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U.S. Sues To Recover $446 Million From Hezbollah-Connected Firms

The Justice Department says U.S. car buyers were sent at least $329 million to purchase used vehicles shipped to Africa, where they were sold as part of a scheme to launder drug-trafficking profits through Lebanon using security provided by Hezbollah.

Federal prosecutors fired another broadside Thursday in a massive case accusing the Hezbollah militant group of financing itself through the global drug trade, filing a civil money laundering case against a Lebanese bank and a network of Hezbollah-connected companies, including U.S. shipping and used-car firms.

The 66-page complaint filed by the U.S. Attorney in the Southern District of New York details a sprawling conspiracy in which Hezbollah figures and their associates in the United States, Lebanon, Africa and South America allegedly generated and laundered hundreds of millions of dollars from cocaine smuggling.

The complaint seeks $446 million in forfeiture assets from the companies, including the Lebanese Canadian Bank SAL of Beirut, which allegedly served until this year as the hub of an illicit financing apparatus that pumped drug cash into the coffers of Hezbollah. The bank, already hit by U.S. Treasury Department sanctions in February, allowed Hezbollah figures to move huge amounts of cash with little or no oversight, authorities say.

U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agents believe the Shiite militant organization, a powerful force in the Lebanese government despite its bloody history of terrorism against the West and Israel, received at least $100 million a year from the criminal enterprise, according to a U.S. antidrug official.

“The intricate scheme … reveals the deviously creative ways that terrorist organizations are funding themselves and moving their money, and it puts into stark relief the nexus between narcotics trafficking and terrorism,” U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said. “Today, we are putting a stranglehold on a major source of that funding by disrupting a vast and far-flung network.”

The federal complaint describes an alleged U.S. money laundering wing of an operation that a long-term global investigation by the DEA had targeted. The case resulted in the indictment Tuesday of Ayman Joumaa, an accused Lebanese drug kingpin described as a top Hezbollah financier and money laundering specialist. Joumaa, who is believed to be in Lebanon, was charged with smuggling hundreds of millions of dollars of cocaine into the United States in partnership with a Mexican cartel.

The evidence unveiled Thursday lays a foundation for other potential prosecutions of Hezbollah figures overseas — mainly suspects allegedly involved in cocaine smuggling through Africa to Europe — because it alleges a U.S. nexus, the antidrug official said.

During the past four years, the Lebanese bank and other firms, including two money exchange houses run by Joumaa, wired at least $329 million to about 30 car buyers in the United States to purchase used cars that were shipped primarily to similar businesses in the African country of Benin, the complaint says.

Proceeds from car sales in Africa went to Lebanon along with tens of millions of dollars in illicit cash from sales of cocaine in Europe by Hezbollah-connected traffickers based in Benin, Ghana and Togo, the complaint says.

“Hezbollah security facilitates the receipt of cash flown into the Beirut International Airport,” the complaint alleges. “For example, money couriers are sometimes instructed over the public address system to deplane first, and are then escorted to private rooms in the airport where the cash would be received.”

Prosecutors allege that a key figure in the conspiracy was Oussama Salhab, a Lebanese businessman who lives in Togo but owns Cybamar Swiss Gmbh, a Detroit-area international transport company that shipped many of the used cars to Africa.

“Salhab is a Hezbollah operative,” the complaint alleges. It describes an aborted U.S. visit by Salhab in 2009 in which he arrived at the Detroit airport and was questioned by border inspectors. Examination of his fingerprint-encrypted laptop found “images of Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah; audio of the Hezbollah national anthem; images of Hezbollah militants stomping on an Israeli flag; and movie files of executions, hangings, torture and beheadings,” the complaint says.

Salhab decided not to enter the United States and returned to Togo, where he oversees vast money laundering and cash-smuggling networks, the complaint states. It identifies one of his close associates as Imad Zbib, a used-car dealer who is “a prominent Hezbollah representative in Togo” and “narco-trafficker.” Zbib’s organization has transported multi-ton maritime shipments of cocaine from South America to Togo, where it continues to Europe concealed in shipments of used cars, according to the complaint.

Reached by phone Thursday, a manager at the Detroit headquarters of Salhab’s transport company declined comment but said a public relations official would eventually respond to the charges.

The complaint seeks to have 30 used-car companies — many of them in Michigan but also in states such as Tennessee, Maryland and Connecticut — forfeit assets. In contrast to the allegations against Salhab, antidrug officials said, it is not clear the extent to which the car buyers knew they were involved in an international scheme linked to drugs and terrorism.

Portrait of Sebastian Rotella

Sebastian Rotella

Sebastian Rotella is a reporter at ProPublica. An award-winning foreign correspondent and investigative reporter, Sebastian's coverage includes terrorism, intelligence and organized crime.

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