Man gets 9 years, thought he was aiding al-Qaida

AROUND THE REGION

November 05, 2008|By Tricia Bishop | Tricia Bishop,tricia.bishop@baltsun.com

A Pakistani national with homes in Laurel and Washington, D.C., was sentenced to nine years in prison yesterday in a Baltimore federal court for financing people he believed were terrorist al-Qaida operatives and laundering $2.2 million in what he was told were illegal funds through an ancient currency-transfer system that avoids financial institutions.

Saifullah Anjum Ranjha, 45, was one of nearly four dozen people indicted last year after a four-year global sting - dubbed "Operation Cash-Out"- revealed multiple schemes that stretched from Maryland to Belgium, Spain and Canada. They included three money-laundering systems and a plan to bribe public officials to get green cards.

About 30 defendants have pleaded guilty in the cases so far, according to the Maryland U.S. attorney's office; a handful are proceeding to trial, and several others are fugitives.

According to a plea agreement, Ranjha, who was born in Pakistan and became a U.S. resident in 1997, was running a money-remittance business in Washington called Hamza Inc. when he was approached in 2003 by an undercover law enforcement witness who operated a phony import/export company.

The witness, under the direction of the FBI and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, said he was involved in illegal activities including drug trafficking, counterfeit cigarette smuggling, weapons trading and providing help and financing to al-Qaida.

During the next four years, the witness gave Ranjha $2.2 million in government funds he represented as illegal proceeds so Ranjha could launder the money through the hawala method of money transfer, a legitimate system that is increasingly being abused, law enforcement officials say.

Hawala was developed in India before Western banking took hold, according to a report by the international crime-fighting police organization Interpol. It works by transferring money across borders using a network of individuals and businesses, but not banks, which means customers don't have to have accounts or pay the higher fees that financial institutions charge. But the informal system has become a favorite for criminals looking to move money.

"As the U.S. financial industry strengthens its anti-money laundering programs, the use of the hawala system to move illicit funds becomes increasingly attractive to terrorist and other criminal organizations," Scot R. Rittenberg, acting special agent in charge of ICE, said in a statement.

Ranjha kept a 5 percent commission for moving the money, which he believed was being used to help al-Qaida, according to a statement of facts he signed. U.S. District Judge Marvin J. Garbis also signed a preliminary order yesterday forcing Ranjha to forfeit $2.2 million worth of his assets.

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