By Linton Besser/Four Corners, ABC
A multinational currency exchange bankrolled by the United Arab Emirates has emerged as a key conduit for a global money laundering operation which has siphoned hundreds of millions of dollars out of Australia.
Wall Street Exchange, one of the largest money remitters in the Middle East and which has its main office in Dubai, has been identified by the Australian Federal Police as a major hub for the movement of drug profits and terrorism finance.
Australian Federal Police (AFP) Assistant Commissioner David Stewart has told Four Corners the money laundering operation run by Altaf Khanani — who is now in jail in Florida — ran its international transfers through multiple currency exchanges.
“Wall Street Exchange … was another one that was being used,” he confirmed.
“It’s about that layering and actually spreading your risk and actually trying to make it as complicated as possible to try and defect law enforcement from detecting where those monies have been transferred to.”
Assistant Commissioner Stewart said the Khanani network was laundering between $14bn and $16bn a year for organised crime syndicates across the world.
“We’re talking about the upper echelons of organised crime here,” he said.
In Australia, Khanani was laundering drug money for the Lone Wolves and Comanchero bikie gangs, as well as Lebanese mafia figures living in western Sydney.
He was also moving money on behalf of Mexican cocaine cartels and terrorism groups including Al Qaeda and D-Company. D-Company is a criminal terrorist organisation run by Dawood Ibrahim.
Since about 2008, Khanani ran the network from the Al Zarooni Exchange in Dubai.
After Khanani was seized in Panama in September 2015 by the US Drug Enforcement Administration, the US Treasury issued sanctions against his family and associates, and authorities in Dubai closed down the Al Zarooni Exchange.
But Four Corners has learned that a large volume of the money that Khanani was moving around the world was being run through Wall Street Exchange.
The company operates in a lucrative market.
In 2014, the most recent year for which the World Bank has figures, workers in the UAE sent more than $19bn out of the country, principally to friends and family living across South Asia.
Its cash outflows were eclipsed only by the United States, Saudi Arabia, Russia, Switzerland and Germany.
Since 2005, the company has been a subsidiary of the Emirates Post Group, the UAE’s postal service.
In 2012, the UAE government took 100% ownership of Wall Street Exchange, buying the 40% of its shares still owned by its founder, Indian tycoon Asgar Shakoor Patel.
Now, the Khanani revelations raise the prospect that the UAE Government has unwittingly enabled one of the world’s largest money laundering operations.
There is no suggestion the current leadership of Emirates Post Group (EPG) was in any way involved in the Khanani operation, but it is stacked with high-flyers.
Directors include Khalid Ali al-Bustani, who in 2017 was appointed director-general of the UAE Federal Tax Authority, and Abdulkareem Alzarouni, the chief financial officer of the National Bank of Abu Dhabi.
The EPG 2013 annual report — the most recent one it has published — said the Exchange had two “correspondent banks” in Australia. It is not clear what the term is meant to describe, and the company did not respond to questions from Four Corners.
The Australian Transaction Reports and Analysis Centre (Austrac) said the Wall Street Exchange had not been identified in Australia as a “reporting entity on our register of remittance service providers”.
Law enforcement agencies across the world have long cited Dubai as a bolt-hole for serious organised crime syndicates.
“I think the nature of investment in Dubai is such that there’s incredible investment opportunity for legitimate enterprise, and that stands to reason it’s only going to be attractive on that basis that illegitimate enterprise is going to have an opportunity there to try and play in that space,” Assistant Commissioner Stewart said.
“When you look at the money laundering opportunity for people to actually take funds offshore to another country, and trying to legitimise it through property acquisition or business development in a legitimate way, that becomes an attractive proposition.”
Wall Street Exchange was exposed during congressional investigations into the September 2001 attacks on the Twin Towers in Manhattan.
Some of the finances for the terrorist strike were sent through Wall Street Exchange by Ali Abdul Aziz Ali — nephew to plot mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohamed — in April 2000, though the bulk of the $119,500 he moved for the operation was laundered through another company in Dubai called the UAE Exchange Centre.
The AFP has recently been able to find common ground with the UAE. In September last year, it successfully secured the extradition of Michael Ibrahim and Fadi Ibrahim from Dubai on charges of running a drug and tobacco importation ring.
“The relationship that we have in Australia with our Emirates colleagues is absolutely first class and we have a very deep respect and a great collaboration with them,” Assistant Commissioner Stewart said.
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