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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.

At hearings in May and June, all three defendants admitted guilt to the charges of money laundering. The sentences for Esson and Ilyas will be handed down later.

"The cash was believed to be profits from drug dealing, and the couriers would pack hundreds of thousands of pounds at a time into suitcases. They were each paid £3,000 – £8,000 per trip depending on how much cash they were smuggling, ," the NCA stated.

According to the agency, "overall, the group took at least 10 per cent cut from the money smuggled, so between them are likely to have made in excess of £12 million from the venture."

From November 2019 to March 2020, Alfalasi made numerous cash trips by himself between Dubai and the UK.

His name was found on letters that bore the name Omnivest Gold Trading LLC and were used to cover cash declarations made by the couriers, the NCA confirmed. Their flight reservations also included his phone number.

The network gathered money from criminal organizations all over the UK and transported it to counting houses, which were typically rented apartments in Central London.

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 re-invest 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."

"This investigation doesn’t stop here though, as we will continue to target cash couriers and hit crime groups where it hurts – in the pocket."

National Economic Crime Centre Director Adrian Searle of the NCA said:

"International money laundering networks such as this one can move hundreds of millions, if not billions, of pounds of dirty money around the globe annually. This money underpins the shadow economy and fuels serious criminality."

"The NECC works with partners to dismantle money laundering networks, seize cash, and make it harder to launder money within and out of the UK."

"International partnerships are key. We strongly welcome the efforts made by UAE law enforcement, including Dubai Police, to assist our investigation and this builds on a landmark agreement to tackle illicit finance that the Home Secretary signed with the UAE last September."

British Border Force National Operational HQ Director Christina Brown stated:

"In our fight against organized criminal gangs, we must put a stop to the export of unreported cash from the UK.

"Clamping down on the export of undeclared cash from the UK is vital in our fight against organised criminal gangs."

"Those involved can be proud of their work and particularly those officers that intercepted and stopped these despicable individuals."

"This is one of the largest money laundering cases the CPS has ever prosecuted to date," said John Werhun of the Crown Prosecution Service.

"A colossal amount of dirty money, totalling £104million, was transported to Dubai under Alfalasi’s instructions."

"The evidence against Alfalasi was overwhelming, with invoices, declaration documents and images of cash-filled suitcases, pointing to his culpability."

Nicola Esson, 55, of Leeds, who was detained after NCA raids in May 2021, and Muhammad Ilyas, 29, of Slough, who was detained in February 2020, were two of Alfalasi's couriers.

In August and September 2020, Esson flew three times from Heathrow to Dubai, checking a total of 19 bags that weighed close to half a tonne. She returned a few days after each trip with the same items in her luggage, which each time weighed a lot less.

Ilyas was detained by NCA personnel at Heathrow Airport following his arrival from Dubai. Ten days prior, he checked in four suitcases at the airport, one of which was missing. He also reported nearly £1.5 million in cash to Dubai Customs. Border Force agents later discovered the missing suitcase, which was filled with £431,360 in cash.

On May 18, May 27, and June 27, respectively, Esson, Ilyas, and Alfalasi entered pleas of guilty to money laundering charges at Isleworth Crown Court. Today (28 July), Alfalasi was sentenced in the same court; the other two will follow at a later time.

Following NCA investigations, two additional couriers connected to the same network have already been imprisoned.

At Heathrow in October 2020, Tara Hanlon, a 31-year-old resident of Leeds, was stopped by Border Force as she tried to flee the country with suitcases containing nearly £2 million. She later acknowledged sneaking an additional £3.5 million out of the UK on other trips, and in July 2021 she was given a 34-month prison term.

Zdenek Kamaryt, a 39-year-old Czech national, was also detained at Heathrow in November 2020. He was trying to get on a plane to Dubai that was carrying £1.4 million. In March of last year, Kamaryt was given a 34-month prison term after entering a guilty plea to three counts of money laundering.

In a statement, the NCA said: "The National Economic Crime Centre’s work with partners to make it harder for organised criminals in the UK to launder the proceeds of crime falls under Project PLUTUS, which brings together experts from across UK law enforcement, regulatory agencies and the Government. As part of the project, money launderers who are relied on by crime groups are targeted through enforcement action, cash seizures, closing vulnerabilities and combating the methods used."



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