LONDON: The UK’s biggest ever money-laundering case enlisted a network of 36 people, including a “Kim Kardashian lookalike” and other British women in white-collar jobs, to smuggle cash to the UAE.
The UK National Crime Agency discovered the scheme, which saw money sent to flats in central London from across the UK to be counted and packed into suitcases in quantities of up to £500,000 ($609,000) a time, each weighing around 40kg.
The bags would be packed with mouthwash and coat hangers to evade detection by X-ray machines, and sprayed with substances including coffee and air freshener to mask the smell and distract airport sniffer dogs.
They would then be transported by the network of mules, who flew business class with the money to utilize extra baggage allowances, were paid up to £8,000 per trip for their services, and siphoned off at least 10 percent of the transported cash for themselves.
Among them were 30-year-old recruitment executive Tara Hanlon and 55-year-old communications professional Nicola Esson.
The latter made three trips to Dubai between August and September 2020, checking in 19 suitcases of cash weighing almost half a ton in total.
Hanlon, described as a “Kim Kardashian lookalike” by sections of the UK press, was arrested in Dubai in 2020 trying to return to London with several suitcases that she claimed were for outfits for a “girls’ holiday.”
A month later another mule, Czech national Zdenek Kamaryt, 39, was detained boarding a flight from Heathrow to Dubai with £1.3 million of cash in his bags.
Another courier arrested was Muhammad Ilyas, who was detained after declaring four suitcases containing around £1.5 million in cash to customs in Dubai.
One of them, containing £431,360, went missing and was subsequently discovered by the UK Border Force.
In total, £104 million was ferried over the course of a year. Some of the cash was transferred into cryptocurrencies and laundered through gold operations in Africa.
It was Hanlon’s arrest that sparked the investigation, eventually leading to the group’s ringleader Abdulla Alfalasi, who was arrested at a London flat owned by an offshore company registered in the British territory of Gibraltar.
He was found to have traveled extensively between London and Dubai between November 2019 and March 2020, carrying £6 million in cash himself.
His signature was discovered on documents purporting to relate to a company called Omnivest Gold Trading, which was used as a front for cash declarations.
Prosecutor Julian Christopher QC, speaking at Isleworth crown court in west London, said that Alfalasi enlisted British woman Michelle Clarke to recruit the couriers, who were “typically young people, attracted by the money.”
Hanlon was sentenced to 34 months in prison in 2021. Esson and Ilyas will be sentenced later this year.
Alfalasi, 47, was sentenced to nine years and seven months in jail for sending money acquired through criminal activities to Dubai.
Judge Simon Davis told Alfalasi: “There is no doubt that this was a considerable network under your charge, not your sole charge, you were a principal but it is clear that there were others involved.”
Ian Truby, the NCA’s senior investigating officer, said: “This money-laundering network smuggled astronomical sums of money out of the UK … Cash is the lifeblood of organized 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.”