Dec. 16, 2011 -- More than two dozen U.S. car dealerships were allegedly involved in an international half-billion-dollar money laundering scheme for Lebanon-based Hezbollah, a group considered a terrorist organization by the U.S. government, federal officials said.
Federal agents served restraining orders and grilled employees at as many as 30 used car dealerships around the country, as part of a civil case that also named a Lebanese bank and two exchange houses as part of the plot.
According to a 62-page complaint filed in Manhattan federal court, the scheme involved the purchases of used cars in the U.S. for shipment and sale abroad with funds provided by the banks, currency exchanges and associates of the Lebanon-based terrorist group.
The restraining orders are intended to seize the assets of all of the used car dealerships named in the federal complaint, according to the Drug Enforcement Agency."We're looking to shut down this trade-based money laundering scheme," DEA agent Derek Maltz told ABC News. "And we're looking to take the profits away from Hezbollah and other terror groups around the world."
The complaint alleges that banks in Lebanon wired over $300 million into the U.S. for the purchase and shipment of used cars to West Africa. Proceeds from those sales were then allegedly funneled back to Lebanon to support Hezbollah causes.
"In this case, the used cars that are purchased in the United States are being shipped into West Africa and they [alleged Hezbollah supporters] are making 15, 20, 25 percent profit and the proceeds are all being sent back into Lebanon. And Hezbollah is benefitting," said Maltz.
ABC News spoke with owners of several of the dealerships named in the complaint, who all claimed to know nothing of the scheme or the federal action. Some owners said they were being unfairly targeted because they are Lebanese.
According to the complaint, at the heart of the scheme was the Lebanese Canadian Bank, described as the "primary laundering concern," now in the process of dissolution with its certain assets acquired by another Lebanon-based bank. In addition, African couriers and an alleged Hezbollah finance kingpin, Ayman Saied Joumaa, were critical to the alleged scheme. Its proceeds have reportedly enabled Hezbollah to fund political, social service, land acquisition and militia activities in the middle east, the complaint says.
The U.S. government accuses Hezbollah of being behind the deadly truck bombings on the U.S. Embassy Annex in 1984 and Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983.Joumaa, whose whereabouts are unknown, is alleged to have arranged multi-ton South American cocaine shipments through West Africa, laundered the money -- as much as $200 million per month -- and paid Hezbollah fees for transportation and laundering.
Dubbed a narcotics kingpin by the U.S. government, Joumaa was charged in November 2011 with conspiracy to sell narcotics and conspiracy to launder money.
The current civil action seeks penalties of $483,142,568 from LCB and the other firms and individuals alleged to have engaged in money laundering.