Monday, July 11, 2005

Vienna resident Louay Habbal pleads guilty to running unlicensed money transfer business

Northern Virginiastan has been tracking the case of Louay Habbal.

From the Washington Times (hat tip to friends in Springfield):

Virginian pleads guilty to illegal fund service
By Jerry Seper
Published July 9, 2005

A Virginia man arrested in March by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents at Washington Dulles International Airport upon his arrival from Damascus, Syria, has pleaded guilty in federal court to operating an unlicensed money service business from his Vienna home.

Louay Habbal, 45, a naturalized U.S. citizen from Syria, entered the plea Thursday in U.S. District Court in Alexandria. U.S. District Judge James C. Cacheris scheduled sentencing for Oct. 7.

"We know that terrorists and other criminals use illegal money transfers to support themselves and to fund their operations," said U.S. Attorney Paul J. McNulty, whose office prosecuted the case. "While there is no evidence of a link to terrorism in this case, we aggressively prosecute unlicensed money transmitters to deprive terrorists and other criminals of a potential vehicle to facilitate their crimes."

Habbal was arrested March 15 by ICE agents and members of the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA) task force after his indictment by a federal grand jury on charges of operating Mena Exchange, an unlicensed money transmittal business, from his residence in Vienna.

As part of the guilty plea, Habbal agreed to forfeit $114,237 and admitted receiving more than $6 million from customers in the United States between December 2003 and March 2005. The money was deposited in bank accounts in Virginia and elsewhere.

Authorities said that after taking a portion of the deposits as a fee, Habbal transferred the remaining funds to other entities for further transfer to persons overseas who had been designated by his U.S. customers.

Habbal also admitted that he advertised his business through a Web site called, and that although he was aware he needed a Virginia state license to operate such a business, he operated without obtaining the license.

Authorities said the Web site described Mena Exchange as a service provided by Mena First Capital LLC, which transmitted funds between the United States, the Middle East and North Africa.

"This case demonstrates the threat posed by unlicensed money transmittal businesses," said ICE Agent Allan Doody, who heads the agency's Washington field office. "Any criminal or terrorist can come to these underground businesses and have their millions wired anywhere in the world in a matter of seconds with no questions asked."

The case was investigated by the Annandale HIDTA Money Laundering Initiative, an ICE-led group composed of task force officers from the FBI, U.S. Secret Service, the Internal Revenue Service, Virginia State Police, the Virginia Attorney General's Office, the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, Metropolitan D.C. Police, Prince William County Police, Arlington Police and Alexandria Police.

It was prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorney Steve Mellin and Special Assistant U.S. Attorney Jessica Lombardo.

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