Sixteen Palestinians, with ties to convicted terrorists, were indicted less than two weeks ago in an alleged cigarette-smuggling scheme. Notably, one of the sixteen men has reported links to the 1994 murder of sixteen-year-old yeshiva student Ari Halberstam in a terror attack on the Brooklyn Bridge.
Muaffaq Askar, who was arrested in New York, has long been suspected of supplying Rashid Baz with weapons he used to attack a van carrying 15 Lubavitch students on the Brooklyn Bridge. Baz reportedly called Askar his “Palestinian uncle.”
The cigarette-smuggling scheme is believed to have cost New York state millions of dollars in sales tax revenue, according to authorities, with investigators saying that they uncovered $55 million in illegal cigarette sales.
“This case started because we were being vigilant about terrorism,” police commissioner Ray Kelly said in a statement. “We discovered that individuals who were on our radar for links to known terrorists were engaged in a massive raid on the New York Treasury in the form of cigarette tax avoidance.”
“The association of some of the suspects in this case to Ari Halberstam’s killer, the ‘blind sheik’ [Omar Abdel-Rahman] and a top Hamas official concerned us gravely,” Kelly added.
According to the police commissioner, Askar is said to have smuggled the illegal cigarettes and sold them to Arab-owned stores. Another one of the alleged smugglers, Mohannad Seif, 39, was already being monitored by the NYPD because he lived in the same apartment building in Brooklyn as the personal secretary to top Hamas leader Mousa Abu Marzouk, Kelly revealed.
Most ominously, alleged smuggler Yousef Odeh, 52, received a $10,000 investment for his baby-formula business from Abdel-Rahman, the blind sheik who was convicted for his key role behind the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center.
Reports claim that the proceeds from the smuggling scheme are believed to have gone to support the terrorist organizations of Hamas and Hezbollah.
“The proceeds from this alleged scheme can be used to fund a host of other criminal acts that threaten national security and public safety of Americans at home and abroad,” said James T. Hayes Jr., special agent in charge of Homeland Security Investigations, according to CNN.
“We know that some members of this group have ties to very dangerous people,” state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman stated, adding that only a miniscule amount of the $10 million the smuggling ring accrued in profits has been recovered by authorities. “We are following the money, and we’ll work to track it down wherever it went,” the AG noted.
A yearlong investigation by the police department and the Attorney General’s Office brought to light the 16-man ring, which purchased more than 1 million cartons of cigarettes from a Virginia wholesaler — enabling them to bypass the astronomical New York cigarette tax — and then transported them by vehicle to New York City and two upstate counties.
The investigators confiscated $1.4 million in cash and three handguns during their search of the ringleader’s Maryland home.
Defense attorneys for the 11 men who were arraigned in Brooklyn Supreme Court insisted that their clients were innocent of any terrorism connections. “Ray Kelly has always tried to connect any Arab man with terrorism or terror organizations,” Odeh’s attorney, Lamis Deek, said. “This is at best a simple untaxed-cigarette case.”
One of the alleged smugglers is currently in Jordan and four of them are awaiting their arraignments in Delaware, New Jersey and Maryland.