Cigarette smuggling ring may have been funding terrorism

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NEW YORK CITY (PIX11) —  Does the sale of illegal cigarettes fund terrorism?

State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman along with Police Commissioner Ray Kelly are trying answer that very question.

“We know that criminal rings like this have been used like this in the past to support terrorist groups and others in other parts of the world,” said Schneiderman at a news conference Thursday afternoon.

The criminal ring operated in four states and dealt with illegal cigarette sales focused primarily on four of the city’s five boroughs.

RELATED: Cigarette smuggling in New York has history of terrorism ties

“They flooded New York City from their distribution center with approximately 20,000 cartons of cigarettes a week all untaxed,” said Schneiderman.

The operation laundered more than $55 million, while a profit of $22 million was generated.  About $7.8 million of that profit has been recovered.  It is the roughly $14 million that is unaccounted for that generates worry: “We are very concerned about where the money went and we are still investigating that,” said Schneiderman.

One of those detained, Youssef Odeh, is said to be a vocal supporter of the blind Sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman.  PIX11 News cameras captured him nearly 20 years ago surrendering to authorities at his home in Brooklyn. Ultimately he was convicted in a plot to bomb New York City landmarks.

Authorities admit there is no proof that this conspiracy funded terrorism. Still, with close ties to questionable characters, Kelly says, “What we’re showing here is some smoke, no pun intended.”

In all, 16 operators took part in the enterprise according to law enforcement, with 15 already having been arrested.  The alleged conspirator still on the lam is Ribhi Awadeh who is believed to be in Jordan.

All but two of the suspects are here illegally, said Anthony Scandiffio, Homeland Security’s Deputy Special Agent-in-Charge.

Additionally, although many were classified with an illegal status, their travels included movements overseas.

“There was some other travel involved, yes,” said Schneiderman who indicated that none of them were on any terror watch lists.

Dubbed originally Operation Tobacco Road the new initiative has no name, but the objective is simple” follow the money trail.