How “Hundreds of Billions” Are Laundered With Cash on Flights Between London and Dubai

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What, No Bitcoin? How “Hundreds Of Billions” Are Laundered With Cash On Airplanes

How “Hundreds of Billions” Are Laundered With Cash on Flights Between London and Dubai

Jo-Emma Larvin navigated through London’s Heathrow Airport on a fateful day in August 2020, pushing a cart laden with seven suitcases. Traveling business class to Dubai, Larvin and her companion passed through security, seemingly no different from the throngs of other travelers. Yet, unbeknownst to airport authorities, her bags held a clandestine cargo: millions of British pounds, wrapped in rubber bands and sealed in plastic.

Their destination? An international money launderer, adept at converting cash into gold or other currencies, the Wall Street Journal reports, without mentioning bitcoin once, because let’s face it: 99% of all money laundering involves not crypto but cold, hard cash!

The money launderer, who charges a hefty fee to clients to exchange cash for gold and other currencies, has been operating via Heathrow to Dubai – the former doesn’t scan outbound luggage for cash, while the latter welcomes sacks of it. They’re also the #1 and #2 of the world’s busiest airports for international passengers.

The UK mandates passengers declare amounts exceeding $10,000 to customs authorities. Larvin, however, risked arrest by not disclosing her precious cargo, not that anyone would notice. The suitcases slid through Heathrow’s baggage-handling system and its 3-D scanner, designed to detect explosives rather than contraband currency.

The next morning in Dubai, the women calmly collected their bags, declaring $2.8 million at customs, a practice fully permitted by UAE law. While the UAE allows any amount of cash to enter its borders, the laxity of international airports in monitoring money flows has created a loophole, one exploited by money launderers worldwide.

Each year, more than $2 trillion in proceeds from illegal enterprises enters the global financial system, with a significant portion smuggled across borders by air. According to estimates by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime and the Financial Action Task Force, “hundreds of billions in illicit cash” fly out of the UK and other nations to countries with fewer regulations.

One of the reasons for so much airline smuggling is that banks around the globe have stepped up the reporting of suspicious transactions, making it more difficult to launder money using traditional wire transfers. So it’s back to even more traditional ways of money laundering.

“You just can’t walk into a bank with this much money without being flagged,” said George Voloshin, of ACAMS, an industry group for financial crime-fighting professionals. “You will be arrested at the next branch.”

Larvin and her boyfriend became two operatives in an intricate web of money launderers working for a UAE-based kingpin. Over a few months in 2020, this network smuggled around $125 million, primarily from the UK to Dubai. “How did they manage so much money in such a short time?” wondered Ian Truby, a senior officer at the UK’s National Crime Agency. “Security isn’t designed to detect such activities.”

Three weeks after her initial journey, Larvin returned to Heathrow with her boyfriend, carrying eight suitcases filled with cash. “It’s fucking ridiculous,” he texted, voicing concern about drawing attention. “Talk about conspicuous.”

The pair’s operation ultimately contributed to unraveling a broader international laundering scheme.

The Kingpin

Documents, court records, and interviews reveal how a man named Abdulla Alfalasi spearheaded the smuggling operation, transporting cash from Heathrow to Dubai since 2017. He expanded during the pandemic, once departing with 11 suitcases weighing 463 pounds and reporting $850,000 in Dubai. Alfalasi’s connections, including his father-in-law’s involvement in developing Dubai’s airport, provided an air of legitimacy.

He recruited Michelle Clarke, an executive assistant from Leeds, who soon began recruiting others, including Larvin. The scheme enticed participants with promises of easy money, business-class flights, and luxurious accommodations. Yet the allure was short-lived for many.

In October 2020, two couriers were intercepted at Heathrow, and a subsequent investigation uncovered a vast network of 36 international couriers. Clarke was arrested in Zanzibar in December, carrying $9 million in gold on a private plane.

Authorities eventually arrested Alfalasi and several couriers, unveiling details of the operation. Alfalasi pleaded guilty to money laundering and received a 9-year, 7-month prison sentence. His assets, including vehicles and watches, were seized. Clarke remains under investigation in Dubai for money laundering.

“You just can’t walk into a bank with this much money without being flagged,” said George Voloshin, of ACAMS, an industry group for financial crime-fighting professionals. “You will be arrested at the next branch.

Larvin and her boyfriend became two operatives in an intricate web of money launderers working for a UAE-based kingpin. Over a few months in 2020, this network smuggled around $125 million, primarily from the UK to Dubai. “How did they manage so much money in such a short time?” wondered Ian Truby, a senior officer at the UK’s National Crime Agency. “Security isn’t designed to detect such activities.”

Three weeks after her initial journey, Larvin returned to Heathrow with her boyfriend, carrying eight suitcases filled with cash. “It’s fucking ridiculous,” he texted, voicing concern about drawing attention. “Talk about conspicuous.”

The pair’s operation ultimately contributed to unraveling a broader international laundering scheme.