Connect with us


FinCEN Files reporting from North Africa and the Middle East




From Morocco to Jordan, journalists across North Africa and the Middle East explored secretive reports that detailed billions of dollars in potentially suspicious transactions to and from the region’s most powerful companies and government institutions.

The investigations, which formed part of the FinCEN Files investigation, were based on  more than 2,100 suspicious activity reports that banks send to a unit of the U.S. Treasury Department called the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network, or FinCEN. BuzzFeed News obtained the reports and shared them with ICIJ and more than 100 other media organizations.

In late 2019, Arabophone reporters who worked on the FinCEN Files investigation met in Amman, Jordan, with ICIJ reporter Will Fitzgibbon on the sidelines of the annual conference hosted by Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism.

Countries in North Africa and the Middle East, known as the MENA region, have seen rapidly-growing rates of money leaking from their borders and beyond the control of national authorities, according to research by Global Financial Integrity, which tracks illicit financial flows. The Middle East is also a growing destination for dirty money from Africa, according to research by the nonprofit research institute, Brookings. 

ICIJ previously covered some of Israel’s most explosive FinCEN Files investigations here.


Twala, a news website co-founded by ICIJ member Lyas Hallas, revealed that Deutsche Bank flagged $3.9 billion in suspicious payments that involved Algeria’s corruption-ridden, state-owned oil and gas company, Sonatrach.

Sonatrach, its subsidiaries in Spain and the United Kingdom, and four employees were included in the suspicious activity report filed to FinCEN in March 2015, Twala reported. Sonatrach did not reply to Twala’s questions.

According to the report, Bank of Algeria, one of Sonatrach’s bankers, told Deutsche Bank that it had no reason to consider the transfers suspicious. Twala notes, however, that the suspicious activity report came after Algeria’s government had issued an arrest warrant for former energy minister, Chakib Khelil.

“Investigations on Sonatrach are always complicated for a simple reason,” Hallas said. “It is difficult to get company employees to talk.”

Hallas said his FinCEN Files investigation was important because it shines a spotlight on transactions that have never been revealed publicly. “Opacity is the rule at Sonatrach and, therefore, any reporting on the company’s transactions, whether those transactions are criminal or not, contributes to transparency.”


Le Desk, a Moroccan news website, explored the country’s connections to a vast gold smuggling ring. As part of the FinCEN Files investigation, ICIJ and partners reported U.S. officials investigated Dubai gold company, Kaloti, for buying the precious metal from sellers suspected of laundering money for drug traffickers and other criminal groups. The investigation was dropped, baffling U.S. officials. Kaloti denies wrongdoing.

Le Desk has followed the Kaloti saga for years, including interviewing Amjad Rihan, an auditor-turned-whistleblower who first discovered Kaloti’s connection to Morocco. Around 2013, Le Desk reported, Rihan learned that an unknown Moroccan provider sold gold to Kaloti in Dubai. The provider used fake customs documents and painted the gold bars with a thin silver veneer to avoid export restrictions as the bars were flown out of Mohammed V airport in Casablanca by couriers. At least two Moroccans are known by officials to be involved in the trafficking, Le Desk reported, but Moroccan officials have done nothing.

“The Moroccan banking system, despite being one of the most sophisticated in Africa, is still reluctant to control the movement of suspicious cash,” Le Desk’s founder, Ali Amar, told ICIJ.  

The fact that the Moroccans suspected of involvement in the trafficking of goods have never been investigated was, paradoxically, helpful for Le Desk’s reporters. “The impunity they still enjoy in Morocco has made them less cagey, with their names appearing on the trade registers of their companies!” Amar said.

Saudi Arabia

ARIJ reported on more than $1.5 billion sent to Saudi Arabia’s state-owned oil company, Aramco, by the Brazilian oil giant, Petrobras. It is the first time that journalists have revealed detailed money flows between the companies.

Deutsche Bank filed suspicious activity reports involving Aramco and Petrobras because of the latter’s involvement in “allegations of bribery, corruption and money-laundering,” according to documents from the FinCEN Files. There is no suggestion that Aramco was involved in wrongdoing.

ARIJ reported that despite the significant payments, the companies’ annual reports, investor reports and press releases at the time never specified agreements between the oil giants. Aramco said in response that it has commercial agreements with Petrobras but “does not, as a matter of policy, comment on the terms and conditions.”

ARIJ also reported on suspicious transfers to and from banks in Iraq and PNC Bank’s confusion over transfers that it feared may have come from the family of former Egyptian dictator, Hosni Mubarak.

The FinCEN Files was a really important project for the Arab world as it shed light on how international banks and their regional branches are able to facilitate money laundering and corruption with such little oversight,” said ARIJ editor, Mohammed AlKawmani. 

“Confronting individuals, governments, and companies with such sensitive and potentially incriminating information was sometimes dangerous and we were often threatened with legal action at the fact that we possessed this information in the first place,” AlKawmani said.


Inkyfada in Tunisia reported in detail on one of the country’s most high-profile victims of money laundering. 

Habib Ghribi finished second in the 3,000 meter steeplechase at the 212 London Olympics. It later emerged that the Russian gold medalist’s positive drug test was concealed as part of a widespread doping and bribery scheme. The FinCEN Files showed that the scheme’s primary architects, a Senegalese father-son duo at the International Association of Athletics Federations, paid millions to shadowy companies and luxury shops in what financial experts told ICIJ looked suspicious. The duo, Lamine Diack and Papa Massata Diack, were found guilty of corruption offenses weeks before the publication of the FinCEN FIles. 

Ghiribi was later awarded gold after athletics’ officials stripped the Russian of her medal. “I wanted a real ceremony,” Ghribi told Inkyfada.

United Arab Emirates

BBC Arabic, which partnered with ICIJ for the first time on the FinCEN Files investigation, found that the United Arab Emirates’ central bank failed to act on warnings about a Dubai company that helped Iran evade sanctions.

Gunes General Trading moved $142 million through the UAE financial system between 2011 and 2012, BBC Arabic reported. In 2016, U.S. prosecutors alleged that the company was part of a network that helped the Iranian government and other entities blacklisted under U.S. sanctions.

BBC Arabic reported Standard Chartered bank contacted the UAE’s central bank in 2012 after noticing hundreds of suspicious transactions. The UAE’s central bank said the company’s account with Standard Chartered was closed, but BBC Arabic reported that Standard Chartered told the central bank that Gunes General Trading “continued its suspicious activity” through two UAE state-owned banks.

“This case brings into question the extent to which the UAE Central Bank took” its responsibility to protect the integrity of the financial system seriously, Tom Keatinge, director of the centre for financial crime and security studies at the Royal United Services Institute, told BBC Arabic.

“Finding sources who can talk and explain what is going on inside the central and local banks was the biggest challenge in reporting,” said Ahmed El Shamy, a senior investigative reporter with BBC Arabic.

See more FinCEN Files reporting from the Middle East and stories from your country or  in your language here.

The post FinCEN Files reporting from North Africa and the Middle East appeared first on ICIJ.

Continue Reading

Election Integrity

Analyzing the Case for Election Fraud

Despite the overwhelming pressure, if you can’t help but feel that tingling sense of knowing that is telling you there’s more to the story, you are not alone. In fact, according to a new Rassmussen poll, nearly 50% of voters believe the election had issues. A quick look at the data blatantly shows that indeed, shenanigans abound (how can a state have 1+ million more mail-in ballots tallied than they sent out?). But was it fraud or masterful gamesmanship?

Adryenn Ashley



Mail In Ballot
Prev1 of 8
Use your ← → (arrow) keys to browse

The world, or at least the global media, has spoken: Biden won the 2020 Election.


A quick Google search reveals pages upon pages of reports of why the Trump team’s assertions of vote fraud and election fraud and vote flipping are flat out fallacies. YouTube has announced a ban on any videos questioning the election results. And now on Monday all 538 electors have voted, formalizing Biden’s 306-232 win. And while there is still Congress to get through, and the inauguration, based on social media and television news and practically every other point of information bombarding society today, Biden is now the President-elect.

But why now, after Government officials confirmed during Senate testimony that a foreign adversary, Russia, attempted to interfere in the 2016 United States Presidential Election via “a multi-faceted approach intended to undermine confidence in our democratic process.” According to U.S. intelligence official reports, Russia targeted voter registration databases in at least 21 states and sought to infiltrate the networks of voting equipment vendors, political parties, and at least one local election board. And if their purpose was not so much to “hack” the election but create chaos and sow seeds of uncertainty around our election process, I would say they have won. But what if this cycle, it was Russia who somehow manipulated extra ballots and placed the blame on the Democrats? What if…?

Russian Experience With Voter Fraud

The 2004 presidential election in Ukraine saw suspiciously high turnout rates that “even Stalinist North Korea would envy,” the State Department declared!

Back then, the U.S. government decried as corrupt an earlier election where special voting boxes were created to help citizens vote from home, election observers were expelled from vote counts, pre-election polls were wildly off, and voter turnout in certain communities exceeded 90%.

But the story of that Ukrainian election as recounted by then-Ambassador John Tefft to a Senate committee in December 2004 raises a tantalizing question for voters distrustful of the Nov. 3 elections results in our own 2020 Presidential Election: If tactics and outcomes in the Ukrainian election back then were enough to cry foul, why can’t Americans debate similar concerns here?

Tefft’s testimony raises an important question: Should America, the greatest democracy in the world, share any of the fraudulent attributes of a Ukrainian election? The answer for most Americans is hopefully resounding “No.”

And despite continued and repeated headlines that there was no fraud, according to the Harvard Kenney School report on Election Integrity this cycle, expert assessments indicate that compared with 2016, the performance of this contest displays several warning flags, namely worsening confidence in the integrity of American elections and falling public trust, challenges to legitimacy arising from threats of campaign violence,legal disputes about the process and results, and public protests about the outcome, as well as growing attempts at voter suppression. 

Prev1 of 8
Use your ← → (arrow) keys to browse

Continue Reading


Advocates celebrate major US anti-money laundering victory

Landmark laws to thwart the use of U.S. shell companies by terrorists, human traffickers, arms dealers and kleptocrats are set to be enacted after more than a decade of lobbying and politicking with rare bipartisan support.




Advocates celebrate major US anti-money laundering victory

The sweeping anti-money laundering reforms hitched a lift in the annual defense spending bill that passed the Senate 84-13 today, and was approved by the House 355-78 earlier this week.

The Corporate Transparency Act requires U.S. companies to report their true owners to the Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network, known as FinCEN — largely ending anonymous shell companies in the country.

The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists has repeatedly documented how the rich, the powerful and the criminal have used anonymous entities to hide their wealth, including in the 2016 Panama Papers and the 2020 FinCEN Files investigations.

Welcoming the clampdown, Transparency International’s U.S. director Gary Kalman said, “It is rare for such a simple measure to promise such an enormous impact.” Kalman added that the long sought anti-corruption reforms would “move us into a new era of enforcement.”

The new legislation will allow law enforcement agencies and financial institutions to request company ownership information from FinCEN. The data will not be publicly available.

FinCEN Files was based on a trove of suspicious activity reports filed by banks and other financial institutions to FinCEN. BuzzFeed News obtained the secret documents and shared them with ICIJ and more than 100 other media organizations.

The global investigation exposed how a broken U.S.-led enforcement system allows banks to continue to profit from moving dirty money tied to drug cartels, trafficking rings fueling the opioid crisis, fraud, organized crime, sanctions evasion, ruinous real estate schemes, and terrorism.

“Too many times, people … think money laundering is a federal, victimless crime. It is certainly not that,” Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio, the top Democrat on the Senate banking committee, told reporters on a call organized by the advocacy group the FACT Coalition. “Sinaloa cartel actors, fentanyl traffickers have been destroying thousands of families in my state and across the country.”

Earlier this year, Brown credited FinCEN Files for revealing the lack of forceful enforcement against banks that repeatedly violate the law. Advocates said a number of proposed bipartisan bills, including one co-sponsored by Brown, were instrumental in generating the support needed to attach the reforms to the spending bill.

“This is a really big deal to get this passed,” Brown said Thursday. “No more hiding these abuses in anonymous shell companies. It also cracks down on bank officials who look the other way or actively aid money laundering.”

A long time coming

ICIJ has shown how offshore shell companies have been used for dubious financial dealings and tax avoidance through a series of global exposés, including the Secrecy for Sale investigation, Panama Papers and Paradise Papers. U.S. lawmakers have repeatedly cited the investigations in proposing reforms over the years.

Countries like the United Kingdom, Indonesia and members of the European Union also took steps toward ending anonymous shell companies in response to ICIJ reporting.

“When the Panama Papers leaked, there was a huge flurry of interest because there’s all of a sudden this recognition that it was kleptocrats, money launderers, corrupt officials the world over, as well as criminals, were all using a very common structure to help evade law enforcement, which was setting up an anonymous company,” Lakshmi Kumar, policy director of Global Financial Integrity, said.

The phenomenon is not limited to the exotic offshore tax havens of popular imagination. U.S. jurisdictions like Delaware, Wyoming and Nevada are among the world’s top locations to set up anonymous companies. Legislation to require corporations to disclose their true owners was first proposed in the U.S. over a decade ago, co-sponsored by then-senator Barack Obama, and similar bills have been introduced over the years.

Advocates credit years of lobbying a broad coalition of stakeholders, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce which had previously been a leading opponent, in getting the reforms across the finish line this year.

“What’s changed now is a growing understanding among various constituencies about the harms that anonymous companies pose, and the threats that they pose for our financial system, to our businesses,” Clark Gascoigne, senior policy advisor at FACT Coalition, said.

But it’s not a done deal quite yet.

Although the anti-money laundering proposals have had the support of the administration, President Donald Trump has repeatedly threatened to veto the National Defense Authorization Act over provisions unrelated to financial secrecy.

Both the House and the Senate votes surpassed the two-thirds margin that would be needed to override a veto, although some Republicans have indicated that they would not support what would be the first veto override of the Trump presidency.

But the NDAA has been reliably passed by Congress every year for six decades and advocates are confident that the time has come for the landmark financial transparency measure that’s included in the omnibus bill.

“It’s one of the few areas where the outgoing Trump administration agrees with the incoming Biden administration,” Gascoigne said. “It may be the first bill in the history of Congress that has the support of both Dow Chemical and Friends of the Earth. Heck, the state of Delaware even supports reform.”

The post Advocates celebrate major US anti-money laundering victory appeared first on ICIJ.

Continue Reading


Muslim Brotherhood suspect and Saudi billionaire linked to same offshore companies, Austrian report says




One of 30 people in Austria suspected to be members of the Islamic fundamentalist group Muslim Brotherhood was the director of offshore companies linked to a Saudi billionaire, according to an investigation by Austrian media outlets profil and Ö1.

The man, described as a 37-year-old Viennese entrepreneur with Iraqi roots, is suspected of “participating in a terrorist, subversive and criminal organization” and was a target of the police investigation into the group and the Palestinian extremist organization Hamas, the report said

The inquiry, which led 930 officers to raid 60 apartments, shops and clubs in four federal states last month, had no connection to the Vienna terror attack that killed four and injured 23 on November 2, according to officials cited by Deutsche Welle.

The Austrian report ー based on police records ー does not name the suspect, nor the Saudi businessman, for fear of hampering the ongoing probe into possible terror financing.

The pair’s link to shell companies in the British Virgin Islands and other offshore financial centers was revealed for the first time after the reporters’ examination of Paradise Papers, a trove of leaked documents obtained by Süddeutsche Zeitung and shared with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists in 2017.

The 13.4 million files include incorporation documents, emails, contracts and other records from two offshore service providers and the company registries of some of the world’s most secretive countries.

The Austrian man was listed as the director of several companies in the BVI, Malta and the Bahamas, the media report said. His address on the documents referred to an apartment in Vienna that belongs to the wife of one of the main suspects in the police investigation, according to a review of Austria’s land registry records.

By cross-checking the confidential files with property records, the reporters also found that the shell companies owned properties in the U.K., including two office buildings, a commercial property and a retail park, worth about $73 million in total.

The documents show that a Liechtenstein trust owned by the Saudi businessman was behind those companies. The man is also known as a philanthropist who has financed Islamic studies at various European universities in recent years, including in Austria, the report added.

The complex offshore structure identified by the journalists is legal, the report said, but “can be used to disguise the flow of money and the identity of the true economic beneficiaries.”

Profil and Ö1, two ICIJ media partners in Austria, asked the Viennese suspect about the purpose of the offshore company network and his link with the Saudi billionaire. A lawyer representing him declined to comment.

The post Muslim Brotherhood suspect and Saudi billionaire linked to same offshore companies, Austrian report says appeared first on ICIJ.

Continue Reading