Fort Worth

Son of bin Laden associate among eight charged in North Texas drug rings

Abdullah el-Hage
Abdullah el-Hage Tarrant County Sheriff’s Office

The son of a former top aide to Osama bin Laden is among eight men charged in connection with two synthetic-drug rings that federal investigators say made “Spice” available to North Texas customers.

Suspect Abdullah el-Hage is the 29-year-old son of Wadih el-Hage, who was bin Laden’s personal secretary in Sudan in the 1990s. Wadih el-Hage is currently serving a life sentence in a Colorado supermax prison for conspiring to commit acts of terrorism, including bombings in 1998 that killed 224 people at American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.

El-Hage is accused of selling Spice, also known as K2, at his smoke shop in Fort Worth.

Spice is a plant-based product laced with synthetic cannabinoids that can give users a euphoric high when smoked, but can also lead to life-threatening health issues. It is marketed under various names like “24K Monkey” and “7H Hydro.”

Federal officials have filed two complaints in connection with the alleged rings. One of the complaints remains sealed, and U.S. attorney officials declined to say on Tuesday whether the alleged rings are believed to be connected.

El-Hage considered flight risk

One of the recently unsealed federal complaints accuses six men of conspiring to distribute synthetic cannabinoids in smoke shops.

According to that complaint, between July 2015 and July 2016, confidential informants and undercover Fort Worth police officers working with the Drug Enforcement Administration repeatedly purchased spice from two Fort Worth smoke shops — the I Smoke & More shop on Brentwood Stair Road and the New Smoke Delight on Woodway Drive.

Prosecutors allege that el-Hage owns the I Smoke & More shop where spice was being sold.

April Ray, el-Hage’s mother, testified Monday in a detention hearing that her son is a U.S. citizen who has lived in Tarrant County since 1997 and has served as a father figure for his six siblings. She said that in addition to the smoke shop, her son owns a deli in Fort Worth and provides financial support for her family when needed.

Ray, who was featured in a Newsweek article in 2002 titled “Married to Al Queda,” testified that her son has never been convicted of a felony or violent crime and, if released, would live with her.

In the article, Ray talked candidly about her husband’s job with bin Laden, whom she described as a “great boss” and “not the monster people make him out to be.”

Wadih el-Hage moved to the United States in 1978, living first in Louisiana before spending part of the 1980s in Tarrant County. He started working for bin Laden in Sudan in 1992 and moved his family to Arlington in 1997. In 1998 two embassies in Africa were bombed and Wadih el-Hage was accused and eventually convicted of helping plan the attacks.

During questioning of Ray, federal prosecutor Brian Poe referenced the Newsweek article.

DEA Special Agent John Perfetti testified that in a search of Abdullah el-Hage’s residence, investigators seized more than 13,000 packets of Spice and an estimated $200,000 to $400,000 in cash.

Poe argued that el-Hage is a flight risk, saying “he potentially has the means to leave if allowed out.”

Anthony Green, el-Hage's defense attorney, argued that his client is not a flight risk but a small business owner whose assets and passport were seized upon his arrest. He asked the judge to release his client so that he could have time to transfer management of his deli/convenience store.

El-Hage was ordered to remain in federal custody.

Others accused in complaint

The five other men accused in the complaint are:

▪ Khaled Al Haj, 55, who is accused of ordering large quantities of Spice from Majdi Khaleq, a large-scale supplier who lives in Denver.

Investigators say Haj had the packages shipped to a hair supply store located next to el-Hage’s I Smoke & More shop, as well as to an Arlington tire business. Packages intercepted by federal investigators revealed Spice inside.

Khaleq has been indicted on federal charges in the District of Arizona, court records show.

Haj remains in federal custody.

▪ Deya Al Raji, a 27-year-old clerk at I Smoke & More shop who allegedly sold Spice to undercover officers. He remains in federal custody.

▪ Floyd Lee, a 35-year-old clerk at I Smoke & More who allegedly sold Spice to undercover officers. Lee has been released from federal custody on a personal recognizance bond.

▪ Zeshan Hussain, the 31-year-old owner of the New Smoke Delight who allegedly sold Spice to an undercover officer. Hussain has been released from federal custody on a personal recognizance bond.

▪ Gregory Clay, a 29-year-old clerk at New Smoke Delight who allegedly sold Spice to undercover officers. Clay remains in federal custody.

Storage unit seizure

Although the second complaint remains sealed, a probable cause and detention hearing before U.S. Magistrate Jeffrey Cureton on Friday indicates that 33-year-old Shabbar Rafiq is accused of having Spice delivered from California to 44-year-old Gagan Sethi, owner of Discount Smoke at 1700 N.E. 28th Street in Fort Worth.

Sethi, federal officials allege, in turn sold it to trusted customers.

Perfetti testified that the investigation of Rafiq began in March 2012 after 8.7 kilos of Spice was seized by Amarillo police from a storage unit. Rafiq was among suspects found to have access to that storage unit, Perfetti said.

Through calls intercepted by DEA agents working independent investigations in Tuscon and Denver, investigators learned that some of the Spice was being sold to customers in North Texas.

Perfetti testified that investigators intercepted two packages that were destined for Sethi’s smoke shop. The contents of those packages, he said, tested positive as containing controlled substances or chemical compounds similar to that of controlled substances.

Rafiq’s attorney, assistant federal public defender Erin Brennan, has tried without success to have Rafiq released pending trial. She told Cureton that, according to Rafiq’s mother, Rafiq had come to the United States in 1999 and graduated from Lewisville High School.

He got his law degree from the Thomas M. Cooley Law School and had plans to take the state bar exam a second time after failing his first attempt, Brennan said.

The mother said her son has worked in construction, Brennan told the judge, though Perfetti testifed that the investigation indicates that Rafiq was only using the profits from spice trafficking to invest in real estate.

Prosecutor Brian Poe had argued that Rafiq is a flight risk and poses a danger to the community as he has ties to foreign countries and is allegedly involved in a fraudulent marriage.

Rafiq and Sethi remain in federal custody, charged with conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute a controlled substance.

This report includes information from the Star-Telegram archives.

Deanna Boyd: 817-390-7655, @deannaboyd

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