Federal authorities have arrested a Virginia businessman for allegedly trying to ship dozens of weapons and high-tech devices to Lebanon, where terrorist groups such as Hezbollah operate and a civil war in neighboring Syria has sparked further violence.
Sam Rafic Ghanem, owner of an international shipping company with offices in the Washington suburbs, was arrested Saturday after an FBI sting.
The intended recipient of the weapons is not clear, but at one point Ghanem claimed he was recently asked to obtain two guns for an unnamed member of the Lebanese government, according to court documents filed in the case.
Over the past few months, Ghanem and a former employee of his company, Washington Movers International, devised a scheme to send weapons to Lebanon by hiding them inside automobile parts shipped by the company, court documents allege.
The former employee, though, was working as an undercover source for the FBI.
Last Saturday, the source picked up Ghanem from his Springfield, Va., home and drove to Washington Movers International's offices in Maryland, where Ghanem helped stuff 10 handguns, 10 semi-automatic rifles and 18 "optic devices" into doors and other parts of salvaged vehicles, an FBI agent alleged in charging documents.
The car parts were then loaded into a shipping container, but the weapons hidden inside were fake, according to the charging documents. Ghanem was subsequently arrested.
After he was handcuffed, Ghanem allegedly admitted to FBI agents that his intended shipment violated U.S. law, which prohibits the export of such weapons to Lebanon and other designated countries. International law also bans such shipments.
During a secretly recorded meeting at Ghanem's home in October, Ghanem noted to his former employee that he recently "had been asked to obtain two 'pieces' [guns] for a Lebanese official," but he didn't follow through "because he would have had to put the weapons in his name, and that was too dangerous," according to the charging documents.
An FBI spokesman declined to comment. Efforts to reach someone at the Lebanese Embassy in Washington on Tuesday were unsuccessful.
Saturday's arrest was apparently not the first time the FBI visited Ghanem. FBI agents questioned him two years ago after two guns were found hidden in a car shipped by his company, court documents have him telling the FBI source.
Washington Movers International has offices in District Heights, Md.; Doha, Qatar; and Beirut. Ghanem, 43, started the company "from scratch," according to a profile of Ghanem posted online.
"We are now recognized as one of the leading logistics firms in the United States," the company's website says, promising, "From the simplest household move to the largest of international business relocations, you will appreciate our extraordinary professionalism, expertise, our friendly and helpful service."
As of two years ago, Ghanem was a follower of Druze - a relatively small, ancient religion practiced mostly in Lebanon, Syria and Israel - and he was an active member in the faith's community. He served on the board of a Washington-area Druze organization. He is married with three children, according to the online profile.
Ghanem has been charged with one count of "attempted export of defense articles" in violation of the Arms Export Control Act. If convicted, he faces five years in prison and a fine of $50,000.
He made his initial appearance Monday before a federal judge in Greenbelt, Md. Public records available Tuesday did not indicate whether Ghanem had entered a plea.
A detention hearing is scheduled for Thursday.
A representative at the federal public defender's office, which is representing Ghanem, declined to comment on the case.