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Seen At 11: Customs Officials Launch Crackdown On Khat

NEW YORK (CBS 2) -- Customs officials at New York area airports are cracking down on a drug called khat. Authorities at JFK's International Postal Facility told CBS 2's Tony Aiello that they are seizing the drug by the ton.

Khat is hugely popular in certain countries in the Middle East and Africa. When users chew khat leaves and stems a chemical is released that provides a high similar to the type experienced from amphetamines.

"It's like a euphoric feeling, makes you very hyperactive, so it is a stimulant," Customs and Border Protection Chief Bill Rivera said.

The drug is legal in many countries, including England and Israel, but it is banned in the United States.

Khat was wildly popular in New York's Middle Eastern and African neighborhoods until a post-9/11 crackdown on the drug.

Chief Rivera told CBS 2 that the khat trade may have ties to terrorism.

"There is intelligence to suggest that there is a direct link to the proceeds funding terrorism," he said.

Khat is popular in places known to be hotbeds for terrorism, including Yemen and Somalia. Al-Qaeda affiliate Al-Shabaab is suspected of skimming money from the khat trade.

"The end result is that you have people who have wrong motives along in between, who take the resources, this money and channel it to terror organizations," said Emmanuel Kisiangani of the Institute of Security Studies.

Customs agents have seized almost 20 tons of khat in the last six months, but holding back the flood, they admitted, isn't easy.

Smugglers continue to adapt and create new ways to hide the product; stuffing it inside of boxes marked as "family photos" or "beauty products," while some have gone as far as to pack it into hollowed out hard drives and containers of baby powder.

Customs agents are faced with the daunting task of sniffing khat out before it makes its way through U.S. ports. They told CBS 2 that indicators like the country of origin serve as a good starting point and that X-ray technology has helped to level the playing field.

Last week, three New Yorkers were among the 13 people who were convicted in northern Virginia for smuggling khat into the country.

Have you ever heard of anybody using khat in America? Let us know in our comments section below...

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