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UK's largest money laundering case: £104 million stashed away in suitcases

In Britain's largest money-laundering case, two British women who worked in recruitment and telecommunications traveled business class to Dubai with suitcases full of cash, a court was told.

Abdulla Mohammed Ali Bin Beyat Alfalasi, 47, a money laundering mastermind from the UAE, was sentenced this week to nine years and seven months in prison for his involvement in the upscale money mule scheme.

He transported £104 million in illicit funds to Dubai in just one year, according to testimony presented at Isleworth Crown Court in London. Some of the money was used to launder money by investing in cryptocurrencies or African gold.

Alfalasi set up the money's collection from criminals and delivery to counting houses, which were typically rented apartments in the heart of London. Each suitcase weighed about 40 kg, contained about £500,000 in cash, and was vacuum-packed.

In order to prevent airport sniffer dogs from smelling the money, the gang sprayed coffee and air freshener inside the suitcases.

Cash couriers who flew business class to receive the additional baggage allowance were paid between £3,000 and £8,000 per trip, according to the National Crime Agency (NCA) of Great Britain.

The money-laundering organization made more than £12 million by diverting at least 10% of the illegally obtained funds.

The women included Nicola Esson, 55, also from Leeds, who is thought to have worked in telecommunications, and Tara Hanlon, 30, an executive for a recruitment firm.

In August and September 2020, Esson flew three times from Heathrow to Dubai, checking 19 suitcases with a combined weight of almost half a tonne. She returned a few days after each trip with the same luggage that had consistently lost a significant amount of weight.

According to NCA senior investigating officer Ian Truby, "This money-laundering network smuggled astronomical sums of money out of the UK, and is one of the largest we’ve ever investigated."

"Cash is the lifeblood of organised crime groups, which they reinvest into activities such as drug trafficking, which fuels violence and insecurity around the world. Disrupting the supply of such illicit cash is a priority for the NCA and our partners."

Hanlon was detained while attempting to board a flight to Dubai with several suitcases, which sparked the investigation. She stated that she had a ton of cases and was going on a "girls' holiday." Hanlon claimed that the reason for all the luggage was that she was unsure of what to wear.

She was sentenced to three years in prison in 2021 after admitting to crimes involving more than £5 million.

Alfalasi led a lavish lifestyle while sending dozens of couriers to the UAE loaded with cash from criminal organizations, including the infamous county lines drug gangs in the UK.

inally, he was taken into custody at a Belgravia apartment owned by a Gibraltar-registered company that is currently on the FATF's grey list.  Between November 2019 and March 2020, he traveled to Dubai several times.

His name was on letters that covered cash declarations made by couriers under the name Omnivest Gold Trading.

Muhammad Ilyas, a Slough resident who was detained at Heathrow in February 2020, was another courier.

Ten days earlier, he had checked four suitcases; one of them vanished, containing £431,360, but was eventually found by UK immigration officers.

Ilyas reported nearly £1.5 million to customs when he arrived in Dubai.