by Gareth Smyth
For many years the United States Treasury, plus some ‘experts’ and media outlets, have assured us that Kassem Tajideen is a “terrorist financier.” In 2009 the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) named the Lebanese businessman, active in Africa, a ‘Specially Designated Global Terrorist,’ and in 2017 Tajideen, then 63, was arrested in Casablanca, while in transit to Beirut, and extradited to the United States.
Tajideen was this week sentenced by the U.S. District Court of Columbia to an agreed term of 60 months in prison and a forfeiture of $50 million.
His crime? Buying frozen fowl.
Tajideen’s case has involved the plea-bargaining so common in the U.S. legal system. According to a press-release issued by his U.S. lawyers, Zuckerman Spaeder, Tajideen agreed a guilty plea only after the U.S. government had “eliminated all references on the Indictment to terrorism and financing of terrorism.”
Tajideen then accepted guilt on one count only, that of money laundering by purchasing, after his blacklisting, “commercial products such as frozen chicken from U.S. suppliers.” And that’s it.
In some ways the Tajideen case is typical, in others unusual.
It is atypical firstly in that Tajideen had the resources to hire lawyers, in Lebanon and the U.S., and forensic accountants for his dealings with the U.S. Treasury. In 2016, he told me he had lost $8-10 million in frozen funds and professional fees.
After he was listed in 2009, Tajideen was either wise or fortunate in turning to Chibli Mallat, a long-term critic of the ‘war on terror’ as well as a global legal authority published by both Oxford and Cambridge University presses.
When I investigated the Tajideen case in 2015-16, Mallat, whom I had first met in 1992 amid the rubble of northern Iraq, explained to me how the Tajideen case illustrated the nature of ‘terrorism’ listing.
“I told Mr. Tajideen that if he had nothing to hide and would open up all his files, there was a chance of removing the listing,” Mallat said. “I told him that…if I took the case and later found any fact showing he had supported Hezbollah financially, then I would simply walk away.”
Tajideen agreed to all conditions laid down by Mallat, who has often publicly criticized Hezbollah. These included co-operation with OFAC in an attempt to secure delisting, allowing a forensic investigation into Tajideen’s businesses by international accountants, and accepting that the businesses be run according to ‘standards of operation’ laid down by the U.S. Treasury to ensure transparency.
Tajideen and Mallat stuck to this approach, despite Mallat’s frustration as a lawyer that OFAC never presented—nor needed to present—any evidence of Tajideen financing Hezbollah.
Mallat explained it thus: “The people at OFAC say, ‘Sorry we can’t give you the evidence.’ In any court of law that would be laughed at as surreal, because you can’t convict someone without presenting evidence his lawyer can rebut. The great advance of the rule of law in history is precisely to establish the basic premise that someone is innocent until proven guilty.”
Listing—common enough in the ‘war on terror’—can have serious consequences. In an email to me, Mallat compared it to mort civile (civilian death) under the French ancien regime: “You suddenly see yourself completely shut out from basic amenities like having a cheque book, transferring money, or using a credit card. Except that this is worse, there is no due process and no available remedy.”
Without a fair hearing in court, might a listed person turn to the media and the court of public opinion?
When I approached the Treasury in 2016 after I met Tajideen in Beirut, it was clear, as I’d suspected, that they weren’t used to an approach from a journalist who had interviewed a ‘terrorist’: essentially they just reiterated to me the claims they had made in 2009.
Few media outlets would have run my story—and as Financial Times Tehran correspondent 2003-07 I knew something of the pressures over anything to do with Hezbollah or Iran.
Golnoush Niknejad of Tehran Bureau, the operation then publishing on the Guardian website, agreed to publish—although it took weeks for the newspaper’s lawyers to pass the story.
The media’s role is just one way in which the Tajideen case is typical. Although no evidence was ever presented to back up the Treasury’s claims that Tajideen was a ‘terrorist financier,’ it was regularly and widely reported that he was.
These reports involved “circular sourcing,” looping from websites, often fiercely partisan in opposing Hezbollah, to similarly inclined “think tanks” to newspapers and back to the original websites. Various allegations, for example, were made about Tajideen buying land on behalf of Hezbollah in the Chouf Mountain area—even after they had been denied by the Druze leader and Hezbollah critic Walid Jumblatt.
Tajideen was regularly conflated with members of his family, including two brothers alleged to support Hezbollah (as indeed do tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of Lebanese people). According to a book by Matthew Levitt, a prolific and oft-quoted former Treasury official who directs the ‘counterrorism and intelligence’ program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and serves on the advisory board of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies (FDD), one brother had been given “the Hezbollah equivalent of a state funeral.” This was sourced to two articles on the website NowLebanon, one written by an FDD research fellow and one carrying a picture of the funeral where the blue head-gear in fact denoted the municipality, and not the Party of God. [Editor’s note: Levitt’s book and methodology was the subject of a critical review by Prof. Aurelie Daher on this site.]
So, is anyone going to apologize to Tajideen? Hardly.
After this week’s court judgement, a Justice Department press release quoted Assistant Attorney General Brian Benczkowski saying the sentence on Tajideen and $50-million fine were “just the latest public examples of the Department of Justice’s ongoing efforts to disrupt and dismantle Hezbollah and its support networks.” It quoted U.S. attorney for the District of Colombia Jessie Liu that the sentencing “highlights our efforts to prosecute those who violate sanctions meant to stem the flow of money to terrorists [sic] groups.”
The press release made no mention of the dropping of terrorism charges, nor that Tajideen has already paid the forfeiture.
For the media, the Washington Post, whose masthead proclaims ‘Truth Dies in Darkness’, quoted extensively from the press release under the headline ‘Businessman gets 5 years for aiding Hezbollah’. The Post omitted any mention that charges linked to ‘terrorism’ had been dropped. So did the Israeli newspaper Haaretz under a similar headline. The only outlet I could find reporting the absence of ‘terrorism’ charges was the Beirut-based Daily Star.
Back in Lebanon, Tajideen’s family members, who—fearful of U.S. travel—haven’t been to see him, await his return home upon finishing his sentence. Given he has already been in prison since March 2017, this should be in early 2022, or perhaps earlier with time reduced for good behavior.
Abbas Ibrahim, director-general of the Lebanese General Security Directorate, said in Beirut last week that he had visited Tajideen and found him “in difficult health conditions”—presumably a reference to what lawyers Zukerman Spaeder called “chronic cardiac and vascular issues and other medical conditions and injuries that are difficult to treat in jail.”
Tajideen’s son Hussen told me two years ago a grand-daughter, then five and now aged seven, kept asking where her grandfather was. By the time he comes home, she will inshallah be nine or ten.
And all of this, it seems, for buying frozen chickens.
Gareth Smyth, who has reported from the Middle East since 1992, was 2003-7 the chief correspondent of the Financial Times in Iran.