Hizbollah Supporters Arrested in North Carolina
CHARLOTTE, N.C. (Reuters) - U.S. Federal agents arrested 17 alleged supporters of the Hizbollah guerrilla group in raids in North Carolina and Michigan on Friday, accusing them of trafficking in contraband cigarettes to raise funds for the anti-Israeli Is
Shelves in an Charlotte tobacco shop are emptied of cigarettes after U.S. Federal agents conducted an early morning raid July 21.Police and federal agents carried out pre-dawn raids on 16 Charlotte homes and two businesses on Friday, and arrested 16 people in Charlotte and one in Michigan. One person remained at large late on Friday.
The ring was alleged to have supplied money and electronic equipment such as night vision devices to Hizbollah. The suspects were charged with conspiracy to violate immigration laws, conspiracy to traffic in contraband cigarettes and money laundering.
Although federal agents said there was no indication the group planned any violent acts, one confidential source who had infiltrated the group said its apparent leader, identified as Mohamad Hammoud, may have been a threat to the United States.
``(The confidential source) advised Mohamad Hammoud is dangerous because he would likely assist in carrying out any action against United States interests if he were requested to do so by Hizbollah,'' federal agents said in a court filing.
Described as a ``designated foreign terrorist organization'' by U.S. authorities, the Syrian and Iranian-backed Hizbollah led the battle against the 22-year Israeli occupation of south Lebanon. The Israeli army withdrew in May.
The investigation, dubbed Operation Smoke Screen, began 3-1/2 years ago as a probe into cigarette smuggling after an off-duty North Carolina deputy sheriff spotted a group of people loading thousands of dollars worth of cigarettes into cars with out-of-state license plates outside a discount cigarette outlet.
The group allegedly took cigarettes from North Carolina, where taxes are assessed at 5 cents a pack, to Michigan where the tax is 75 cents a pack and made a profit by selling at the higher price.
According to federal agents, a vanload of cigarettes smuggled out of the Carolinas to states where higher taxes are assessed could yield $8,000-$10,000 per trip.
But the case evolved into an international investigation based in large part on information from several confidential sources who infiltrated the group, according to a sworn affidavit filed in federal court.
One of those sources told federal agents the group met weekly at the home of Hammoud or other members to discuss Hizbollah activities and listen to speeches of its leaders.
The confidential source told federal agents he was present when Hammoud ``put aside for Hizbollah several thousand dollars in cash representing the proceeds from trafficking in contraband cigarettes. The funds to be sent to Hizbollah also consisted of donations solicited and collected by Mohamad Hammoud from individuals who support Hizbollah.''
Canadian agents advised counterparts in the United States that one member of the group was under orders from a Hizbollah member in Lebanon to obtain night vision devices, surveying equipment, global positioning systems, computers and video and digital equipment to send to Lebanon.
One of the targets, identified as Ahmad Ali Hariri, along with his four brothers, maintained ``a virtual arsenal of weapons'' including shotguns and rifles, including an AK-47.
``(One confidential source) advised that the group of individuals is extremely anti-United States. Their meetings invariably include readings from the works of (the late Iranian leader) Ayatollah Khomeini,'' the affidavit said.
Eleven defendants were ordered held without bond while six could be released from jail if they post bond assessed during brief court appearances before magistrates in Charlotte on Friday.
One of the suspects, identified as Ali Fayez Darwich, has a brother in Lebanon, identified in the court filing only as Mohamad, who is a well-known Hizbollah leader.
The affidavit, unsealed by the federal court on Friday, also alleged a government official in the U.S. embassy in Cyprus had been bribed to issue visas to the U.S. for some members of the group.
Several members of the group, including Hammoud, also arranged sham marriages in the United States in an attempt to gain resident status. Hammoud, a native and citizen of Lebanon, entered the United States in June 1992 from Venezuela with a counterfeit Lebanese passport.
An immigration judge rejected Hammoud's claim for asylum and ordered him deported by September 1996, but because of a bureaucratic mistake he was able to remain in this country.