Three men linked to the Lebanese terrorist group Hezbollah were accused of laundering drug money on behalf of the Colombian cartel after authorities said they illegally moved $500,000 into Miami banks, the Miami Herald reported Tuesday.
The apparent ringleader of the money laundering scheme, 31-year-old Mohammad Ahmad Ammar from Medellin, Colombia, “was quietly booked into a Miami-Dade jail last week to face state felony money laundering charges,” the Herald wrote. Ammar’s arrest “underscores increased law-enforcement scrutiny on the role of Middle Eastern terror groups who use financial networks in Latin America to earn untold millions off drug profits,” the paper added.
Another Hezbollah operative who was charged in the case is Hassan Mohsen Mansour, a dual Lebanese and Canadian citizen. He is currently detained in Paris and facing similar but separate prosecution in South Florida.
A third member of the cell, Ghassan Diab, is believed to be on the run either in Nigeria or Lebanon. According to court papers, he is a relative of a “high-ranking member of Hezbollah who has access to numerous international bank accounts.”
The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) first set sights on Ammar in early 2014, introducing him to an informant who covertly recorded their meetings. Ammar was asked by the informant to launder $250,000 worth of Australian dollars, which was actually DEA cash, into Miami bank accounts that were set up by the feds. Through encrypted communications with Mansour in Paris, Ammar arranged for the money to be transferred to Dubai, “where the anything-goes banking system remains out of reach of U.S. authorities,” the Herald reported.
The money was then broken up and transferred to Al Haitham Exhibition and Conference Organizers, which is believed to be a front company for money laundering. According to the 42-page arrest warrant, the money then disappeared. Soon afterwards, the accounts in Miami began receiving funds from obscure companies accompanied by bogus invoices for ill-defined products and services.
After the first scheme succeeded, Ammar told the DEA informant that he worked with La Oficina de Envigado, the chief cartel in Medellin, and struck a second deal to launder $250,000 in September 2014. The money was again transferred to Dubai and the event planning company, with a note explaining that it was for the purchase of a four-carat diamond ring. Payments were then made to the Miami banks through more bogus transactions, including one claiming to be for 50-kilogram bags of rice.
Over the course of the investigation, Ammar boasted of his ties to Hezbollah and mentioned his contacts at a Colombian airline who could smuggle drugs to Miami, according to the warrant.
The DEA announced in February that it arrested several individuals after investigating a “massive” international drug trafficking and money laundering operation run by Hezbollah. The agency said that Hezbollah worked with La Oficina and other cartels to supply cocaine to the United States and Europe, then laundered the proceeds in a scheme that helped “provide a revenue and weapons stream for an international terrorist organization responsible for devastating terror attacks around the world.”
In a 500-page indictment in 2013, the late Argentinian prosecutor Alberto Nisman outlinedIran’s terror network in South America, including Hezbollah’s involvement with drug traffickers. Amir Touraj and Benham Ben Taleblu, analysts for the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, wrote in U.S. News and World Report last month that Iran is falsely complaining about American non-compliance with the nuclear deal because it “feels it can get even more merely by hinting it might walk away.”
Iran, Hezbollah’s sponsor, remains the world’s greatest money laundering risk. Despite charges that the U.S. is unfairly impeding its participation in the international financial system, the sanctions remaining on Iran are due to its failure to clamp down on money laundering and continuing funding of terrorist organizations.