BANJUL, Gambia (Reuters) - The Kairaba Shopping Centre, a gleaming, glass-fronted two-story building in Gambia's Serrekunda beach resort, is the biggest supermarket in mainland Africa's smallest nation. Its clientele of wealthy locals, tourists and expat workers set it apart from the mom-and-pop stores and local markets where most ordinary Gambians shop.
But the U.S. Treasury Department sees something more sinister behind the façade of the supermarket and its twin at the nearby Kololi resort. The Kairaba chain and its Banjul-based parent company, Tajco Ltd., were placed under U.S. sanctions in December 2010 for allegedly forming part of a multinational network that investigators said generated millions of dollars for the Lebanese militant movement Hezbollah.
The United States designates Hezbollah "among the most dangerous terrorist groups in the world." The U.S. Treasury Department says Tajco and its ventures are controlled by Lebanese brothers Ali, Husayn and Kassim Tajideen, whom the department describes as being among Hezbollah's top financiers in Africa.
It is for these distinctions that the Karaiba and Tajco names set off alarms when Everett Stern, working last year with HSBC Holdings Plc's U.S. anti-money laundering operation in New Castle, Delaware, was sifting through piles of potentially suspicious transactions.
Washington's December 2010 sanctions action targeted a network of businesses owned or controlled by the Tajideen brothers operating in Gambia, Lebanon, Sierra Leone, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and the British Virgin Islands.
"The food import and supermarket business is a specialty of theirs. It is a lucrative and cash-rich business which allows them to generate revenues, create smoke and mirrors, and launder money from other activities," said one U.S. intelligence source who monitors Gambia.
Husayn Tajideen, who is identified by the U.S. Treasury as a co-owner of Tajco Ltd. in Banjul, is a prominent businessman and investor in Gambia. Efforts by Reuters to speak to Tajideen were unsuccessful.
Tajco Ltd. is also named in a December 2011 forfeiture action and civil money laundering complaint brought by U.S. prosecutors against the Lebanese Canadian Bank, or LCB. U.S. investigators identified the bank as "a financial institution of primary money laundering concern." In 2011, Societe Generale de Banque au Liban completed the acquisition of certain assets and liabilities of LCB.
The 2011 case stems from an investigation by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and other federal agencies of an alleged money laundering scheme involving Hezbollah members and supporters. U.S. officials say these parties transferred funds from Lebanon to the United States in order to buy used cars that were then shipped to West Africa and sold for cash. According to the complaint, cash proceeds of these car sales, drug trafficking and other activities were then transferred to Lebanon.
The complaint alleges that LCB maintained a banking relationship with Matrix SAL Off-shore, a company controlled by Kassem Mohamad Ajami and Mohamad Ali Ezzedine, whom U.S. investigators describe as "business associates" of Tajco.
(Reporting by Reuters in Dakar, Dino Mahtani in London and Pascal Fletcher in Johannesburg. Writing by Pascal Fletcher and Mark John. Editing by John Blanton.)