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Moroccan Hashish Linked To Terrorism

The Moscow Times, 21st August 2006

Like many in this hardscrabble region, Abdurahman and his family are near-destitute people who possess vast riches. Their cinderblock farmhouse, clinging to the stony slopes of northern Morocco's Rif Mountains, is as empty as an abandoned bunker, but a closer look at their lands reveals an illicit bounty.

On the surrounding mountainsides, emerald swaths of cannabis mature under the Mediterranean sun. Abdurahman has laid out bundles of it to dry on the roof. After a few days, he will take the cannabis inside, where it will dry for a month before the resin is extracted and molded into 200-gram bricks of hashish.

Morocco is the world's largest producer of hashish, but the crop that sustains the Rif is feeding more than European drug appetites -- authorities fear drug gangs fund the Islamic terrorism that has struck European cities.

Small sales of Moroccan hash "almost exclusively" paid for the Madrid train bombings in March 2004 by the Moroccan Islamic Combat Group, known by its French acronym, GICM, said a U.S. military official familiar with the region.

Drugs and terror have become so intertwined, the official said, that "every time someone smokes hashish anywhere in Europe, they are funding the GICM." He spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.

The terror link is causing Moroccan authorities to crack down on hashish growers. Since last year, Morocco, bowing to European pressure, has been razing fields in the Rif's outlying areas. With this year's harvest under way, the sweep has farmers alarmed.

Cannabis, illegal in Morocco but widely tolerated in the Rif, is the only crop that grows well in the stony soil, said Abdurahman, who would not give his last name. Farmers who have tried other crops have ended up losing money.

Some 96,000 Moroccan families like Abdurahman's, mostly in the Rif and surrounding regions, are involved in its production, according to a United Nations drug report.

The estimated yearly turnover of Morocco's hashish trade is $13 billion. Western European countries consume most of the estimated 98,000 tons of hashish produced in Morocco each year, UN figures say.

Farmers in the Rif say their best customers are the European tourists who swing through in search of a cheap high in a lovely setting.

"It's thanks to the Europeans, and their good prices, that we live," said one farmer, standing at the roadside next to his field to flag down possible customers.

But French and U.S. authorities say the bulk of Morocco's hash is sold cut-rate to Moroccan smuggling networks based in Europe, some of whom have ties to Islamic terror.

Last year, the government of neighboring Larache province piloted a program to eradicate cannabis fields, giving their owners amnesty and providing them substitutes like olive trees or goats. But farmers are more concerned with putting food on their tables. Eighteen percent refused replacement crops and replanted their more lucrative cannabis.

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