Once convicted of setting up phony companies to deposit stolen checks at local banks, Roda Taher fled South Florida for the Middle East to avoid prison time.
Eight years later, Taher is a fugitive on new and more serious charges. He’s wanted for directing more than a dozen “money mules” in a $94 million internet scheme in South Florida that law enforcement sources say he used to finance Hezbollah, the radical Muslim group based in Lebanon. It is a U.S.-designated terrorist organization and has been linked to bombings and killings of Israelis and other Western targets in the Middle East.
The 38-year-old Taher paid the mules a fee to set up numerous shell companies with bank accounts in South Florida to receive proceeds from lottery, inheritance and other email-hacking scams and then to transfer the millions all over the map — including to companies in Germany, China and the United Arab Emirates.
Taher collaborated with his wife, Haanan Jaafar, 26, in carrying out the money laundering and bank fraud offenses from overseas, according to federal prosecutors. She is also a fugitive, believed to be in Beirut with Taher, who had initially pleaded guilty in the first bank fraud case in February 2010. At that time, he was also arrested for drunken driving in Fort Lauderdale, records show.
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While a pair of indictments outlining the scheme involving 15 defendants do not mention Hezbollah or any support for the terrorist organization, sources told the Miami Herald that Taher’s network was set up to back the notorious group in the Middle East. Hezbollah, now considered an influential political force in Lebanon, has financial links stretching from South Florida to South America to Africa and other regions of the world.
The U.S. attorney’s office declined to comment about the possible ties between Taher and Hezbollah. But a telltale sign that this isn’t just another money-laundering case recently surfaced in court papers, when prosecutors asked a federal judge to appoint a security officer to handle classified information before trial in Miami.
A counter-terrorism expert who focuses on Hezbollah’s illicit activities around the globe said that while he has no knowledge of Taher’s links to Hezbollah, his indictment points to a highly sophisticated money-laundering network that transferred millions from bank accounts in South Florida to suspicious companies around the globe.
“Little scammers in Miami don’t wire $94 million to foreign bank accounts in places like China and Hong Kong,” said Emanuele Ottolenghi, a senior fellow at the Washington-based nonprofit Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. “It’s very plausible to see this as a larger scheme for funding Hezbollah.”
Taher’s indictment lists numerous fake businesses in South Florida with corporate accounts at various banks that were opened by dozens of money mules recruited by Taher and a handful of others. He and his assistants paid thousands of dollars to the mules to use their personal information to incorporate the businesses and establish bank accounts while lying about their illicit activities, according to the indictment.
“Taher and his recruiters gave different money mules a variety of explanations of the nature of their business, including the sale, export or import of electronics, machinery, textiles, art and other goods,” the indictment says. “However, the shell companies would not conduct any legitimate business.”
The investigation by the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force, which includes local, state and federal agents, revealed that the businesses existed merely to move millions collected from the internet scams. Among them: Taher and his co-conspirators would tell victims in South Florida and elsewhere that they had won a lottery jackpot or stood to inherit a large amount of money. But in order to collect it, they would need to pay taxes or fees. Taher and his assistants would tell the victims to send the money to certain shell bank accounts, so it could be eventually transferred to businesses in the United States, Asia, Europe or Africa.
A South Florida defense attorney who represents one of the money mules said that his client was completely unaware of Taher’s larger scheme to funnel money to a terrorist group.
“My client never knew about Taher’s ties to Hezbollah and his support of terrorism in any form and was shocked to hear about his involvement with Hezbollah,” Joel DeFabio said. “Without doubt my client would never have gotten involved if this was known.”
DeFabio said that he and other defense lawyers in the case wondered why the prosecutors recently asked U.S. District Judge Ursula Ungaro to appoint a security officer to handle classified material in the money laundering and bank fraud case. “We had no idea what that was about,” DeFabio said.
South Florida’s connection to Hezbollah and its worldwide financial network has been on the radar of counter-terrorism investigators since the 9/11 terrorist attacks. A few criminal cases have been made in the federal court in Miami.
In September, a Paraguayan man pleaded guilty to conspiring to export loads of cocaine to the United States and faces sentencing on Wednesday. But what the conspiracy case against Ali Issa Chamas did not mention was that he is close to a network of relatives and associates with ties to Hezbollah.
Chamas, 36, is of Lebanese descent but has lived for the past decade in Paraguay, which along with Brazil and Argentina form what’s known as the Tri-Border area. U.S. authorities say it’s a hub for a variety of illicit enterprises such as drug trafficking and money laundering that have long operated as fundraising fronts for Hezbollah.
Ottolenghi, whose foundation was formed in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, focuses on foreign policy and national security. A former Oxford University lecturer, Ottolenghi said Hezbollah, with assistance from Iran, has become ingrained in Paraguayan society and the other Tri-Border nations, helping criminal cartels and local mafias ship drugs and other contraband to markets in the United States, Europe and other parts of the world.
“They then launder revenues through sales of consumer goods,” Ottolenghi told a U.S. Senate subcommittee in May. “Finally, those profits fund terrorist activities.”
Another case rooted in the Tri-Border area: In 2010, three Miami-Dade businessmen were arrested on terrorism-related smuggling charges that they secretly exported video-game players to a shopping center in Paraguay that U.S. authorities said served as a front for financing Hezbollah.
While the indictment did not identify the terrorist organization, it explicitly named a U.S. black-listed shopping and office complex in Paraguay to which the businessmen allegedly sold thousands of Sony PlayStation 2 consoles and Sony digital cameras during 2007 and 2008.
The businessmen eventually struck plea deals on charges of violating U.S. Customs laws.