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Cheap cigarette outlets in U.S. may be funding terrorists

By Catholic Online (NEWS CONSORTIUM)
May 17th, 2013
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

New York law enforcement is hot on the trial to find to find millions of dollars in profits that a smuggling ring sold cheap cigarettes to bodegas across New York may have funneled to support terrorism in the Middle East. Three of the suspects charged in the sophisticated conspiracy have been linked to known terrorists, including Hamas.

LOS ANGELES, CA (Catholic Online) - In total 16 people, all Palestinian nationals, were charged in the operation. Of those arrested, some suspects have links to Omar Abdel-Rahman, the blind sheik, and Rashid Baz, who opened fire on a van of Yeshiva students on the Brooklyn Bridge, killing Ari Halberstam.

"We're concerned because similar schemes have been used in the past to help fund terrorist organizations like Hamas and Hezbollah," Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly says.

Authorities have only just begun to crack open the case - and much work is ahead. "We've only recovered a small fraction of the money," state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman said. "We're very seriously concerned about where that money went."

Investigators say the ring bought $55 million worth of cigarettes in Virginia over the last year-and-a-half, trucked it to New York and sold packs tax-free to small stores across Brooklyn, the Bronx, Queens and Staten Island.

Selling the drastically reduced cigarettes, they cheated the state out of $80 million in taxes and dramatically increased their take, authorities said. Cartons were taken by the truckload from Virginia to New York and New Jersey.

Dubbed Operation Tobacco Road, investigators have found evidence that the group pocketed $22 million in profits, of which authorities have found only $7.8 million in cash and bank accounts.

"While it hasn't been established yet where the illicit proceeds ended up, we're concerned because similar schemes have been used in the past to help fund terrorist organizations like Hamas and Hezbollah," Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly said.

All 16 of those charged in the case are Palestinian. All but two were living illegally in the U.S. One managed to flee to Jordan before the arrests late Wednesday.

Kelly said the group included several "individuals on our radar with links to known terrorists," starting with Mohannad Seif, 39, a cigarette reseller from Brooklyn.

The NYPD also linked 46-year-old Muaffaq Askar, a reseller in Brooklyn, to the Arab gunman who shot up a van full of yeshiva students on the Brooklyn Bridge in 1994. The gunman, Rashid Baz, killed 16-year-old passenger Ari Halberstam.

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