“What is this scale for?” Faisal Elnaha, the Yemeni manager of an Alabama Texaco remembers a DEA agent demanding on the morning of May 7.
Rummaging wildly through the rundown gas station he’d been managing for 10 years, agents from the Drug Enforcement Administration flung questions at the 36-year-old like candy. Unbeknownst to Elnaha at the time, his modest store had just become the newest target in the second phase of a nationwide drug takedown called Project Synergy—the specific raid in Birmingham had been given the code name Operation Red Tide. Poring over spices, small candy, and gum, the agents’ search for synthetic drugs was just beginning.
“That scale was for letters!” Elnaha says with audible anguish on the phone two weeks later, now out of a job and unable to take care of his sick mother. “They found a lot of stuff [at] places, but not here. Not even tiny things, not nothing,” he says. But if the authorities got Elnaha’s store wrong, as he claims, they weren’t far off. Just a few blocks down on Sixth Avenue in Birmingham, they hit the jackpot.
At a super storage warehouse lined with red steel doors, the agents allegedly uncovered hundreds of thousands of rainbow-clad bags bearing the inscription “Scooby Snax”—a code for “fake marijuana” or “spice.” But it was the $30 million to $40 million in profit they traced, and the receiving end of the money most of all, that was most alarming: Yemen.