CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Two brothers were part of a ring that smuggled $7.5 million in cigarettes from North Carolina to Michigan and sent the profits to Lebanese militants, a prosecutor said Thursday.
In opening statements in the trial of Mohamad and Chawki Hammoud, Assistant U.S. Attorney Ken Bell said the two and their coconspirators used fraudulent marriages to enter the United States, then began smuggling to help Hezbollah.
"This is a Charlotte Hezbollah cell," Bell said. "They didn't have business cards, but they were operating here in Charlotte. They were united in part by their affiliation with, sympathy for and involvement in Hezbollah."
Jim McLoughlin, an attorney for the older brother, said his client ran a legitimate business selling cigarettes and was only a bystander as others ran a smuggling operation. Other defense attorneys denied involvement with terrorists.
Hezbollah, which means "Party of God" in Arabic, led a guerrilla war against Israel's 18-year occupation of a border zone in southern Lebanon. The group is blamed for a number of attacks, including the 1983 bombing of the U.S. Embassy and a Marine barracks in Beirut that killed 241 American servicemen.
Authorities have not charged the Hammouds or seven other defendants with committing or planning violent or terrorist acts. The others have pleaded guilty to various charges.
During the second half of the 1990s, the smuggling ring bought 500,000 to 750,000 cartons of cigarettes to resell, established fake identities and bank accounts, and set up false lines of credit to launder money, Bell said.
"Where is all that money? We don't know," Bell said. "The big question: Who are these guys?"
The Hammouds are charged with participating in a conspiracy to smuggle cheap North Carolina cigarettes to Michigan and resell them without paying that state's higher cigarette taxes.
Mohamad Hammoud, 28, also is charged with providing material support to a terrorist organization, money laundering, cigarette smuggling, immigration fraud and racketeering. He could face up to life in jail if convicted and sentenced to maximum terms.
Chawki Hammoud, 37, faces lesser charges. He formally entered a guilty plea to marriage fraud before Thursday's court session began.
Mohamad Hammoud's lawyer, Deke Falls, told jurors his client admits to immigration fraud and cigarette smuggling, but not to racketeering or involvement with Hezbollah.
"He is not a terrorist," Falls said.
Falls also said prosecutors have been misled by another defendant in the case, Said Mohamad Harb, who has pleaded guilty and is expected to be the government's star witness against Mohamad Hammoud.
"We believe that man is a true menace," Falls said.