- The Washington Times - Monday, May 23, 2005

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents have arrested 140 people in a nationwide raid of unlicensed money transmittal businesses and underground “hawalas,” seizing more than $25.5 million in illicit proceeds bound for the Middle East and Southwest Asia, ICE officials said yesterday.

Department of Homeland Security Assistant Secretary Michael J. Garcia, who heads ICE, said the agents — acting under the authority of the USA Patriot Act — ?shut down? several businesses that had transferred millions of dollars to Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran. The probe netted 138 criminal indictments.

“ICE targets these illegal operations because we know that terrorist and other criminal organizations can use these underground businesses to move illicit funds anywhere in the world with no questions asked,” Mr. Garcia said, adding that the raids occurred in the past two weeks by agents armed with arrest and search warrants.

Mr. Garcia said the ICE arrests were based on a long-standing agency investigative strategy that targets the underlying financial systems exploited by terrorist and other criminal organizations in raising, moving and storing illicit money. For decades, he said, federal agents have seen criminal organizations use money transmittal businesses to move illicit proceeds overseas.

The USA Patriot Act of 2001 enhanced ICE’S ability to combat the international movement of illicit money through transmittal businesses, he said. Since the law’s enactment, he said, ICE agents have been aggressive in targeting unlicensed money transmittal businesses and underground hawalas nationwide.

Authorities described a hawala as an underground banking system based on trust in which money is made available internationally without leaving a record of the transaction. They said terrorists often make extensive use of hawalas.

One of those arrested has pleaded guilty, Mr. Garcia said.

Rahim Bariek, 46, a naturalized U.S. citizen from Afghanistan who lives in Herndon, admitted operating an unlicensed money transmittal business that from 2001 to 2003 wired millions of dollars to Iran, Pakistan and areas in Afghanistan under the control of the Taliban. Two months after the September 11 attacks on America, Bariek testified before a Senate committee on how important it was for ?hawaladars? like himself to abide by federal laws governing such businesses.

On March 15, ICE agents also arrested Louay Habbal, 45, a naturalized U.S. citizen from Syria, on charges of operating an unlicensed money transmittal business operating out of his Fairfax County home. Mr. Habbal was arrested on his arrival at Washington Dulles International Airport in Virginia on a flight from Damascus, Syria.

An indictment said Mr. Habbal operated Mena Exchange, which received money from customers nationwide and deposited the money into bank accounts in Virginia and elsewhere. After taking a portion as a fee, the indictment said, Mena Exchange transferred more than $23 million to Syria and other nations between November 2001 and July 2004.

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