- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Federal agents yesterday arrested a Virginia man on charges of operating an illegal Vienna-based money transfer firm that routed $23 million to Syria.

U.S. Attorney Paul J. McNulty said Louay Habbal, 45, a naturalized U.S. citizen from Syria, was arrested by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents at Washington Dulles International Airport after his arrival on a flight from Damascus, Syria.

Mr. Habbal is charged in a federal indictment with operating Mena Exchange, an unlicensed money transmittal business at his Vienna, Va., home. He is accused of routing millions in money transfers to Syria between November 2001 and last July.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Liam O’Grady in U.S. District Court in Alexandria yesterday ordered Mr. Habbal released from custody but ordered him to wear an electronic monitoring device.

According to the indictment, Mr. Habbal received funds from customers nationwide and deposited the funds in bank accounts in Virginia and elsewhere. After taking a fee, the indictment said he transferred the remaining funds to others for further transfer to persons overseas that his U.S. customers had designated.

Mr. McNulty said ICE agents seized more than $100,000 from the company’s bank accounts.

The indictment said Mr. Habbal advertised his business through a Web site called MenaExchange.com, which described the firm as a service provided by Mena First Capital, which transmitted funds between the United States, the Middle East and North Africa.

“Money is the lifeblood of terrorism and that is why we have made the prosecution of illegal money transmitters a priority of this office,” Mr. McNulty said.

ICE agent Allan Doody, who heads the Washington field office and oversaw the investigation, said the case demonstrated that “any criminal or terrorist can come to these underground businesses and have their millions wired anywhere in the world in a matter of seconds with no questions asked.”

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