Ahmed Seif EL-Din
A Lebanese-Belgian businessman accused by the US of being an international fundraiser and money launderer for Hezbollah, the Shia militant group, has been arrested in Romania.
The case against Mohammed Ibrahim Bazzi is expected to shed further light on American allegations about Hezbollah’s use of the drugs trade with Latin America and businesses in west Africa and Europe as a clearing house for its finances.
Bazzi had been on the radar of the US authorities for years and was put under US Treasury sanctions as a “specially designated global terrorist” in 2018. He previously served as an honorary consul in Lebanon for the west African state of Gambia, where he has business interests, and was also a close associate of Yahya Jammeh, its former president.
One alleged mastermind of the trade, a Colombian-Lebanese called Ayman Joumaa, was accused after stings by the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) of using a subsidiary of the Lebanese-Canadian Bank in Gambia as part of a money-laundering operation involving hundreds of millions of dollars.
Bazzi, 58, said to be a close associate of Joumaa, was arrested as he arrived in Bucharest on Friday, according to the US authorities. They said they would seek his extradition on three charges connected to funding for terrorism and money laundering.
The specific allegation is that he tried to “induce or force” a US resident to liquidate real estate investments and send the proceeds, worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, to himself and Talal Chahine, a colleague, in Lebanon.
Bazzi is claimed by the US Treasury to have funnelled millions of dollars around the world for the group. The indictment also covers Chahine, but his whereabouts are unknown.
“Mohammed Bazzi thought that he could secretly move hundreds of thousands of dollars from the United States to Lebanon without detection by law enforcement,” Breon Peace, US attorney for Eastern New York district, said in a statement.
Joumaa’s international operation was first exposed by the DEA in 2011 but he has never been arrested. Another key figure is said to be Abdallah Safieddine, Hezbollah’s representative in Iran.
The US authorities offered a reward of $10 million for information about Bazzi when he was designated and sanctioned in 2018, equivalent to that for an al-Qaeda leader.
The DEA said it had tapped Bazzi’s communications before the arrest. It said Bazzi and Chahine discussed how Bazzi’s holdings in Michigan could be sold and the cash transferred to him without the US authorities finding out.
One proposal was to buy kitchen equipment from China. Another was to set up a Lebanese restaurant franchise in the US, and another was to channel it through Chahine’s family in Kuwait.
“The defendants in this case attempted to provide continued financial assistance to Hezbollah, a foreign terrorist organisation responsible for death and destruction,” Daniel Kafafian, the DEA special agent, said. “The men and women of DEA are committed to working with our law enforcement and foreign counterparts to disrupt and dismantle the operations of these organisations and those who choose to support them financially.”
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