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Officials: Cigarette smuggling ring busted

NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly attends a news conference

NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly attends a news conference in which New York State Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman announced the arrest of members of a criminal ring that imported more than a million cartons of untaxed cigarettes into New York State in Manhattan. (May 16, 2013). Credit: Charles Eckert

A $10,000 investment nearly 20 years ago by convicted terrorist Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman in a Brooklyn baby food business led to the takedown of a $55 million cigarette smuggling operation while raising suspicions of links to international terrorists, officials said Thursday.

Fifteen of 16 defendants were rounded up in a yearlong NYPD and state probe, which uncovered a giant smuggling network that supplied city stores with millions of untaxed cigarettes from Virginia, New York State Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman said Thursday. The NYPD and state investigators are looking into possible links between the ring and terrorist groups Hezbollah and Hamas.

The defendants, who face charges including money laundering and conspiracy, made so much money that when one of the alleged ringleaders, Basel "Abu Salah" Ramadan, 42, of Ocean City, Md., was arrested Wednesday, investigators found more than $1.4 million in cash in his house stuffed in black plastic garbage bags, Schneiderman said.

" 'This business is better than selling drugs,' " one of the suspects said about the easy profits from cigarette smuggling, Schneiderman said at a news conference.

The untaxed cigarettes lost the city and state more than $80 million in revenue, he noted.

Investigators said they have yet to prove that any of the money allegedly made in the smuggling wound up in the coffers of terrorist organizations. But both Schneiderman and NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly said they are concerned because similar schemes have passed money to Hamas and Hezbollah.

Separately, Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford), agreed that the potential links to terrorism had to be investigated. "There is definitely a connection between cigarette smuggling and money going back to terrorist organizations," said King, who has studied the issue.

Kelly said that the case began when NYPD intelligence analysts and detectives working in counterterrorism started connecting the dots between people on the radar for links to terrorism and the smuggling operation. One example Kelly noted was that of Yousef Odeh, 52, of Staten Island, who had Rahman invest in his baby food business in the 1990s. Rahman is the so-called "blind sheik" convicted in 1995 for plotting to blow up New York landmarks.

Odeh, a suspected cigarette distributor, and one of those arrested Wednesday, also had personal and financial ties to Ahmed Abdel Sattar, who served as Rahman's spokesman during his 1995 federal trial and was his conduit to followers in the Mideast, Kelly said.

Another suspect in the cigarette case, Muaffag Askar, 46, of Brooklyn, was a confidant of Rashid Baz, the Lebanese immigrant who fired on a van full of Hasidic students on the Brooklyn Bridge in 1994, killing 16-year-old Ari Halberstam, noted Kelly.

It was unclear as of late Thursday if any defendants had posted bail, officials said.

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