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Saturday, October 07, 2006

Windsor trio at heart of smuggling ring supporting Hezbollah, U.S. asserts

WINDSOR, Ont. (CanWest)- Three Windsor men - described as central figures in a global smuggling ring to raise money for Hezbollah - ferried up to $500,000 worth of low-taxed and untaxed cigarettes through the U.S. each week, American authorities say.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Kenneth Chadwell said Naji Hassan Alawie, Karim Hassan Nasser and Hassan Hassan Nasser were major players in the multimillion dollar smuggling ring that operated in Lebanon, Canada, China, Brazil, Paraguay, the U.S. and elsewhere.

Chadwell said the Windsor trio's main role was in the group's illegal cigarette operation, its biggest money maker, which resulted in $20 million in unpaid Michigan cigarette taxes.

They made regular bank deposits of up to $20,000 at a time, and Alawie even kept a house in Algonac, Mich., to use for putting counterfeit tax stamps on contraband cigarettes before reselling them.

''Anyone running a house and opening accounts and transporting, that would be pretty central,'' Chadwell said. ''The Nassers were . . . were very important transporters in the conspiracy. Central players in cigarettes are pretty central in the whole conspiracy.''

Windsor's link in the scheme seems to reinforce a report, released Wednesday by Canada's financial intelligence agency, warning that Canada's use as a fundraising base for international terrorist groups is growing by leaps and bounds.

The Financial Transactions and Reports Analysis Centre of Canada (FINTRAC) said terrorist groups funnelled an estimated $256 million through Canada in the year ending March 31. That was a significant jump from last year's $180 million total and the $70 million detected in 2004.

Eighteen people are named in a U.S. indictment alleging they trafficked contraband cigarettes, counterfeit Zig Zag rolling papers and counterfeit Viagra in a massive smuggling ring that supported Hezbollah, a Lebanon-based organization that Canada and the United States say has terrorism links.

The three Windsor men and others ferried up to $500,000 worth of untaxed or low-taxed cigarettes each week from North Carolina, Kentucky and the Cattaraugus Indian Reservation in New York state to Michigan and other New York locations, authorities allege.

The indictments also reveal that Windsor served as an international portal for the group. In September 2001, a man named Adel Isak tried to enter Canada through the Windsor-Detroit tunnel with nearly 11,000 Michigan cigarette tax stamps.

The organization laundered money, transported stolen property, made counterfeit cigarette tax stamps and solicited money for an orphans of martyrs program in southern Lebanon. They also maintained donation containers and charged cigarette customers an extra ''resistance tax'' which was all sent to Hezbollah.

Hassan Al-Mosawi, one of those allegedly involved, had a ''close personal relationship with upper echelon Hezbollah officials,'' the indictment states.

Karim Nasser, 36, a Windsor cab driver, pleaded guilty in a U.S. federal court last month to conspiracy to violate the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO).

Co-defendants Imad Hamadeh, 51, of Dearborn Heights, Theodore Schenk, 73, of Miami Beach and Youssef Bakri have also pleaded guilty.
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