Gambia: The Kairaba Shopping Centre, a gleaming, glass-fronted two-story building in Gambia’s Serrekunda beach resort, is the biggest supermarket in mainland Africa’s smallest nation. Its clientele of wealthy locals, tourists and expat workers set it apart from the mom-and-pop stores and local markets where most ordinary Gambians shop.
But the US Treasury Department sees something more sinister behind the facade of the supermarket and its twin at the nearby Kololi resort. The Kairaba chain and its Banjul-based parent company Tajco were placed under US sanctions in December 2010 for allegedly forming part of a multinational network that investigators said generated millions of dollars for the Lebanese movement Hezbollah.
The United States designates Hezbollah “among the most dangerous terrorist groups in the world”. The US Treasury Department says Tajco and its ventures are controlled by Lebanese brothers Ali, Hussain and Qasim Tajideen, whom the department describes as being among Hezbollah’s top financiers in Africa.
It is for these distinctions that the Karaiba and Tajco names set off alarms when Everett Stern, working last year with HSBC Holdings Plc’s US anti-money laundering operation in New Castle, Delaware, was sifting through piles of potentially suspicious transactions.
Washington’s December 2010 sanctions targeted a network of businesses owned or controlled by the Tajideen brothers operating in Gambia, Lebanon, Sierra Leone, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and the British Virgin Islands.
“The food import and supermarket business is a speciality of theirs. It is a lucrative and cash-rich business which allows them to generate revenues, create smoke and mirrors, and launder money from other activities,” said one US intelligence source who monitors Gambia.
Hussain Tajideen, who is identified by the US Treasury as a co-owner of Tajco in Banjul, is a prominent businessman and investor in Gambia. Efforts by Reuters to speak to Tajideen were unsuccessful.
Tajco is also named in a December 2011 forfeiture action and civil money laundering complaint brought by US prosecutors against the Lebanese Canadian Bank, or LCB. US investigators identified the bank as “a financial institution of primary money laundering concern”. In 2011, Societe Generale de Banque au Liban completed the acquisition of certain assets and liabilities of LCB.
The 2011 case stems from an investigation by the US Drug Enforcement Administration and other federal agencies of an alleged money laundering scheme involving Hezbollah members and supporters. US officials say these parties transferred funds from Lebanon to the United States in order to buy used cars that were then shipped to West Africa and sold for cash. According to the complaint, cash proceeds of these car sales, drug trafficking and other activities were then transferred to Lebanon.
The complaint alleges that LCB maintained a banking relationship with Matrix SAL Off-shore, a company controlled by Qasim Mohammad Ajami and Mohammad Ali Ezzedine, whom US investigators describe as “business associates” of Tajco.