A cigarette smuggling ring that spanned several states and netted its perpetrators upwards of $55 million may have terror links, authorities say.
Sixteen Palestinian men, some with ties to convicted terrorists, were indicted Thursday in the alleged scheme that spans New York, Maryland, Delaware, Virginia and New Jersey states.
Although it is still unclear what the illicit proceeds were used for, similar schemes have funded organizations such as Hamas and Hezbollah, according to Ray Kelly, commissioner of the New York Police Department.
“This case started because we were being vigilant about terrorism,” Kelly said in a statement. “We discovered that individuals who were on our radar for links to known terrorists were engaged in a massive raid on the New York Treasury in the form of cigarette tax avoidance.”
One of the suspects is Muaffaq Askar, who has long been suspected of supplying convicted killer Rashid Baz with the weapons he used to shoot up a van full of Yeshiva students on the Brooklyn Bridge in 1994 – an incident that left one young Jewish man, Ari Halberstam, dead.
Authorities also said one of the ring’s alleged distributors, Yousef Odeh, 52, had strong financial ties to Omar Abdel-Rahman, the blind cleric serving a life sentence for a conspiracy to blow up New York City landmarks.
According to authorities, Basel Ramadan, 42, of Ocean City, Maryland, ran the operation with his brother, Samir Ramadan, 40. They allegedly obtained cigarettes from a wholesaler in Virginia and smuggled the untaxed cartons to a storage facility in Delaware.
Adel Abuzahrieh, 42, of Brooklyn, would allegedly drive from New York to the storage facility several times a week with tens of thousands of dollars in cash to be exchanged for untaxed cartons of cigarettes. The cigarettes were then distributed and sold.
The ring cost the state of New York more than $80 million in sales tax revenue, New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman said.