- The Washington Times - Friday, September 21, 2007

BALTIMORE — The indictment of 39 defendants in an international money laundering case sends a message to potential terrorists and drug dealers that their financial pipelines are being monitored, a federal prosecutor said yesterday.

Cooperating witnesses posed as drug smugglers, cigarette smugglers and, in one case, as a terrorist who wanted to send money to al Qaeda, and asked the defendants to help transfer money. The four-year undercover investigation targeted defendants in the U.S., Belgium, Canada and Spain, U.S. Attorney for the District of Maryland Rod J. Rosenstein said.

Whether the indictments affected the financing ability of terrorists is not clear, he said.

However, the arrests and indictments send a message to potential terrorists, drug dealers and those thinking about laundering money that “you don’t know who you’re dealing with,” Mr. Rosenstein said.

Those transfers were between Maryland, New York, Spain and Australia using an informal system known as “hawala,” according to court documents. One, in Barcelona, involved a transfer equivalent to more than $450,000, according to court documents.

“Money laundering is a global threat, fuel for criminals to conduct their criminal affairs, and is used to manipulate and erode our financial systems,” said Francis L. Turner, special agent-in-charge for the Internal Revenue Services’ criminal investigation division.

Raids were conducted yesterday in Maryland, the District, New Jersey and Spain, authorities said.

Thirty-two of the 39 indicted had been arrested as of yesterday afternoon, said Marc Raimondi, a spokesman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The U.S. District Court clerk’s office said it did not have records of lawyers being assigned to the defendants.

Mr. Rosenstein, the U.S. attorney for Maryland, described the hawala system used as a “crude form of Western Union” in which someone gives money to a money transmitter in one country and receives a code word or number. The person sending the money then gives that code to the recipient, who gets the money in another country after giving the appropriate code.

While such businesses are not illegal, they must comply with state and federal requirements, including licensing, reporting transfers of large amounts and refusing to transfer proceeds from illegal activities.

Mr. Rosenstein said cracking down on such activities represents an area of focus by the federal government in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks.

“Our goal is to send a pretty strong message that we’re out there,” Mr. Rosenstein said, adding that “these pipelines are being monitored by federal officials.”

The defendant who accepted money from a witness posing as a terrorist was identified as Saifulla Ranjha, who operated a money-transfer business in the District called Hamza Inc., prosecutors said. Mr. Ranjha conspired with five other defendants to launder more than $2.2 million received from the cooperating witness, they said.

Mr. Ranjha relied primarily on a Canadian, Mazhar Chughtai, to arrange bank deposits, and provided the unidentified witness with coded contact information for associates in Canada, England, Spain, Pakistan and Australia, the U.S. Attorney’s Office said.

Federal prosecutors are seeking $5.1 million in criminal forfeitures and ownership interest in two convenience stores in Snow Hill, Md., where raids were conducted yesterday. A home in the Eastern Shore town also was raided.

The indictments also include charges of conspiracy to bribe public officials to change the immigration status of some defendants and clear back taxes owed by others.

One of the defendants, Aqeel Khalid, a Pakistani man arrested in Seattle, was charged with conspiracy to bribe a public official, bribery, and aiding and abetting.

According to the indictment, Mr. Khalid and another man paid $40,000 last year to a cooperating government witness, who they thought would use the money to bribe immigration officials to obtain status as permanent lawful residents of the U.S. Mr. Khalid’s birth date is in dispute, but he is thought to be 22, said Robbie Burroughs, an FBI spokeswoman in Seattle.

Mr. Khalid was scheduled to appear in U.S. District Court in Seattle yesterday afternoon before being transferred to Maryland.

AP writer Kristen Wyatt in Snow Hill, Md., contributed to this story.

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