Skip to comments.3 in custody as raids focus on money trail to Yemen
Posted on 12/18/2002 7:01:32 AM PST by twas
Queen City Cigarettes & Candy, a Clinton Street warehouse owned by food broker Mohamed T. Albanna, is one element of investigators' picture of a money-transmitting business that sent large sums to Yemen.
A leader of Lackawanna's Yemeni-American community and two other men were in custody today on charges they operated an illegal money-transmitting business that sent funds from Western New York to Yemen.
Mohamed T. Albanna, vice president of the American Muslim Council of Western New York and a frequent spokesman for the defendants known as the "Lackawanna Six," appeared before U.S. Magistrate Judge Hugh B. Scott on Tuesday after raids on two homes in Lackawanna and Albanna's Buffalo warehouse.
Albanna, 51; his brother, Ali A. Albanna, 29; and his nephew, Ali Taher Elbaneh, 57; are accused of sending nearly $500,000 to Yemen between October and December.
Law enforcement sources earlier told The Buffalo News that at least $3 million had been sent to Yemen, but Tuesday's indictment covers only a three-month period and $486,548. The government is trying to seize the money.
None of the money was used to fund terrorism, U.S. Attorney Michael A. Battle said, However, such unregulated money transfers are susceptible to abuse, he said, and that is why Congress requires such operations to be licensed.
Friends and relatives of the accused men said the government was overreacting to a common practice of Yemeni-Americans, sending money back home to Yemen using a century-old procedure called "hawala."
"He's just sending money to his family; that's all," said Ali Selh, a resident of Albanna's Lackawanna neighborhood for 48 years. He described the search by police and agency officials as "propaganda" to make the U.S. government look good.
Others say that the manner of the raids - government agents swooping down on Lackawanna neighborhoods and blocking off streets as they conducted searches while children were on their way to school - was unnecessary.
"They picked a hell of a time to do this," said longtime resident Tina Giddens. "The kids were scared when they saw all those cops. They could have waited until the kids were in school."
The raids in Buffalo and Lackawanna came shortly after 8 a.m. Tuesday.
Agents from the U.S. Customs Service and the federal Drug Enforcement Administration, assisted by FBI agents and local police, went simultaneously to Albanna's home on Lehigh Avenue and Ali Albanna's home on Ingham Avenue, both in Lackawanna, and Mohamed Albanna's warehouse on Clinton Street in Buffalo.
Mohamed Albanna, a wholesale food broker, provides goods to about 120 mostly Arab-owned delis from the warehouse, Queen City Cigarettes & Candy.
Case called "very strong'
After the morning raids, a federal grand jury returned indictments, and agents went back to the warehouse in early afternoon and took the men into custody.
Mohamed Albanna was represented by attorney Philip M. Marshall during the court appearance, but because the other two men did not have attorneys, Scott ordered all three jailed overnight pending a resumption of their court proceedings today. Marshall left the courthouse without comment. Mohamed Albanna, as he was taken into custody earlier in the day, told a reporter he was guilty of no crime.
Mohamed Albanna, uncle of Jaber Elbaneh, who has been implicated in the Lackawanna Six case, has been present for every court appearance of the young Yemeni-American men accused of providing material support to Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida terrorist network. Jaber Elbaneh is still believed to be in Yemen.
Mohamed Albanna has been adamant in proclaiming the innocence of the Lackawanna Six, who are accused of attending an al-Qaida camp in Afghanistan. In November, Albanna called on the federal government to confirm that a CIA missile killed an eighth member of the group and its alleged ringleader, Kamal Derwish.
The government has not acknowledged that Derwish was among the al-Qaida members killed by the missile strike in Yemen.
Federal prosecutors sounded confident in court Tuesday that they have a strong case against the Albannas and Ali Elbaneh.
"Sending money overseas without a proper license or registration is illegal," Assistant U.S. Attorney Timothy C. Lynch said as he outlined the government's case during the arraignment.
During the investigation, federal authorities intercepted "numerous" packages sent from Queen City to Yemen, identified checks made out to a company in Yemen and conducted wiretaps, Lynch said.
He also said the government had an admission from Mohamed Albanna that he knew he had been operating his business without having satisfied legal requirements for transferring money overseas.
Lynch alleged that at least $486,548 was illegally transferred. He also said that there was $130,000 in the Queen City bank account.
According to Lynch, the case is "very strong."
"Not a flight risk'
Lynch requested bail of $100,000 each for the Albannas, calling them the "principal operators" of the business, and $20,000 for Elbaneh.
Marshall said that he was not in a position to dispute the strength of the government's case but that it comes down to the failure to obtain a license.
"There is nothing to suggest the activities were illegal," Marshall said. "This appears to be a technical violation of the law."
Lynch countered that sending money overseas without a state license and federal registration is "illegal and not necessarily a technical violation."
Marshall responded, "It's not illegal to send money overseas. It's only illegal if there is no license."
In a discussion about bail and the risk of the defendants fleeing the country, Marshall said Mohamed Albanna has been a U.S. citizen for 27 years and a resident of the Buffalo area since 1970.
"He has not left the United States for 20 years. His passport has not been renewed. He is not a flight risk," Marshall said.
Elbaneh has been a U.S. citizen since 1974 and has not left the country since 1985, Marshall said, and Ali Albanna has been in the U.S. since 1995 and has not left in the last three years.
How a "hawala' works
Marshall also said the government had closed the business and placed a hold on its bank account.
Lynch told the judge that the men have access to individuals, such as friends and family, who could help them financially.
Tuesday's arrests were the result of an investigation coordinated by the Customs Service as part of its Operation Green Quest, a U.S. Treasury Department operation that investigates alleged underground financial systems.
Federal investigators trying to trace the funding for al-Qaida and other terrorist groups say that much of the money comes from abuses of such unregulated money transfers.
Battle said that such "hawalas" are, "by their nature, susceptible to criminal elements" and that his office will continue to prosecute them.
"Hawalas" operate like Western Union, only covertly, according to experts, who say that the operations are efficient and effective in a system that requires little or no paperwork and, therefore, leaves little evidence of a money trail.
According to the experts, here is how a "hawala" works:
Say, a Pakistani businessman wants to send $5,000 to his sister in Islamabad. Instead of going to a bank, he contacts a "hawalador." He negotiates a fee and an exchange rate and gives the dealer $5,000 plus the fee.
The "hawalador" then calls or sends a fax or e-mail message to a dealer he knows in Islamabad, agrees to split his fee, and then asks that dealer to deliver $5,000 to his client's brother. The two dealers will settle their accounts later, either by exchanging money in person or through a legitimate wire transfer.
The whole deal, from start to finish, takes a day or two, maybe just a few hours - quick, simple, and there's no paper record of a transaction.
Acquittal in arson case
"A lot of the money goes to remote villages where the nearest bank might be 150 miles away," said Maneer Muflahi, a Lackawanna resident.
Mohamed Albanna had an earlier scrape with the law when a Queen City warehouse he owned on Broadway burned Dec. 13, 1992.
Investigators charged Albanna with arson after they said that he owed $700,000 to suppliers, that he was the last person to leave the building, and that they could find no forced entry to the heavily secured building.
A jury acquitted Albanna of the charges, but his insurance company refused to pay for the $800,000 in damage. After a four-day trial, a jury ruled against Albanna and did not order the insurance company to pay.
Whenever this guy is on camera, he gives the same speech about how much he loves America and what a great country we have. Watching the segments together, you get a sense that he rehearsed this speech many times.
This is the Muslim Fifth Column. They are quietly working behind the scene and they know all the right things to say to distract attention.
I watched that too, and thought the same thing. He also acts smug and superior. Makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up.
Disclaimer: Opinions posted on Free Republic are those of the individual posters and do not necessarily represent the opinion of Free Republic or its management. All materials posted herein are protected by copyright law and the exemption for fair use of copyrighted works.