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Ringleader Identified In Charlotte Arrests

Photographer take pictures of penguins as the birds arrive for the "Happy Feet" film premiere Sunday, Nov. 12, 2006, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Gus Ruelas
AP Photo/Gus Ruelas
In a quiet street of tidy, middle-class homes, the house of Mohamad Youssef Hammoud was notable to neighbors only for the steady stream of people passing through.

Federal authorities say at least some of them were members of a cigarette-smuggling ring that was raising money for the Islamic militant group Hezbollah.

On Friday, 18 suspects were arrested in raids of houses and businesses in and around Charlotte, FBI officials said. All were indicted on federal charges including immigration violations, weapons offenses, money laundering and cigarette trafficking, U.S. Attorney Mark Calloway said.

Hammoud, one of those arrested in the raids, was identified as the group's ringleader by sources working with a state-federal task force that investigated the group, according to an affidavit.

A source told agents Hammoud was well-connected to Hezbollah members in Lebanon and is believed to have received Hezbollah-sponsored military training.

The source "believes that if Hezbollah issued an authorization to execute a terrorist act in the United States, Mohamad Hammoud would not hesitate in carrying it out," the affidavit read.

Hezbollah issued a statement Saturday in Beirut that denied any involvement with the people charged in Charlotte.

It was unclear whether Hammoud or any of his co-defendants had an attorney who could comment on the case.

Eleven of those arrested remained jailed Saturday; the others were released on bond after court hearings Friday. Bassam Youssef Hammoud, 33, of Northville, Mich., was being held Saturday for federal marshals at a jail in Detroit, a jail officer said.

According to Mark Calloway, U.S. Attorney for North Carolina's western district, those arrested were not part of any form of violence. "I want to emphasize, as was stated in court, the affidavit that was unsealed by the court does not allege any evidence that these defendants took part in any act of terror any act of violence. There are no criminal terrorism charges on those complaints."

CBS News Correspondent Jim Stewart reports that in the alleged scheme, cigarettes were being bought in North Carolina where the tax is low, shipped to Michigan where it's high, and resold. The resulting profit was being used to ship cash and goods back to the Hezbollah in Lebanon.

ATF agent Richard Fox said that the differential between the taxes from state to state—5 cents a pack in North Carolina versus 75 cents in Michigan—made it a very lucrative scam.

"Even a small or medium van could reap a profit of $8,0000 to $10,000 a trip," he said.

Sources say the Hezbollah reaped as much as $1 million from the scheme as well as electronic equipment including computers and cameras.

What's The Connection?
Read the affidavit alleging a Hezbollah connection to the accused North Carolina smugglers.

Click here to download the information on "Operation Smokescreen."

However, there are no accusations any violent acts occurred or were going to.

Chris Swecker, FBI agent in charge in North Carolina, said, "There is no information whatsoever that there are any planned terrorist acts" related to the case.

CBS Affiliate WBTV reports agents of the ATF, FBI, INS, DSS (a bureau of the State Department)—assisted by the Iredell County Sheriff's Office and local police—participated in the arrests. The federal agencies are part of a Joint Anti-Terrorism Task Force.

Richard Gottlieb, an Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) officer involved in the operation, said nine of the accused faced possible deportation.

Diplomatic Security Service agent Bruce Tully said some of the accused were alleged to have procured visas to enter the U.S. under false pretenses.

Calloway said the arrests were part of "an ongoing investigation of a variety of aspects." He said detention hearings would take place next week, as the accused are entitled to a probable cause hearing within ten days unless indicted by a grand jury.

According to the State Department, Hezbollah (or "Party of God") is also called Islamic Jihad, Revolutionary Justice Organization, Organization of the Oppressed on Earth and Islamic Jihad for the Liberation of Palestine.

The group, which counts several thousand members, is a strongly anti-West and anti-Israel Islamic fundamentalist group with ties to Iran. Tehran is suspected of having directed the group at one point.

Hezbollah has been linked to the October 1983 bombing of the U.S. embassy and Marine barracks in Beirut that killed 290 Americans and the 1992 bombing of Israel's embassy in Argentina. Its base is in the suburbs of Beirut but the group's network extends throughout Asia and into the Americas, Africa and Europe.

In recent weeks, Hezbollah guerrillas have been treated like heroes in much of the Arab world. Their years of resistence to Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon and infliction of casualties on Israeli forces there weakened Israel's resolve to continue its 18-year occupation. Israel pulled out in May.