A leader of a South Carolina mosque was among 11 men arrested in a cigarette trafficking and money laundering scheme spanning several states. A 26-count indictment issued in November and unsealed last week accused Nasser Alquza, president of the Central Mosque of Charleston, and others of conspiracy, receiving stolen property, and related charges.
The arrests followed a government sting operation in which Alquza and other defendants allegedly purchased over 6,800 cases of “stolen” Marlboro cigarettes from undercover agents in exchange for over $7.5 million, the indictment said. The proceeds from the “stolen” cigarettes, whose wholesale value was in excess of $15 million, was then laundered through legitimate businesses owned or controlled by the defendants.
According to a report in the Charleston Post and Courier, federal agents searched Alquza’s home in Mount Pleasant and seized computers, cameras, check books, receipts, business records, passports and identification documents.
Alquza resigned from the mosque in December. Imad Musallam, a senior official at the mosque, told the Post and Courier that Alquza resigned for personal reasons and his resignation had nothing to do with the federal investigation.
“That’s his personal problem,” Musallam was quoted saying in the daily. “We cannot judge someone, and we cannot say anything until he’s found guilty.”
The indictment highlighted the illegal sale of cigarettes as a serious problem facing law enforcement. It detailed how criminal enterprises purchased large volumes of cigarettes in states with low cigarette taxes such as North and South Carolina and illegally transported them to states with higher cigarette taxes where they were sold without paying the sales tax for higher profits.
The case is reminiscent of a Hizballah fundraising operation from the 1990s based out of Charlotte, N.C., in which 18 defendants led by Mohamad Hammoud were responsible for the illegal smuggling of more than $8 million worth of cigarettes from North Carolina to Michigan. Profits from the cigarette sales were sent to Hizballah in Lebanon. In 2002, Hammoud was sentenced to 150 years in prison. A judge subsequently reduced Hammoud’s sentence to 30 years.
In a more recent case from December, a Lebanese drug dealer was implicated in a complex multi-million dollar international drug trafficking and automobile smuggling enterprise that involved at least 30 car dealerships in the United States. Court documents accused Ayman Joumaa of smuggling more than 100 tons of Colombian cocaine in collaboration with the violent Los Zetas Mexican drug cartel. Hizballah is alleged to be a key recipient of profits from Joumaa’s criminal network.
More on the scheme from the Post and Courier:
Alquza and the officers discussed how he previously laundered money from stolen baby formula in Kentucky. He told the officers that he kept overseas accounts in London, Paris and Jordan to handle cash amounts that exceeded $100,000.
Alquza told them that he wired cash back to the U.S., labeling it as revenue from property sales, and only laundered for two or three years so as not to draw attention.
He instructed undercover officers to open a limited liability corporation using just a first name so that he could write a contract between them.
He also told them that he maintains so many businesses so that he doesn’t deposit all the cash in one day but instead deposits $5,000 or $6,000 daily.
Qazah offered to launder money for undercover officers through his car lot and two gas stations. He told the officers that he bought cars, returned them within a day and deposited the money into his bank account.
Court records describe months of cash-for-check transactions between the officers and the uncle and nephew, including one occasion in which the officers delivered $125,000 in a toolbox to Alquza’s pizza parlor in Columbia.
Authorities wrote in their filings that “Alquza made the statement to the undercover agent that he had been doing this for a while, that he had built 30 businesses, and this is how he covered things up.”