From Colombia to Lebanon to Toronto: How a DEA probe uncovered Hezbollah’s Canadian money laundering ops
Professional money laundering networks are growing in Canada, washing vast sums of cocaine and fentanyl cash, and helping to drive up prices in Vancouver and Toronto real estate. Canada’s federal government proposed a new federal anti-money laundering task force last week, specifically to tackle these concerns. But according to U.S. law enforcement sources, Canada has been aware of this for over a decade. This story explains untold international details behind recent RCMP investigations, missed early warnings, and lessons from Australian police, that could jump-start Canada’s late response to these growing risks, sources say.
In January 2008, a team of U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agents travelled to Ottawa to meet with RCMP leaders. They had stunning news. The DEA said an elite group of Middle East narco-terrorists in Colombia was using Canada as a key money laundering hub.
According to a former senior U.S. official with knowledge of the meeting, the DEA had “dirty calls” — meaning calls providing criminal evidence of cocaine shipments and cash movements in Canada — from narco-kingpins in Colombia to a network of operatives in Halifax, Vancouver, Calgary, and London, Ont.
The evidence included allegations from an elite Colombian police unit and extensive DEA phone tap records.
“We were giving RCMP dirty calls to phone numbers and identified targets in Canada,” the former official said. “In our minds that should have been enough to begin intercepts in Canada.”
But RCMP leaders didn’t want to pursue the cases, according to the former official. He said the RCMP cited differences between Canadian and U.S. court disclosure rules, and questions about the DEA’s use of confidential sources.
The U.S. source believes the RCMP missed an early opportunity to fight the incursion of sophisticated professional money laundering networks with ties to China, the Middle East, Colombia and Mexico that are now plaguing Vancouver, Toronto, and Montreal.
“We were dumbfounded,” the U.S. source said.
But by 2014, police officials in Canada and the U.S. finally agreed. The DEA agents tapping phones in the hills of Colombia had been right all along.
A resurgent offshoot of Pablo Escobar’s notorious Medellin Cartel, now called La Oficina, was doing business with terrorists.
La Oficina and numerous other cartels, according to DEA records, were using services from an elite business wing of Hezbollah — the Islamist party and terror organization based in Lebanon.
The so-called Business Affairs Component was tasked with funnelling its cut from billions in drug smuggling and professional money laundering proceeds directly into Hezbollah’s military objectives, according to DEA records and statements from Colombian prosecutors. And criminals and businesses in China and Hong Kong were a big part of these professional money-washing schemes.
But Hezbollah wasn’t just interested in drug trafficking in order to fund guns and bombs.
According to a DEA affidavit obtained by Global News, they also realized the military benefits of making connections with global drug traffickers. It’s a view that some Canadian military and financial intelligence experts confirmed in background interviews.
Hezbollah assessed that this new business was “damaging or weakening their enemies both in the form of drug addiction and in terms of the societal and economic costs associated with combating trafficking and addiction,” the affidavit filed September 2016 in Miami’s U.S. District Court says.
The DEA findings came from years of related investigations in North and South America, including an operation code-named Cassandra — because the DEA felt like the Greek goddess who was cursed to utter warnings that no one paid attention to.
What really surprised a U.S. official looking back at investigation evidence records was how prominent Canadian cities were to Hezbollah’s operations — in a group with narco-hubs like Panama, Beirut and Jordan — and how disinterested the RCMP was.
“It really bothered me. It was very clear how Canada was a very, very big part of Hezbollah’s transnational narco-terrorism,” the source said. “But RCMP made it very clear at that time, they didn’t want to bear down on money laundering and drug trafficking. So when I see what is happening now in Vancouver, I have to think back to what we were seeing.”
On the other hand, in Australia, police acted aggressively on the same evidence and mounted a national anti-money laundering task force called Eligo. In one year, the covert DEA-Australian police operations seized $580 million in drugs and assets, according to Austrac, the country’s anti-money laundering agency.
So while Canada plans for a new national anti-money laundering task force, as announced in the 2019 budget proposal, the federal government could learn from examples like Australia, the former official said.
“Eligo-style policing absolutely would have illuminated previously unknown organized crime figures and schemes, and how organized crime works inside Canada, and who the command and controls are internationally,” the U.S. source said. “You can absolutely say our investigations showed how Hezbollah is involved in terrorism financing in Canada, by moving drugs for cartels.”
“And now with the fentanyl, like we are seeing in Vancouver — I think Hezbollah would love to help ship that into Canada.”
Meanwhile, a March 2019 report from the Middle East Institute of Research cites findings the DEA warned the RCMP of in 2008 — including linking a Hezbollah narco-terror kingpin named Chekry Harb to Colombian cartels and operations in Canadian cities. The study says Hezbollah’s Latin American drug laundering operations will rise, as Iran is under the pressure of U.S. sanctions.
Khanani and Mansour
In London, U.K., in 2013, several police leaders from the so-called Five Eyes intelligence countries came to an agreement based on the DEA’s evidence, according to a former U.S. official.
If drug-trafficking and terrorist organizations were merging, the Five Eyes had to treat them as related national security threats. The meeting in London was followed by a larger meeting in October 2014 at the DEA’s secret headquarters in Chantilly, Virginia, attended by dozens of investigators and analysts from the U.S., U.K., Canada, Australia and New Zealand.
The DEA brought forward targets that they had identified with Australian police. They pointed to a handful of men with the power to launder tens of billions in drug cash annually. The DEA narrowed the focus on two men based in Dubai: Altaf Khanani, a Pakastani national described as the “Goldman Sachs” of underground banking; and Hassan Mohsen Mansour, a Canadian-Lebanese dual-citizen described as a “major figure” in Hezbollah’s Business Affairs wing.
The former U.S. official said the DEA wanted to target Mansour with Canada. But Mansour was already being investigated in France.
“Mansour would have been a very good target because we knew, Canada knew about him, and he was very active in violating Canadian laws,” the U.S. source alleged. “He is one of the top Hezbollah drug money launderers.”
According to the former U.S. official, Khanani and Mansour worked together in a “sub-contracting” relationship based on their relative strengths.
One of Hassan Mansour’s jobs for Hezbollah was to move drugs into Australia and send cash out, according to DEA records filed in 2016, in Southern Florida’s U.S. District Court. But he needed help.
“The funny thing is, Hezbollah has good ability to move cocaine into Australia, but they are not that strong getting the cash out,” a former U.S. official said. “So they contracted with Altaf Khanani to get cash out of there. He was able to produce U.S. dollars in Dubai, and wire it around the world.”
‘Using Australia’s money’
The Five Eyes plan to capture Khanani was audacious. The DEA had learned through phone intercepts in Medellin, a source said, that Hezbollah wanted to move about $1.8 million in cartel cocaine cash out of Australia.
So agents would use stacks of cash fronted by Australian taxpayers to pose as a drug cartel on the rise — employing actors from their roster of thousands of confidential informants and undercover agents — and attempt to contract Hezbollah’s money movement services.
The DEA called it reverse policing. Infiltrate the players near the top in the Middle East, and follow them down the criminal ladder in the Western cities where they collect drug cash. It was this model that made Task Force Eligo such a success, enabling Australian police to identify over a hundred organized crime figures they had no idea about.
“We were working Khanani and Mansour around the world, using Australia’s money,” the former official said. “We told Khanani we have a certain amount of drug money in Toronto. Do you have someone to pick it up? And they would give us a contact number.”
The strategy had its risks — because if criminals stole DEA “cash drop” funds, taxpayers would lose out and end up funding drug deals.
The RCMP was hesitant to participate in the DEA’s plan, according to the U.S. official, but eventually signed on.
“We pushed very hard for the RCMP to drop that cash in Toronto,” the source said. “We were trying to encourage the relationship.”
The RCMP did not directly answer detailed requests for information on the Five Eyes probe and criticisms about its co-operation with the DEA.
“For privacy and operational reasons, the RCMP will not provide any comment as doing so could have an impact on domestic or international investigations,” an RCMP response said. “The RCMP works closely with our international partners on transnational criminal investigations. We take very seriously those relationships, recognizing the critical role inter-agency cooperation plays in effectively combating crime that is increasingly global in nature.”
According to the U.S. official, if Canada can better help other Five Eyes countries disrupt money laundering, it will also stop drug sales in Canada.
For example, according to the official, the DEA learned that drug cash picked up by Hezbollah in Australian cities was tied to contracts for moving drugs in Canada.
“We gave Australian police a case tied to a money drop for Mansour,” the former U.S. official said. “They seized $1 million from him. And the result was, a drug transport from Vancouver to Toronto had to stop.”
The DEA began piecing together Hezbollah’s links to cartels in Colombia and Mexico over 10 years ago. But Mansour and his associate Mohammad Ammar didn’t become a primary focus until other major figures with Canadian links were exposed.
In the case that the DEA tried to get RCMP to participate in, an alleged Lebanese narco kingpin named Chekry Harb — who went by the code name “Taliban” — was convicted for his role in commanding drug-trafficking operations out of Colombia for La Oficina. Harb’s indictment documents were unsealed in 2008, in the U.S. District Court in Miami.
DEA and Colombian police evidence reviewed by Global News alleged Harb’s network employed a number of agents in Canadian cities, including Vancouver, Halifax and Calgary.
Also, in the widely-reported Canadian Lebanese Bank case of 2011, the Eastern District of Virginia indicted a Lebanese-Colombian citizen named Ayman Joumaa.
Joumaa’s network was sending cocaine and “numerous wire transfers” of drug cash into Canada, according to a former U.S. official.
After Joumaa was indicted, Ammar, an operative who had previously worked with Joumaa according to DEA court records, started showing up on intercepts in Medellin.
In 2014 Ammar was in danger because he owed La Oficina $100,000 Canadian in drug proceeds, DEA arrest affidavit records filed September 2016 in Southern Florida U.S. District Court allege. The records say Ammar used a number of agents in Toronto to collect cash. And in this case, the funds his contacts had wired from Toronto to a bank in Beirut were seized.
In 2014 DEA agents asked Ammar to pick up a total of $500,000 in drug cash in Australia, over a period of several months. Ammar usually liked to wire drug cash through China and Hong Kong, but he also used Dubai.
“We told Ammar we had drug cash to move in Australia, and just like we knew he would, he reached out to Mansour,” the former U.S. official said. And next Mansour reached out to Khanani.
“We knew tangentially that Khanani was tied to Hezbollah and Hassan Mansour,” the U.S. source said. “But the money drops in Australia actually proved this.”
Soon, through sham companies and currency exchanges in Dubai linked to Mansour and Khanani, the Hezbollah network wired funds to Miami — where the U.S. police had undercover bank accounts — DEA records filed in the U.S. District Court in Miami in September 2016 say.
Ammar and Mansour face state felony money laundering charges in the Florida state case, documents filed in September 2016 say. Mansour was under house arrest in Paris at the time, the documents say, for unrelated money laundering charges filed by Florida’s state attorney.
The charges have not been proven in either case. And the Florida state attorney has not answered questions from Global News on the current status of the cases. As U.S. court filings do not provide information about Mansour’s legal representation, Global News has not been able to reach him for comment on the DEA’s allegations. Efforts to contact Mansour’s relatives also were not successful.
In 2017, Khanani was sentenced by a U.S. District Court in Florida to almost six years in prison for conspiracy to commit money laundering.
“Extensive law enforcement co-ordination took place between multiple law enforcement agencies from Australia, Canada and the U.S., who all held a different piece of the puzzle,” a Financial Action Task Force report on the Five Eyes probe of Khanani’s professional money laundering network says.
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