PROVIDENCE, R.I. –- A Pawtucket accountant has pleaded guilty of conspiring to bring $1.2 million worth of contraband cigarettes to Rhode Island from Virginia, where the cigarette tax is low.
Bassam Kiriaki, 46, also admitted conspiring to defraud the food stamp program, it was announced Wednesday by U.S. Attorney Peter F. Neronha. Kiriaki issued the pleas Monday in U.S. District Court.
In addition, at the time of his guilty plea, Kiriaki admitted to the court that he participated in a conspiracy and that he filed fraudulent documents with the United States Department of Agriculture Food and Nutrition Service so that a convenience store owned by a co-conspirator could maintain participation in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) as an approved vendor, even though the store had been previously disqualified. The documents intentionally misrepresented the true owners of the business.
Bassam is to be sentenced on June 6. Each charge is punishable by up to five years in federal prison and a fine of up to $250,000.
The FBI press release of the indictment notes he wasn’t alone:
The indictment charges Wissam Khalil, 40, of Central Falls, a Providence convenience store owner; his brothers Bassam Khalil, 48, and Najd Khalil, 25, of Pawtucket; Abdullah Alnahas, 36, of Cranston, a Providence convenience store owner; Bassam Kiriaki, 45, a Pawtucket accountant; and Richard Larrain, 23, of Providence, an enlisted soldier in the U.S. Army Reserves, with allegedly participating in a conspiracy to possess, transport, and distribute contraband cigarettes in Rhode Island.
A seventh defendant, Valeria Mendez (Khalil), 30, of Central Falls, wife of Wissam Khalil, is charged with conspiring to make and making false statements to a government official.
How far removed are these types of arrests in the U.S. from Tunisia’s Informal Street Vendor Economy Said To Be Source Of Terrorist Funding
The cigarette peddler stands on a downtown street corner, walled in by a small fortress of stacked cigarette cartons. The cigarettes, he says, come from Algeria. “They’re smuggled,” he adds, matter-of-factly.
“There is a confirmed relationship between smuggling and terrorism,” observed Mokhtar Ben Nasser, a retired colonel and former spokesperson for the Tunisian military.
Militants and smugglers work together, Ben Nasser said. Militants offer the smugglers protection, sometimes in the form of extortion, in addition to demand for their supplies. Smugglers provide food, equipment, untraceable cash and knowledge of unguarded routes in the country’s interior and across borders.
“Militants and smugglers have shared interests,” Ben Nasser said.
While jihadist violence may be a relatively recent phenomenon in Tunisia, funding radical Islamist campaigns through smuggling is not. Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb has been known to smuggle vehicles, arms and people for money. Mokhtar Belmokhtar, a former AQIM leader who went on to found his own spinoff group and attack the In Amenas oil facility in Algeria last year, was famous enough for his cigarette smuggling to earn the nickname Mr. Marlboro.
Such cigarettes and other wares make their way onto the streets of Tunis in larger numbers now partially because the lower prices appeal to down-and-out consumers.
Cigarette smuggling is absolutely huge in the U.S. as well. Consider that 56.9 percent of all cigarettes sold in New York were illegally imported from out of state sources.
And who’s doing the smuggling?
- NYC: 15 ‘Palestinians’ arrested in cigarette-smuggling ring linked to Islamic militants
- NYC: Muslim cigarette smuggling ringleader charged in plot to kill witnesses
- South Carolina Mosque Leader Charged in Cigarette Smuggling Ring
To put all the pieces together, read this previous post: How Cigarette Smuggling Finances Jihad and Insurgency Worldwide.