The Charlotte Hezbollah cell and the RICO prosecution: Revisiting the Mohammed Hammoud case

Mohammed Hammoud

The Charlotte Hezbollah cell and the RICO prosecution Revisiting the Mohammed Hammoud case From 150 years to 30 years for cigarette smuggling

                                     From the Excessive 150 years to the Excessive 30 years

 In January 2011 Mohammed Hammond was resentenced by a federal judge to a 30 year imprisonment. The original sentence handed down by a federal judge in 2003 was 150 years. Hammoud is held in Texas set to be released on 10/14/2026. Mohammed Hammoud and 24 other people were arrested under the RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations) statute in a cigarette smuggling case between North Carolina and Michigan. That was the first criminal “material support” case to go to trial. Mugniyah’s “best and the brightest”?

                                         Lightening Out of Lebanon

In Lightening Out of Lebanon: Hezbollah Terrorists on American Soil, Tom Diaz and Barbara Newman, write about Hezbollah’s operations in the US and discuss at length the Hammoud case. The third chapter “I knew what he was thinking…” is about the Charlotte, North Carolina case that they consider a success for law enforcement in the war on terror. The chapter begins: “Charlotte, North Carolina, was just the kind of place that Imad Fayez Mugniyah was looking for to send Hezbollah’s best and brightest- smart and fanatically dedicated people like young Mohammed Hammoud.” What did the “best and brightest- smart and fanatically dedicated” of the A team of terror do? How much money was raised? Pursued for what he could do The case seems big.

                                             The Best and the Brightest?

For the late Imad Mugniyah to be involved, that means it is a big case. The man was the operational head at the Hezbollah before his assassination in Syria. For Mugniyah to choose the “best and the brightest” that means a lot: “By 1992 Mugniyah and the leaders of Hezbollah had made a deliberate decision to plant support cells in the American hinterland for two reasons. Fund-raising to finance terror is an important one. Resident support cells can tap into the great Satan’s wealth by quietly soliciting contributions from sympathetic √©migr√©’s, and by diverting some of the loot from criminal enterprises to the terror group’s coffers in Lebanon. Giving money or providing material support to a group like Hezbollah that the United States has officially designated as a foreign terrorist organization is a serious crime. The 1996 federal law banning material support.. The other reason for establishing cells in America is more directly threatening. A relatively quiet support cell, sometimes called a “sleeper cell,” can remain benign for years. Yet its key hard-core members stand always ready to be activated to provide local logistics- reconnaissance, identification, documents, housing, transportation, or other direct support, and sometimes participating personnel- for violent terror attacks…A confidential informant who infiltrated the Charlotte Hezbollah cell and observed it firsthand for several years told the FBI that Mohammed Hammoud was prepared to carry out any such orders he might get from Lebanon.” He ‘burned through several wives each before hitting a winning combination to get through the immigration screen…Hammoud was also still in contact with Sheik [sic] Fadlallah and relied on him for advice about how to thread the needle of his conduct in the decadent West.” I think Fadlallah now is the best among them,” he said of Shiite clerics. “Especially for someone who is here in the West, he has a lot of knowledge about the West culture.”’ They add: “It was at Hammoud’s house that the weekly Thursday-night cell meetings were held. They featured a few prayers, followed by propaganda videos from Hezbollah’s Al-Manar satellite television network- ranting speeches of Sheik Fadlallah and secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah, films of Hezbollah operations, and marching militiamen chanting slogans- then discussions of various criminal enterprises and Hammoud’s pitch for donation of funds to Hezbollah.”

                                            The 8- million dollar Windfall?

Would the “best and the brightest” sent by the top operational man in Hezbollah trying to be the leader of a sleeper cell “burn through several wives” and be in contact with Sayed Hussein Fadlallah? Would he have meetings in his house where he would show Hezbollah tapes and raise funds for Hezbollah? Five years, three marriages to get legal status- everybody in the Charlotte Lebanese Shia community knows about your Thursday evening meeting? Unlikely. Diaz and Newman call the amount of money gained by the “Charlotte cell” a “criminal windfall.” Hezbollah is an organization that through the years has received billions of dollars in aid from Iran. Eight million dollars would not be a “windfall” by any stretch of the imagination. Hammoud’s association with Hezbollah is what doomed him.

                                           Guilt by Association?

The prosecution had a picture of a young Mohamed Hammoud embraced by Nasrallah and a picture of a young Mohammed Hammoud in Hezbollah military fatigue holding an AK 47. Diaz and Newman write that FBI officials testifying before Congress in 1989 estimated that about 300 agents of Hezbollah and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard are present in the U.S. Mohammed Hammoud it seems was thought to be one of them. An informant said that Hammoud would not hesitate to commit a terrorist act if Hezbollah asked him to. Hammoud had a hobby of shooting AK 47. These two factors made the government believe he is a threat to national security. From protected speech to indicia of association to damning evidence

                                                  Hezbollah and RICO

The RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations) statute which was written to be used against organized crime was used in the cigarette smuggling case. Diaz and Newman quote FBI agent Rick Schwein: “One of the tools we used is what is known as an ‘indicia warrant,’ he says. “It allowed us to seize indicia such as distinctive colors, patches, T-shirts, jewelry, etc, relating to the Outlaws. Under the RICO statute you must prove persons are ‘associated in fact’ to be considered part of the criminal enterprise. While it is not illegal to possess these items, possession of them may be evidence of membership or affiliation with the criminal enterprise. We used the same theory to seize evidence of an association with Hezbollah, when we sought to seize literature, videotapes, audiotapes, and the like.” “Members of, sympathetic to or affiliated with Hezbollah” ‘ “RICO allowed us to call them what they are- terrorists- and send a clear message to their leaders that this is not a friendly environment in which to operate,” says FBI’s Rick Schwein. ‘There were a number of ways to show that the players were all associated in fact- their cooperative criminal acts like smuggling cigarettes and credit card fraud, the businesses and business relationships they built from the smuggling proceeds, and their family ties. But one association that became the cornerstone of the RICO case was Hezbollah. “These were all either members of, sympathetic to, or affiliated with Hezbollah,” according to Schwein. “And that is no different from a motorcycle gang that wears distinctive colors and gets together to advance the club’s criminal businesses.” Using Hezbollah as one of the indicators of the cell members’ association in fact would have an important advantage- when search warrants were eventually executed to collect evidence on the RICO charges, anything related to Hezbollah would be a legitimate target of the search- just as gang “indicia” had been in the Outlaws Motorcycle Club case that Schwein had worked on. “It allowed us to go in and collect evidence of their relationship to a designated terrorist organization.” The evidence could then be used in turn to support the terrorism charges.’

 Was Mohammed Hammoud sympathetic to Hezbollah? Definitely. Did he raise funds for Hezbollah? Probably. Was he a national security threat, a sleeper waiting to be activated to harm national security? Definitely not beyond any reasonable doubt.


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