FBI: Cigarette-Smugglers Funded Terrorism

An Islamic militant group is denying any involvement in a scheme that the FBI says raised money for terrorism activities worldwide through cigarette trafficking in the United States.

Federal authorities arrested 17 people Friday during afternoon raids in homes and businesses in Charlotte, N.C., who they say are part of the Middle East guerrilla group Hezbollah. Another person was arrested in Michigan.

The suspects were charged with immigration violations, weapons offenses, money laundering and cigarette trafficking, said U.S. Attorney Mark Calloway in Charlotte.

Eleven of those arrested remained jailed today. The others were released on bond after court hearings on Friday.

MohamadYoussef Hammoud, one of those arrested in the raids, was identified as the group’s ringleader by sources working with a state-federal task force that investigated the group, according to an affidavit.

A source told agents that Hammoud was well-connected with Hezbollah members in Lebanon and is believed to have received Hezbollah-sponsored military training.

The source “believes that if Hezbollah issued an authorization to execute a terrorist act in the United States, Mohamad Hammoud would not hesitate in carrying it out,” the affidavit read.

But in a statement released today, Hezbollah denied any involvement with the people charged in Charlotte.

It was unclear whether Hammoud or any of his co-defendants had an attorney who could comment on the case.

Quiet Neighbors

No one answered the door Friday evening at Hammoud’s gray-blue house in Charlotte, where evidence of the morning’s raid was apparent: dents in the front door and damaged aluminum louvers in a front window.

Those who lived nearby said they knew little about its occupants, but did notice periodic gatherings and what appeared to be a constantly changing set of residents.

“Other than all the meetings, where there’d be 15, 20 cars parked in front of the house, and the fact that there was a revolving door, they didn’t bother anybody,” said Paul Booher, who lives two houses down.

Booher said the only time he spoke to anyone at the house was when he knocked on the door and asked if they’d like to join the local homeowners’ association. The man who answered said he’d have to talk to the landlord.

“They wouldn’t let anyone get to know them,” Booher said.

The investigation began in 1996 when Iredell County authorities noticed people with out-of-state license plates making large cash purchases from JR Tobacco, a discount tobacco outlet in Statesville.

More Arrests To Come

The arrests came after a three-year investigation called “Operation Smokescreen.”

Police and federal agents began searching homes in and around Charlotte Friday morning. In Michigan, Bassam Youssef Hammoud, 33, of Dearborn, was being held in a jail in Detroit, a jail officer said.

According to federal agents, a van load of cigarettes smuggled out of the Carolinas to states where higher taxes are assessed could yield $8,000-$10,000 per trip.

The investigation, carried out in coordination with Canadian intelligence services, involved confidential sources who infiltrated the group, authorities said.

One source told federal agents that the group met weekly at the home of Mohamad Hammoud, or other members, to discuss Hezbollah activities and to listen to speeches of leaders.

One confidential source told federal agents he was present when Mohamad Hammoud “put aside for Hezbollah several thousand dollars in cash representing the proceeds from trafficking in contraband cigarettes. The funds to be sent to Hezbollah also consisted of donations solicited and collected by Mohamad Hammoud from individuals who support Hezbollah.”

Canadian agents advised counterparts in the United States that one member of the group was under orders from a Hezbollah member in Lebanon to obtain night-vision devices, surveying equipment, global positioning systems, computers and video and digital equipment to send to Lebanon.

Hezbollah is one of the world’s most dangerous terrorist organizations, according to documents filed Friday in federal court.

Described as a “designated foreign terrorist organization” by U.S. authorities, the Syrian- and Iranian-backed Hezbollah led the battle against the 22-year Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon. The Israeli army withdrew from southern Lebanon in May.

An Arsenal of Weapons

One of the defendants, identified as Ahmad Ali Hariri, along with his four brothers, maintained “a virtual arsenal of weapons,” including shotguns, rifles, and an AK-47, authorities said.

One of the suspects, identified as Ali Fayez Darwich, has a brother in Lebanon, identified only as Mohamad, who is a well-known Hezbollah leader, according to federal agents.

A court affidavit alleged a government official at the U.S. embassy in Cyprus had been bribed to issue visas to the United States for some members of the group.

“[One confidential source] advised that the group of individuals is extremely anti-United States. Their meetings invariably include readings from the works of [the late Iranian leader] Ayatollah Khomeini,” the affidavit said.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.