wood and mud. His father was a day laborer, who built houses and dug wells, and raised goats. Harouna attended school for only a few years before he joined his father at work. As soon as he was tall enough to drive, Tour\u00e9, who is broad-shouldered and has dark, expressive eyes, moved to Gao. There he began working with his eldest brother, Almatar, who ran a small trucking company that transported goods and people across the Sahel, a semi-arid region that divides southern Mali from the north, where the Sahara begins. The area has bustled with unregulated trade since the 15th century. Roads are minimal, and driving 40 miles can take an entire day. \u201cAnd by the time the trip is \ufb01nished you will be sore from your head to your feet,\u201d Tour\u00e9 told me. But he loved it. \u201cFor me, it was fun, because every day was different,\u201d he said. \u201cI was able to see new people and new places.\u201dGao is a seedy city of about 100,000 people on the Niger River, the region\u2019s primary thoroughfare during the rainy season. Running a business in the Sahel, Tour\u00e9 told me, is by de\ufb01nition a quasi-legal activity. He and his brother transported food, fuel, construction materials, cigarettes, and Bangladeshi workers \u2014 most of which came into the country without proper inspection or paperwork. Drivers travelled in armed convoys to protect themselves and their loads from bandits. They also paid off various military units, tribal authorities, and ethnic militias, who controlled the territory along the way. Tour\u00e9 told me that he never encountered al-Qaida or its operatives during his travels, but that he did cross the territory of other armed groups. \u201cSometimes you had to give them money, or food, or fuel,\u201d he said. \u201cIf you didn\u2019t, you were going to have problems.\u201dFor a while, Tour\u00e9 thrived. He started a construction business that took on small projects in communities along his truck routes. He employed dozens of people, and made enough money to travel to Paris and to take his mother on the hajj. \u201cI was moving so fast people used to call me the mayor,\u201d he said. But he took on new jobs before being paid for old ones, and fell into debt. By the end of 2008, he had a wife and two children. And he was paying for treatment for Almatar, who had developed diabetes and had to have one of his feet amputated.By then, the DEA had begun to plan operations in West Africa. Among the agency\u2019s targets was AQIM, which had recently bombed a United Nations o\ufb03ce in Algiers and regularly kidnapped foreign tourists, diplomats, and journalists for ransom. But working on the ground in West Africa wasn\u2019t anything like working in Latin America, where the DEA had employees in territory ranging from Tijuana to Tierra del Fuego. African operations were overseen largely from Rome. The narco-­terrorism unit covering the region was based in Chantilly, Virginia. And the DEA had so few agents of color who spoke African languages that it was forced to rely on informants, who were paid only if their work resulted in prosecutions. (Spokespeople for the DEA denied that informants were paid according to whether their intelligence led to prosecutions, and that its conduct in Africa was substantially different from that on other continents.) \u201cWe had signi\ufb01cant gaps in our knowledge,\u201d a former DEA o\ufb03cial who did intelligence work said. But, he added, \u201cafter we began putting money on the streets we went from zero to 60 in no time.\u201dOne of the paid informants was Mohamed, whom agents described to me only as a Lebanese businessman with ties to Arab communities in South America and West Africa. He was eventually paid more than $300,000 for his work on the Mali case.In September 2009, an investigation into an unrelated plot led Mohamed to Oumar Issa, a compact Malian man with an easy smile and angu­\u2028lar features, who worked as a day laborer and a driver at the port in Lome, Togo, another West African smuggling center. Mohamed told Issa that he\u2028was looking for someone who could help a group of wealthy Colombians move large loads of drugs from Ghana, through Mali, to Spain.Issa said, \u201cI have people who have a foothold in the bush.\u201d He went to Mali to fetch Tour\u00e9. The two had been friends since they were teenagers, but when Issa approached Tour\u00e9 about the drug deal Tour\u00e9 initially refused. Issa had strayed from Islam, and was known to drink too much. Tour\u00e9 didn\u2019t want anything to do with drugs, mostly for religious reasons. And he didn\u2019t think that he could pull off the kind of operation Mohamed wanted. Tour\u00e9\u2019s contacts did not stretch all the way across the Sahara. As for al-Qaida, Tour\u00e9 told me, \u201cI could never work with them. They treat black people like slaves.\u201dBut Tour\u00e9 says that Issa pleaded with him to reconsider. \u201cI thought if I could just make that money everything would be \ufb01ne,\u201d Tour\u00e9 told me. \u201cI could start fresh.\u201d He enlisted Idriss Abdelrahman, who sold used auto parts at an open-air market in Gao. Together, Tour\u00e9 says, the three men concocted a scheme as elaborate as the DEA\u2019s. While the informants pretended to be FARC operatives, Tour\u00e9, Issa, and Abdelrahman pretended to be part of a criminal network with links to al-Qaida. The plan, Tour\u00e9 said, was to get the tra\ufb03ckers to pay them a portion of the money up front and then disappear into northern Mali. It was clear that the tra\ufb03ckers had never been to Mali, Tour\u00e9 said, so it wasn\u2019t di\ufb03cult to fool them.On Oct. 6, 2009, Tour\u00e9 and\u2028 Mohamed met for the \ufb01rst time, in a hotel room in Ghana. According to a DEA video recording of the meeting, Mohamed, a tall man, with a belly that hung over his belt, pulled out a map and proposed a route. Tour\u00e9 took it from him, and proposed another.Tour\u00e9 told Mohamed that the trip wasn\u2019t going to be cheap. \u201cThere are Islamists, bearded guys \u2014 they\u2019re in the bush,\u201d Tour\u00e9 said. \u201cYou gotta give their chiefs something.\u201dMohamed called the Islamists \u201cour brothers,\u201d and said, \u201cLet them take as much as they want to fuck the Americans.\u201d He added, \u201cYou pay al-Qaida, right?\u201dTour\u00e9 nodded. \u201cYou pay all that.\u201dMohamed asked for more proof. He told Tour\u00e9 that he would invite a commander from the FARC to join them in Ghana, if Tour\u00e9 would bring a representative from al-Qaida. The DEA \ufb02ew in Walter Ramirez, a convicted drug dealer from the Detroit area who had been working as an informant for the agency for nearly a decade, to play the role of the FARC commander, David. Tour\u00e9 brought in Abdelrahman, who played a militia leader with links to al-Qaida.The DEA maintains that, in the meetings that followed, the Malians offered ample testimony of their al-Qaida connections. The transcripts are hard to follow. It is clear, however, that the subject of al-Qaida came up repeatedly, and that it was often raised by the informants, in order to elicit incriminating statements.On one occasion, Mohamed instructed the targets to talk in a bellicose fashion if they wanted to persuade David to move forward. \u201cI have told him you are warriors,\u201d Mohamed said. \u201cLet it come from your mouth so that I can repeat it. You understand?\u201dDavid waved a wad of cash. \u201cYou told me you needed to buy a truck \u2014 isn\u2019t that right?\u201d he asked Tour\u00e9. \u201cHey. $25,000 so you can buy your truck.\u201d Mohamed suggested that David\u2019s show of trust deserved one in return.\u201cYou have to know our power,\u201d Tour\u00e9 said. \u201cYou have to know our networks.\u201d\u201cThat\u2019s it,\u201d Mohamed said. \u201cThat\u2019s what he wants.\u201d Later, he asked the Malians if they really had \u201cpower in the desert.\u201dAbdelrahman chimed in: \u201cWe have cars, the power, and the weapons.\u201d Tour\u00e9 added, \u201cWe have crews. We have bases. We have weapons. We have everything.\u201dON DEC. 18, 2009, when Tour\u00e9,\u2028 Abdelrahman, and Issa arrived in New York for their arraignment, the city was anticipating a major snowstorm. The three Malian men had never been so cold, or surrounded by so much concrete. They didn\u2019t understand what a cocaine deal in West Africa had to do with the United States, much less with terrorism. And they were skeptical of their court-appointed lawyers, who were employed by the same government that had ordered their arrest. \u201cThere were a lot of people, a lot of cameras, a lot of papers, a lot of talking, and no air,\u201d Tour\u00e9 recalled. \u201cI couldn\u2019t think. I couldn\u2019t breathe.\u201dThe three men were housed in the Metropolitan Correctional Center, in lower Manhattan. An Arabic-speaking psychologist met with them to evaluate their emotional state, but since Arabic was not their \ufb01rst language \u2014 they spoke Songhay \u2014 neither Tour\u00e9 nor Issa understood much of what she was saying. Abdelrahman had learned some rudimentary Arabic as a child, as a servant in the homes of wealthy Algerian families, but he didn\u2019t understand the psychologist\u2019s role. \u201cShe\u2019s asking if we want to kill ourselves,\u201d Abdelrahman told Tour\u00e9 and Issa. \u201cMaybe what\u2019s coming next is so bad that we will prefer to die.\u201dLater that day, the men made their \ufb01rst appearance in court. Julia Gatto, an attorney in the federal public defender\u2019s o\ufb03ce, said of Abdelrahman, \u201cWhen the judge called his name, he fell on his knees, and cried, \u2018I swear. I swear.\u2019\u2008\u201d Gatto said, \u201cAll I could think was, What kind of terrorists are these?\u201dGatto was assigned to represent Issa. \u201cUsually when I meet a client in his circumstances he understands what it is to be arrested, or who a judge is, or what bail means,\u201d Gatto said. \u201cThere were basic concepts and words that he didn\u2019t understand, because he had never been here. He had never been in the system; he had never seen an episode of \u2018Law & Order.\u2019\u201dThe Malians\u2019 lawyers warned them that, under the terms of the narco-terrorism statute, the government\u2019s case was entirely winnable, and urged them to negotiate a plea. \u201cWhen a jury hears \u2018al-Qaida,\u2019 it stops listening to everything else,\u201d Gatto said.Tour\u00e9 thought that his lawyers either had given up on him or were plotting with the prosecution. It seemed absurd that his improvised boasts to David and Mohamed could be enough to convict him. He asked his relatives in Mali to sell his home and to \ufb01nish a pending construction project, so that he could hire a private attorney. The relatives sent him $30,000, enough only for a retainer. When the money ran out, the attorney quit. Tour\u00e9 then asked the judge to reappoint his original public defenders, and he immersed himself in the case. He spent nights listening to audio recordings from the sting operation, pointing out discrepancies in how the conversations were translated. Because he was illiterate, he asked his lawyers to read him all the documents \ufb01led in court, so that he would know what arguments were going to be made.In early 2012, after the Malians had been in prison for more than two years, prosecutors announced that they had decided not to call Mohamed to testify. Abdelrahman\u2019s attorney, Zachary Margulis-Ohnuma, saw it as a breakthrough. \u201cThe government\u2019s whole case relied on Mohamed\u2019s credibility,\u201d he told me. By not calling Mohamed to testify, he believed, the prosecutors would throw his credibility into question. \u201cI really believed we were going to win,\u201d Margulis-Ohnuma said.ON THE EVE OF THE TRIAL, prosecutors\u2028 brought up a seemingly unrelated piece of evidence: the story of an American missionary named Christopher Leggett, who had been killed by AQIM in 2009, the year that Tour\u00e9, Abdelrahman, and Issa were arrested. Leggett, a 39-year-old father of four, had been shot near a school that he ran in a poor neighborhood in Mauritania. Prosecutors shared photographs showing groups of dark-skinned, turbanned men waving rocket launchers and automatic ri\ufb02es over the heads of kidnapping victims \u2014 all of them white, all visibly terri\ufb01ed. The prosecutors argued that the murder demonstrated why terrorist conspiracies in Africa posed a threat to the United States. \u201cIt shows jurisdiction,\u201d Christian Everdell, one of the prosecutors, said.\u201cIf you look at the people in those pictures, and you look at me and Idriss, you would think we are the same,\u201d Tour\u00e9 said. Margulis-Ohnuma said that he felt \u201csandbagged.\u201d As far as Tour\u00e9 was concerned, the \ufb01ght was over. The government agreed to drop the narco­terrorism charge, and Tour\u00e9, Abdelrahman, and Issa pleaded guilty to charges of providing material support to a terrorist organization, the FARC.But Abdelrahman\u2019s allocution, the procedure meant to assure the judge that he understood the charges against him and accepted his guilt, was unconvincing. \u201cI still continue to believe that I am totally innocent,\u201d Abdelrahman said. \u201cBut I have been scared by what I heard yesterday \u2014 yesterday people were talking a lot about al-Qaida and the pictures.\u201d Judge Jones advised Abdelrahman that she could not accept a plea if he did not think he was guilty, and suggested that perhaps the case should proceed to trial. Everdell, the prosecutor, proposed increasingly watered-­down versions of what Abdelrahman was pleading guilty to. \u201cI think what the defendant is protesting is that he didn\u2019t think, or in his mind he didn\u2019t think, that he was a terrorist, or this word \u2018terrorism\u2019 is causing a reaction, which I think is perfectly understandable,\u201d he said.\u201cI\u2019m really confused about this whole plea issue,\u201d Abdelrahman said. \u201cAccepting this plea means to accept things I did not do, which I \ufb01nd very di\ufb03cult.\u201d He added, \u201cIs that what the plea is, or is there something else?\u201dJones told Abdelrahman that he would have to admit that he knew he was involved in a conspiracy that would have provided support to the FARC. Abdelrahman shook his head. \u201cI didn\u2019t know about that,\u201d he said. \u201cI was just helping Harouna. I wasn\u2019t helping anyone else.\u201dFinally, Everdell allowed Abdelrahman to avoid mentioning the FARC, or even the word \u201cterrorist.\u201d \u201cIt\u2019s not necessary that he knows the actual name of the organization,\u201d he said.The prosecution asked the court to sentence the men to 15 years in prison, \ufb01ve years short of the 20-­year mandatory sentence for narco-­terrorism. But Jones sentenced Abdelrahman to slightly less than four years, and Issa and Tour\u00e9 to \ufb01ve years. The sentences included the three years the men had already served. \u201cThis was a government sting operation,\u201d Jones said. She added that she did not believe Tour\u00e9 was a member of al-Qaida. He was \u201cmotivated primarily, if not entirely, by money, not the desire to in\ufb02uence a government, in this case anti-American ideology, or for any political reasons.\u201dA MONTH LATER, despite the reduced plea, the DEA\u2019s deputy administrator, Thomas Harrigan, mentioned the case to the Senate as an example of the national-security threats that the agency had thwarted in West Africa: \u201cIt was the \ufb01rst time that members of al-Qaida \u2026 admitted members \u2014 we had them on video and audio recording acknowledging that they were members of AQIM \u2014 providing services for what they presumed were members of the FARC to transport cocaine.\u201d In a speech last year, Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, cited the case in arguing against provisions that would reduce sentences for drug-related crimes. He said that the proposal \u201cputs our national security at increased risk.\u201dThe DEA continues to pursue similar cases. In September, two Pakistani men were extradited to the U.S. for selling drugs and weapons to DEA informants who posed as members of the FARC. Mark Hamlet, who succeeded Maltz as head of the DEA\u2019s special-­operations division, told the press that the Pakistani defendants \u201cillustrate once again that drug tra\ufb03cking and terror conspiracies often intersect.\u201dNeither the DEA nor the Justice Department would provide me with a complete list of alleged narco-­terrorists who have been captured since 9\/11. But last May the DEA\u2019s Counter-­Narco-Terrorism Operations Center published a report highlighting its achievements. The report notes that, of the State Department\u2019s 58 o\ufb03cially designated foreign terrorist organizations, 23 have been linked by the DEA to \u201csome aspect of the global drug trade,\u201d including al-Qaida, Somalia\u2019s Al Shabaab, Pakistan\u2019s Lashkar-e-Taiba, and Nigeria\u2019s Boko Haram. It also gives brief descriptions of more than 30 investigations involving defendants captured around the world. Some have been charged under the narco-terrorism provision of the Patriot Act. In other cases, the DEA used the expanded authority it had been given under the law more as an investigative license. After the agency brought the defendants to the United States, they were charged with different crimes.Most of the arrests resulted from sting operations, in which the connection between drug tra\ufb03cking and terrorism was established in court as a part of conspiracies that were conceived by the DEA. An Afghan named Taza Gul Alizai sold heroin to an undercover DEA agent, and then, according to his lawyer, was lured onto a plane to the Maldives by the promise of a visit to a licensed dentist. In his case, the connection to terrorism came from the testimony of a DEA informant, who arranged the deal and pretended to represent the Taliban.Jane Hahn for ProPublicaPoor harvests have caused serial food crises, and increasing poverty has pushed Mali close to the bottom of the United Nations Human Development Index.Among those caught in the narco-terrorism stings are government o\ufb03cials such as Bubo NaTchuto, a former head of Guinea Bissau\u2019s navy, who was arrested for drug smuggling in 2013, after an operation led by two DEA informants posing as members of the FARC. The same year, Dino Bouterse, the son of the president of Suriname, was arrested for conspiring to import drugs. The investigation involved a group of DEA informants who posed as Mexican drug tra\ufb03ckers with connections to Hezbollah.In a New York courtroom last year, Bouterse pleaded guilty to participating in a conspiracy to support Hezbollah. Not long afterward, however, Judge Shira Scheindlin said that the plea did not make the defendant a terrorist, much less a threat to the United States. \u201cThere\u2019s no evidence that this defendant was actively looking for an opportunity to become involved with any terrorist organization,\u201d she said, during sentencing. \u201cNor is there any evidence that he had any interest in attacking Americans, prior to the approach of these agents.\u201dMost of those accused under the narco-terrorism statute negotiated plea deals, but the three defendants who chose jury trials were convicted. Among them were an alleged Taliban sympathizer named Khan Mohammed, who was found guilty of plotting to \ufb01re rockets at an American air\ufb01eld, and an Afghan opium dealer, known as Haji Bagcho, convicted of selling drugs and using the proceeds to pay the Taliban. Both men were given life sentences.The case that may come the closest to representing the vision that gave rise to the narco-terrorism statute involved a Colombian tra\ufb03cker allied with the FARC named Jos\u00e9 Mar\u00eda Corredor Ibague, who was arrested in 2006 and convicted under the Patriot Act provision. Juan Manuel Santos, Colombia\u2019s defense minister at the time, applauded the arrest, which did not occur as part of a sting operation. But, when asked whether he considered Corredor Ibague a terrorist, Santos told reporters that he was \u201cmore of a drug tra\ufb03cker than a guerrilla.\u201dReferring to the DEA, Margulis-­Ohnuma, the lawyer who represented Abdelrahman, said, \u201cWhat\u2019s happening is that they\u2019re using techniques they\u2019ve used to \ufb01ght organized crime, because they\u2019re familiar with them. Those techniques might work to in\ufb01ltrate money-making groups. But they don\u2019t work with terrorists. That\u2019s not how we caught bin Laden. That\u2019s not how we caught Awlaki.\u201dThe DEA argues that there is much more to its narco-terrorism cases than what is presented in court. Before every sting, the agency uses wiretaps and its network of sources to investigate targets for links to drugs and terrorism. Once the connections are established, it stages a sting to capture the targets before they can do more harm. In order to protect the secrecy of its investigative methods, the DEA says, it withholds much of the evidence collected previously, unless it\u2019s necessary to make a case. Most of the time, o\ufb03cials say, it\u2019s not. Under U.S. law, the statements and activities recorded during stings are usually su\ufb03cient for prosecutors to \ufb01le some combination of federal charges.But the fact that the narco-­terrorism cases, when brought to court, rely almost entirely on evidence gleaned from sting operations has fuelled debate among some security experts about the degree to which the alliances that they target pose a threat to the U.S. Benjamin Bahney, of the Rand Corporation, who is a leading expert on the \ufb01nancing of al-Qaida and ISIS, told me, \u201cThe national-security community has had a laser focus on this question for a long time, and the fact that there are no clear examples of it that have bubbled to the surface says to me that there\u2019s no there there.\u201dISIS, currently the foremost terrorist threat, is funded by oil revenues, taxes, and extortion but not by drug tra\ufb03cking. Though al-Qaida is listed by the DEA as a drug-tra\ufb03cking organization, the 9\/11 Commission found \u201cno substantial evidence\u201d to support that characterization. Its report said, \u201cAlthough there is some fragmentary reporting alleging that Bin Ladin may have been an investor, or even had an operational role, in drug tra\ufb03cking before 9\/11, this intelligence cannot be substantiated and the sourcing is probably suspect.\u201d The Senate Foreign Relations Committee came to the same conclusion in August, 2009. \u201cA lot of people have been looking for an al-Qaida role in drug tra\ufb03cking, and it\u2019s not really there,\u201d one State Department o\ufb03cial told committee members.In the Afghan drug trade, the Taliban may be the least of the culprits. In 2009, the United Nations O\ufb03ce on Drugs and Crime reported that the Taliban earned an estimated $125 million from narcotics each year, about four percent of the estimated $3.4 billion generated in Afghan opium sales. The bigger problem, according to Barnett R. Rubin, who served as an adviser to the late Richard Holbrooke, the U.N. Ambassador, might be America\u2019s allies. \u201cThe empowerment and enrichment of the warlords who allied with the United States in the anti-Taliban efforts, and whose weapons and authority now enabled them to tax and protect opium tra\ufb03ckers, provided the trade with powerful new protectors,\u201d he has written.Brian Michael Jenkins, a counterterrorism expert at Rand, recently wrote that alliances between drug tra\ufb03ckers and terrorists \u201ccreate dangers for both.\u201d Terrorists understand that criminal activities can \u201cturn religious zeal into greed, transform political causes into for-pro\ufb01t enterprises, corrupt individuals and tarnish the group\u2019s reputation.\u201d For the drug tra\ufb03ckers, \u201cWhen law enforcement problems morph into national security threats, the rules of engagement change,\u201d Jenkins wrote. \u201cDrone strikes could replace arrests and prosecutions.\u201dSkepticism about the extent to which terrorists engage in the drug trade also runs deep among numerous counterterrorism and national-security o\ufb03cials I spoke to at the FBI, the Pentagon, the White House, and the State and Treasury Departments. \u201cIn all these years, there\u2019s never been a smoking gun in any of the cases I\u2019ve seen,\u201d Rudy Atallah, a former counterterrorism adviser at the Pentagon, told me.A former o\ufb03cial at the Treasury Department who has investigated terrorist \ufb01nancing in Africa said that DEA agents posted there often scolded the intelligence community for not taking seriously the links between drug tra\ufb03cking and terrorism. But, when pressed for proof, the agents said that the information was privileged or part of an ongoing investigation. \u201cThere was no corroborating evidence that\u2028senior terrorist leaders of Hezbollah, AQIM, or any other African groups had decided to get involved in the drug trade,\u201d the former o\ufb03cial said.Lou Milione, who oversaw many of the investigations listed in the DEA\u2019s narco-terrorism report, and Mark Ham­let, the head of the DEA\u2019s special-­operations division, acknowledged that other national-security agencies, including the CIA and the FBI, didn\u2019t necessarily see a link between drugs and terror. \u201cI have lunch with those guys all the time,\u201d Hamlet said. \u201cThey look at our cases and say, \u2018Interesting work, but I wouldn\u2019t put it in my terrorism box.\u2019 And I say that\u2019s \ufb01ne.\u201dMilione strongly defended the agency\u2019s operation against the Malians. He said that while there may not have been evidence to corroborate Tour\u00e9\u2019s links to al-Qaida, nothing indicated that those links didn\u2019t exist. He said that the DEA could have spent more time conducting surveillance against Tour\u00e9 in the hope of obtaining evidence to corroborate his statements about being a\ufb03liated with al-Qaida. But agents worried that an opportunity to in\ufb01ltrate al-Qaida could have slipped away, with potentially disastrous consequences. \u201cI was in New York when the towers were hit,\u201d Milione said. \u201cI often wonder would we be better off if we had used a sting to try to get inside that group before the attack.\u201dLAST OCTOBER, about a month after Tour\u00e9 was released and returned to Mali, I went to see him. He suggested that we meet in Bamako, the capital, since Gao has become dangerous. In 2012, Mali\u2019s President, Abdoulaye Toumani Tour\u00e9, resigned as a result of a military coup, and left the country. Gao, along with all of northern Mali, was attacked by a loose coalition of Tuareg tribesmen, extremists, and AQIM. Tour\u00e9\u2019s wife and sons \ufb02ed the city to live with relatives in Bamako. The new President, Ibrahim Boubacar Ke\u00efta, who was elected after he promised that he would have \u201czero tolerance\u201d for corruption, promptly used $40 million in public funds to buy an airplane. Poor harvests have caused serial food crises, and increasing poverty has pushed Mali close to the bottom of the U.N.\u2019s Human Development Index.The north, which covers two-thirds of the country but contains less than 10 percent of the population, has been hit the hardest. When Tour\u00e9 returned, tourism and trade, the most signi\ufb01cant sources of income for people in the region, had dried up. Hotels, restaurants, and night clubs were either closed down or protected by armed guards who imposed strict curfews on the guests, mostly journalists and diplomats. Rocket attacks and gun battles have killed dozens in recent months. Tour\u00e9 said that his homecoming was less than joyous. There was nothing left of his business. He found his wife distant. His sons, who were six and eight, were undernourished and were uncomfortable around him. The boys, he said, are so frightened of anything related to terrorists that he can\u2019t tell them that he was accused of being one. \u201cI\u2019ll wait until they are a little older,\u201d he said. \u201cFirst, I need to \ufb01nd a job.\u201dAbdelrahman, after getting out of prison, moved with his mother and four children to Bamako. He had lost both of his wives; one had left him for another man after his arrest, and the other died shortly after he returned home. \u201cShe got sick when I was in America,\u201d Abdelrahman said. \u201cIt was very hard for her. A woman with children and no husband in Mali\u2014sometimes she had to beg for food.\u201d He added, \u201cShe stayed strong, I think, because of the children, and because she wanted to see me one more time. Then she died.\u201dTour\u00e9 told me that he was thinking about leaving Gao, too. He even admitted that there were things he missed about the United States, or, at least, the version he had seen in prison. He remembered working out in the gym every day, and the English classes he took in the afternoon. Most nights, he said, he and other inmates would gather around a television set to watch basketball. He recalled that, after the Miami Heat lost the 2014 NBA championship series to San Antonio, he didn\u2019t sleep for several nights.Since returning to Mali, he had felt himself sliding back into the same uncertainty that had landed him in trouble. Starting over with a terrorist charge on his record wasn\u2019t easy. \u201cThe name Tour\u00e9 has respect in Mali,\u201d he told me. \u201cJust to say that I have been involved in this is a big shame for my family. People ask am I really Muslim, or am I just playing with God.\u201dThe more time I spent in Mali, the less I saw of Tour\u00e9. But one day he showed up at my hotel neatly shaved, wearing a charcoal-colored pin-striped suit, a magenta shirt, and polished, square-toed alligator shoes. We sat in the restaurant of my hotel on the Niger River, drinking tall glasses of water. Tour\u00e9 explained that a friend from prison had bought him the suit for the trip back to Mali. He was about to meet with a member of parliament who had previously helped him get work with international aid organizations that needed goods transported across the Sahel.\u201cI know it\u2019s going to happen,\u201d he said, about securing employment. \u201cI just wish I knew when.\u201d When asked about the gap in his work history, Tour\u00e9 had begun telling people that he had gone to the United States to work for a few years. \u201cThere are many people with the name Harouna Tour\u00e9 in Mali,\u201d he said. \u201cEven if people know what happened, I can say that wasn\u2019t me.\u201dI asked whether he saw the irony in his plan \u2014 lying about his identity was what had got him into trouble. \u201cIf I\u2019m lying to \ufb01nd a job, God won\u2019t punish me,\u201d he said. Then he looked up with a smile, and said, \u201cIf I don\u2019t \ufb01nd a job, maybe I\u2019m going to have to join al-Qaida for real.\u201dGinger Thompson is a senior reporter for ProPublica. A Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, Thompson was previously a national and foreign correspondent for the New York Times. Cynthia Cotts contributed to this report.