Suspected drug lord Muhammad Asif Hafeez faces extradition to US

Pakistani national accused of leading international narcotics syndicate appears in London court after UK-US operation

  Armed police in London. Muhammad Asif Hafeez is alleged to be head of a narcotics smuggling empire spanning Europe, Africa, Asia and North America.  Photograph: Jill Mead for the Guardian

Armed police in London. Muhammad Asif Hafeez is alleged to be head of a narcotics smuggling empire spanning Europe, Africa, Asia and North America. Photograph: Jill Mead for the Guardian

The alleged mastermind behind a global narcotics smuggling empire has appeared in court after being seized in London in a UK-US operation. Muhammad Asif Hafeez, who was arrested at property in the Regent’s Park area, faces extradition to the US.

The National Crime Agency (NCA) in London said after the arrest that communications between members of Hafeez’s syndicate showed he was known as the Sultan.

Hafeez, 58, a Pakistani national, is alleged to be the head of an organisation spanning Europe, Africa, Asia and North America, that produced and smuggled drugs including heroin, methamphetamine, or crystal meth, and ephedrine.

The NCA worked with the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) to investigate Hafeez after he was allegedly identified as the source of large quantities of heroin being smuggled into Kenya from Pakistan and Afghanistan. He is said to have been supplying a family-based narcotics syndicate in Mombasa with what he boasted was “diamond carat”-quality heroin.

The family involved had been smuggling drugs into and out of Kenya for decades, according to US diplomatic cables published by WikiLeaks. One leading member of the clan was killed in a drive-by shooting in Amsterdam’s red light district in 2000.

Members of the Kenyan gang were allegedly recorded as they agreed to sell 99kg (218 lbs) of the Sultan’s heroin to a group of men they thought were South American drug dealers looking to smuggle it into the US, but who were in fact working for the DEA.

At one point during the sting operation, the South Americans were introduced to the Sultan during a Skype call, which was covertly recorded. Four men were subsequently arrested in a raid on a mansion in the wealthy Mombasa beach suburb of Nyali and were extradited to the US this year. The 99kg of heroin was seized.

Another seizure related to Hafeez’s alleged narcotics trafficking involved the recovery of 18 tonnes of ephedrine in India.

The NCA said the allegations he faced included agreeing to smuggle narcotics into the US since at least 2013. Hafeez is said to own two properties in London, and spend most of his time in Dubai. He appeared at Westminster magistrates court on Friday for the start of extradition proceedings to the US, where he is wanted on charges of conspiring to import drugs. One of Hafeez’s sons looked on from the public gallery.

Wearing spectacles, a turquoise polo shirt and black leather jacket, Hafeez sat with his arms crossed as Hashim Chaudri, prosecuting, said he could face life imprisonment in the US. Chaudri opposed bail stating that Hafeez had “significant contacts and assets throughout the world” and a large amount of wealth. “A simple reason to believe he will not surrender is that he himself and his co-conspirators agreed to buy drugs, there is significant evidence against him,” he added.

Russell Nicholson, defending, said Hafeez was a businessman and trader who said he was the victim of mistaken identity.Nicholson added that Hafeez had no previous convictions in “any jurisdiction in the world” and could offer a £100,000 security if granted bail.

The district judge, Rebecca Crane, refused bail.

The NCA branch commander, Martin Huxley, said: “This is a hugely significant arrest of a man suspected of being the head of a global drug production and distribution network, with links across Asia, Europe and North America.

“Because of the scale of the criminality alleged here, this is an international investigation, and the NCA has worked extremely closely with our partners in the US and UK.

“The organised crime groups involved in drug trafficking at this level fuel violence and exploitation at every step, from the locations overseas where drugs are farmed and produced right through to the dealers on UK street corners.”