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Leader of international khat-trafficking ring pleads guilty

ALEXANDRIA, Va. — A Somali national, pleaded guilty to conspiring to distribute cathinone, which is found in fresh khat leaves, following an investigation by for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) in Washington, D.C.

Yonis Muhudin Ishak, 44, and others were indicted on June 16, 2011. Ishak faces a maximum penalty of 20 years of imprisonment when he is sentenced on Jan. 20, 2012.

In a statement of facts filed with his plea agreement, Ishak, who was based in Arlington, Va., admitted that he imported khat from England and the Netherlands and then distributed wholesale quantities of khat to various domestic khat distributors in Virginia, Maryland, Ohio, New York, New Jersey, and elsewhere.

Khat, is a flowering shrub native to East Africa and the Arabian-Peninsula. Fresh khat leaves contain the drug cathinone, which is a stimulant. The effects have been compared to methamphetamine.

Ishak hired human couriers to travel to London and elsewhere to retrieve khat from overseas sources and smuggle it into the United States inside their luggage. In addition, Ishak arranged for khat to be shipped into the United States via the U.S. Postal Service, DHL, FedEx and United Parcel Service. To conceal his activities from law enforcement, the defendant would have these parcels shipped to addresses that were not associated with him, including UPS stores in New York, New Jersey and elsewhere. Money was sent to khat suppliers using hawala money transfer companies.

This case was investigated by ICE HSI and the United States Postal Inspection Service. Assistant U.S. Attorney Mary K. Daly and Special Assistant U.S. Attorneys Michael J. Frank, Claire M. Murray and Andrew K. Mann are prosecuting the case.