Cigarette smugglers had connections to Hamas: NYPD

"Operation Tobacco Road," the investigation that led to the bust of this cigarette smuggling ring, resulted in the arrest and indictment of 16 men. Credit: Attorney General's Office.
“Operation Tobacco Road,” the investigation that led to the bust of this cigarette smuggling ring, resulted in the arrest and indictment of 16 men. Credit: Attorney General’s Office.

The NYPD, the office of Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and other law enforcement agencies took down several suspects in a “massive scheme” involving a cigarette smuggling ring. The arrested men were reportedly already on the NYPD’s radar for suspected connections to terrorists.

The principal suspects were selling cigarettes untaxed, NYPD Police Commissioner Kelly said, “in a massive raid on the New York Treasuring in the form of cigarette tax avoidance.”

The NYPD had apparently been monitoring the suspects out of concern about the connection some of these men had to a top Hamas official as well as Omar Abdel Rahman, the “Blind Sheik” convicted in a 1995 trial involving a plot to bomb New York City landmarks.

One suspect, Yousef Odeh, reportedly told police he sold 15,000 cartons of untaxed cigarettes, with a total value of $780,000. These 15,000 cartons were sold to just three customers.

Odeh also ran a baby formula business. Over a decade ago, Rahman was one of his investors. He also had personal and financial ties to Ahmed Abdel Sattar, who apparently was a spokesman for the Rahman during his trial and transmitted messages to Rahman’s supporters in Egypt and Afghanistan. 

Another suspect arrested yesterday was Muaffaq Askar, reportedly a “confidante” of Rashid Baz. Baz was convicted in the 1994 killing of 16-year-old Ari Halberstam, when he fired on a van full of of Hasidic students on the Brooklyn Bridge. He was sentenced to 141 years. Baz, who was Lebanese, reportedly referred to Askar as his “Palestinian uncle.”

According to the Attorney General’s investigation, the ringleader of the organization was Basel Ramadan of Ocean City, Maryland, who, with his brother Samir, bought cigarettes in Virginia and stored them in Delaware. Several times a week, Adel Abuzarieh would drive from Brooklyn to Delaware with tens of thousands of dollars in cash to purchase cigarettes from the Ramadan brothers. Abuzarieh sometimes carried over $100,000 in one trip.

The Ramadans’ profits from cigarettes alone reportedly totaled some $55 million, in addition to $10 million from other illegal activities, the Attorney General’s office said.

The crime ring also included New York-based distributors and resellers in bodegas throughout the five boroughs. One of the resellers, Mohanned Seif, also sold cigarettes to grocery stores upstate near Albany and Schenectady.

It’s estimated that New York State lost far more than $80 million in tax revenue due to this cigarette smuggling network.

Kelly noted that “it hasn’t been established yet where the illicit proceeds in this case ended up,” but the NYPD is “concerned because similar schemes have been used in the past to help fund terrorist organizations like Hamas and Hezbollah.”

The federal agencies involved in the bust will continue investigating the money trail.

 

Follow Danielle Tcholakian on Twitter @danielleiat


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