Pierre Obendrauf/Postmedia News
The port of Montreal, where police discovered the luxury vehicles purchased by Aline Ajami and her father about to be shipped to Lebanon.
Stewart Bell Jul 21, 2011 – 8:01 AM ET
TORONTO — Aline Ajami’s nightmare began when a stranger appeared at the Toronto apartment where she lived with her parents. He said his name was Kamal Ghandour and that he was connected to the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah.
There was a problem, he said.
Ms. Ajami’s uncle owed him money. As a result, the uncle was being held hostage by Mr. Ghandour’s associates in south Lebanon. He would be killed, Mr. Ghandour warned, unless Ms. Ajami did exactly what she was told.
That encounter in February 2008 was the start of what an Ontario judge, in language more reminiscent of a book jacket than a legal ruling, would call a “strange and harrowing tale of international intrigue” involving “gangsters with known ties to terrorists.”
The remarkable case has so far gone unreported, but the National Post has pieced the story together for the first time from documents and interviews. It suggests that the Iranian-backed Hezbollah is linked to a fraud and extortion racket in southern Ontario.
Ms. Ajami was 24 and employed by a Toronto marketing firm when Mr. Ghandour came to see her. Aside from threatening her uncle, Mr. Ghandour had also said he would kill Ms. Ajami’s sister, who lived in Lebanon.
After he left her apartment, Ms. Ajami did not tell police — not at first.
Mr. Ghandour had shown her the business cards of several RCMP officers. He had friends in law enforcement, he told her. If she reported him to the authorities, he would find out.
His stated ties to Hezbollah caused Ms. Ajami to take his threats seriously. She was born in Lebanon and knew the Shia Muslim militants controlled the country’s south. They had killed the prime minister, Rafik Hariri. They could kill her uncle and sister, too.
So she did what she was told.
For the next two months, Mr. Ghandour and his son Karim appeared almost daily at the Ajamis’ apartment not far from York University.
They would take Ms. Ajami and her father Elia out to open credit and chequing accounts, she said. The Ajamis immediately handed the credit cards and cheques to the Ghandours, who maxed them out — even using one to pay for a wedding in Lebanon.
Then the Ghandours wanted luxury cars. On April 19, 2008, Ms. Ajami’s father went to the Mercedes dealership on Mavis Road in Mississauga and, using bogus credit information, left with a 2007 VS class Mercedes Benz for $93,000. Four days later, it was Ms. Ajami’s turn. Accompanied by Karim Ghandour, she bought a 2006 Lexus from the same dealership for $45,000.
When Ms. Ajami’s $5,500 deposit cheque bounced and her credit history proved fake, the dealership activated a tracking device in one of the cars. Both were found in a shipping container at the Port of Montreal, awaiting delivery to Lebanon. Ms. Ajami had been caught in a fraud, but by then, she had left the country. The Ghandours had forced her to go back to Lebanon, she said.
She spent a month in Beirut before deciding to do something. She called Crime Stoppers in Ontario and reported what the Ghandours had done to her.
The police were very interested in what she had to say.
Originally from Sidon, an ancient port south of Beirut, Kamal Ghandour was a 44-year-old chef who owned the Castle Restaurant in Windsor. He was also, according to Ontario Provincial Police, known to commit serious frauds in Windsor and the Toronto area.
In 2007, the Superior Court of Justice ordered Mr. Ghandour to pay $50,000 to a Mississauga man named Ghassan El Gharib. Mr. El Gharib had helped finance Mr. Ghandour’s restaurant, L’Ostario’s, near the Toronto airport.
The following year, Mr. Ghandour was ordered to pay another $25,000 to the same man. A few months later the courts told him to pay $11,000 to Nella Cutlery and Food Equipment Inc., a Mississauga company that supplies restaurants. Mr. El Gharib, who said he has still not been repaid, did not have kind words to say about Mr. Ghandour but said he was unaware of any links to Hezbollah.
On July 23, 2008, Mr. Ghandour and six others, including his son Karim, were arrested near Windsor on seven counts, including fraud, conspiracy, cocaine and marijuana possession, money laundering and possession of forgery equipment.
Police claimed to have broken up a credit and debit card skimming operation. The charges were withdrawn that September due to insufficient evidence. Still, police — notably counter-terrorism police — maintained an active interest in the Ghandours.
When Ms. Ajami returned to Canada in November, she was met at the Toronto airport by Detective Kelly Labonte, a member of the OPP Provincial Anti-Terrorism Section, or PATS. Described by a judge as a “very experienced and shrewd police officer,” Det. Labonte worked in the PATS Intelligence Unit in Windsor.
Asked why her unit was interested in Ms. Ajami’s fraud case, the detective responded, “I can say in a general sense that fraud is but one of the offence types that PATS may be interested in, and is often a source of funding for terrorist activities.”
But was the case really linked to Hezbollah?
Mr. Ghandour did not respond to interview requests sent to his Facebook account. Police and community members said he had left Windsor, possibly for Alberta or Toronto. Those who knew him in Windsor doubted he was part of Hezbollah. “That’s a fantasy,” said a member of the city’s Lebanese community, “complete, pure fantasy.”
In its 2009-2010 annual report, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service said terrorist financing is “often closely associated with other criminal activity.” It specifically cited extortion and kidnapping as examples.
Luxury auto theft is another crime that has long been associated with Hezbollah. Rick Dubin, vice-president of investigative service at the Insurance Bureau of Canada, said the type of scam Ms. Ajami was involved in was familiar. Fraudsters will use fake credit information to lease and finance vehicles, he said. Once they take possession, the cars are quickly exported. “It’s easier than going and actually stealing the car,” Mr. Dubin said.
About 20,000 to 30,000 stolen cars are exported from Canada every year, according to the IBC. Most go to West Africa, where they are resold for up to double their value. But some also go to Lebanon. A police investigation called Project Globe identified hundreds of stolen Canadian vehicles that turned up in Lebanon, Mr. Dubin said.
The investigation never found a Hezbollah connection “but there certainly is a concern when you see a large volume of those vehicles going to the Middle East, and especially to Lebanon,” he said. “I can’t say what the link was and where the vehicles ended up, in whose hands, but it certainly raises a concern, that’s for sure.”
A Hezbollah link to auto theft surfaced again in February when the U.S. Treasury blacklisted the Lebanese Canadian Bank. The Treasury said a criminal organization, from which Hezbollah profited, was using cocaine money to buy cars in the U.S. The vehicles were exported, with the proceeds going back to Lebanon, it said.
Matthew Levitt, a senior fellow at The Washington Institute and a former U.S. Treasury counter-terrorism official, said Hezbollah receives significant financial backing from supporters living abroad. He said a wide spectrum of people are involved.
“From the far end, where you’ll have actual trained Hezbollahi guys who are the equivalent of people who carry membership cards … all the way to the other extreme where you have people who have no interest and are being extorted. And in the very very fat broad middle, you have people in different places, some people who support Hezbollah and its terrorism and militia activity because they stick it to Israel and the United States.”
On Nov. 22, 2008, Ms. Ajami told her story in a videotaped statement to Peel Regional Police. Regardless, she was charged with fraud over $5,000. She faced up to 14 years in prison because of her role in the luxury car scam.
Meanwhile, Det. Labonte was trying to develop her as an informant. The two spoke over a period of months, but the officer eventually put an end to it. Ms. Ajami’s contact with the Ghandours was clearly over, and there was no sign it would be re-established.
The fraud trial began in December 2009. Ms. Ajami admitted what she did but said she had no choice. She said she had to do it to save her uncle and sister. The Crown wasn’t convinced. The prosecutor argued that Ms. Ajami was a willing participant in the scheme. The car dealer, Vinesh Sethi, felt the same. He said Ms. Ajami looked happy as she drove away in her Lexus. Ms. Ajami countered that she was putting up a front so she wouldn’t raise suspicions.
Det. Labonte testified that what happened to the Ajamis was “the cookie cutter, textbook Ghandour way of doing business.” With one exception. To her knowledge, everyone else who had committed similar frauds with the Ghandours had done so willingly. They got half the proceeds, then declared bankruptcy or moved to Lebanon. Ms. Ajami would be the first to have been coerced.
Justice Richard Schwarzl of the Ontario Court of Justice handed down his verdict on May 19, 2010. He said that just because the Ghandours had not extorted before did not mean they had not done so in Ms. Ajami’s case.
“They were serious felons with connections to a well-known and powerful terrorist organization,” he wrote. “If anything, I suspect that Ms. Ajami may have been the first to be brave enough to admit to the authorities that she had been the Ghandours’ victim.”
The judge found Ms. Ajami not guilty. He said she had committed the crime under duress. “Ms. Ajami gave a compelling and chilling narrative of how Kamal Ghandour came unexpectedly and terrifyingly into her life in February 2008,” he wrote.
“His stated connections to Hezbollah, which were verified by Det. Labonte, gave even more reason for Ms. Ajami to feel both frightened and helpless about the fate of her family if she did not cooperate with the Ghandours.”
A similar case against her father was subsequently stayed. Ms. Ajami declined to be interviewed. But the judge’s ruling implied the ordeal had left her deeply indebted to creditors.
The judge said he hoped Ms. Ajami could repair the damage done to her financial reputation, and suggested she send a copy of his ruling to the financial institutions that were after her “for debts she was forced to accrue due to the malevolence of Kamal and Karim Ghandour.”