Charlotte, N.C. Federal authorities arrested 18 people Friday and charged them with smuggling cigarettes out of North Carolina to raise money for the terrorist group Hezbollah in Lebanon.
Agents made the arrests at houses and businesses in and around Charlotte. An FBI affidavit said investigators were searching for evidence that the defendants were providing resources to Hezbollah, but it did not specify how much money the alleged scheme has funnelled to the group.
The 18 people arrested Friday were indicted on federal charges including immigration violations, weapons offenses, money laundering and cigarette trafficking, U.S. Atty. Mark Calloway said.
Calloway said at a hearing that they were not alleged to have participated in terrorist activities. But three of the suspects are believed to have provided Hezbollah with material support or resources, including night vision devices, global positioning systems, digital photo equipment and computers.
And one of the men arrested, Mohamad Youssef Hammoud, identified as the group's ringleader by a state-federal task force that investigated the group, was described in an affidavit as well-connected to Hezbollah members in Lebanon. The affidavit said he is believed to have received Hezbollah-sponsored military training.
One source that spoke to the task force "believes that if Hezbollah issued an authorization to execute a terrorist act in the United States, Mohamad Hammoud would not hesitate in carrying it out," the affidavit read.
It was unclear whether Hammoud or any of his co-defendants had an attorney who could comment on the case.
The ring allegedly bought cigarettes in North Carolina, which has relatively low cigarette taxes of 5 cents a pack, and unloaded them in Michigan, where prices are higher because of 75-cent-a-pack taxes.
The profits were allegedly used to smuggle money to Hezbollah in Lebanon since 1996.
An FBI informant said one of those arrested, Ali Hussein Darwiche, had transported more than $1 million to Lebanon. Another $360,000 in cashiers checks was traced to Lebanon, according to an affidavit filed in the case.
Hezbollah draws its support from the 1.2 million-member Shiite Muslim community, Lebanon's largest sect, and enjoys the financial backing of Iran and the crucial political endorsement of Syria.
In recent weeks, Hezbollah guerrillas have been treated like heroes in much of the Arab world. Their years of resistance to Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon and infliction of casualties on Israeli forces there weakened Israel's resolve. Israel ended its 18-year occupation of the area in May.
Hezbollah remains shunned by Western governments. In the 1980s, it was believed to be the umbrella group for militants who kidnapped Westerners and destroyed two U.S. Embassy compounds, the U.S. Marine headquarters at Beirut and a French military base. A total of about 290 Americans and about 60 French soldiers were killed.
Scholars who follow terrorism and Middle East politics said terrorist groups such as Hezbollah use different legal and illegal means to raise money.
Albert Eldridge, a political science professor at Duke University who teaches a course on international terrorism, said this is the first time he had heard of a terrorist group trafficking in cigarettes to raise money.
"You want to be able to tap into large amounts of cash," he said. "And so, what comes to mind immediately today where there are large amounts of cash: drugs or, increasingly, cigarettes."
The investigation began in 1996 when Iredell County authorities noticed people with out-of-state license plates making large cash purchases from JR Tobacco, a discount tobacco outlet.