WASHINGTON - Three accused al-Qaeda associates taken to New York yesterday are charged with plotting to ferry drugs through the Sahara desert to raise money for terror attacks - evidence of what prosecutors say is a dangerous, growing alliance between terror chiefs and drug lords.

The arrests mark the first time U.S. authorities have captured and charged al-Qaeda suspects in a drug trafficking plot in Africa.

The three suspects, believed to be in their 30s and originally from Mali, were arrested by local authorities in Ghana this week and turned over to U.S. agents.

They arrived in the United States early yesterday, officials said, and were ordered held without bail after a brief court appearance later in the day in which they did not enter pleas to charges of narcoterrorism conspiracy and conspiracy to provide material support to terrorists.

Michele Leonhart, the head of the Drug Enforcement Administration, said the case shows a "direct link" between al-Qaeda and drug traffickers.

The United States has long been concerned about close ties between militants and the heroin trade in Afghanistan. But the African case appears to show an expansion of both al-Qaeda's illegal activities around the globe and American efforts to curtail black market deals that funnel cash to spur terror operations.

The four-month investigation was also the third time in recent years that the United States has targeted transnational suspects in an elaborate sting using informants posing as South American narcoterrorism operatives.

U.S. attorney Preet Bharara said the charges show "the emergence of a worrisome alliance between al-Qaeda and transnational narcotics traffickers. As terrorists diversify into drugs, however, they provide us with more opportunities to incapacitate them and cut off the funding for future acts of terror."

Authorities say the men are associates of al-Qaeda's North African branch, and told DEA informants that al-Qaeda could protect major shipments of cocaine in the region, driving the drugs by truck through the Sahara desert before eventually bringing them to Spain.

A criminal complaint unsealed yesterday charges that Oumar Issa, Harouna Toure, and Idriss Abelrahman worked with al-Qaeda in the Islamic Magreb. Court papers say Toure and Abelrahman at one point claimed the profits from the drug business "will go to their people to support the fight for 'the cause'."

Court papers say the DEA infiltrated the group by using informants posing as supporters of Colombia's rebel army, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, which the U.S. government considers a terrorist organization.

During negotiations, the al-Qaeda suspects offered to move cocaine from West Africa to North Africa for about $4,200 per kilogram.

The criminal complaint claims that when the informant asked how their drug shipments could be protected, "Issa confirmed that the protection would come from al-Qaeda and the people that would protect the load would be very well armed."

Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Magreb is an Algeria-based group that joined Osama bin Laden's terrorist network in 2006 and conducts dozens of bombings or ambushes each month.