South Africa has emerged as a central location in a case involving a controversial Johannesburg-based businessman, arrested last week, who has been accused by the United States (US) of illegally exporting items to Hezbollah, which it classifies as a terrorist organisation.
A press statement by the US Attorney’s office for the District of Minnesota details how Usama Darwich Hamade, also known as Prince Sam and who reportedly previously claimed to be Lebanese royalty, allegedly lied, saying digital compasses for drones were needed in South Africa for anti-poaching operations.
But the statement said these were actually destined for Hezbollah “co-conspirators in Lebanon”.
The indictment, which also reveals that a person identified simply as Individual A, a South African citizen and resident, apparently unwittingly ordered components which can be used in drones and jets, some of which arrived in the country, but which were then allegedly sent to Lebanon.
According to US court documents, dollars were also said to have been transferred to South African company bank accounts for the apparent purchasing of the items.
Ties to several countries
The massive case, based on the US documents, has links to countries that include South Africa, Japan, Germany and Lebanon.
Hamade, 53, and his brother Issam Hamade, 55, also known as Tony are both Lebanese citizens who were arrested last week in Johannesburg and are in custody there.
A third suspect, Samir Ahmed Berro, 64, who has Lebanese and British citizenship, is yet to be arrested.
The three arrests have made local and international news headlines, with international news agency Reuters, among the agencies covering the matter, as well as Saudi Arabian publication Arab News.
Investigations have been carried out by the US’s Federal Bureau of Investigation, Department of Commerce Office of Export Enforcement, and Homeland Security Investigations.
In South Africa, the Hawks, Crime Intelligence, and Ekurhuleni Metro Police have been involved.
On Tuesday, national police spokesperson Vishnu Naidoo confirmed to News24 that the Hamade brothers were in custody.
Usama Hamade was arrested at his Kempton Park home, while his brother was arrested at OR Tambo International Airport after he arrived from abroad.
The latest post on a Facebook profile under the name Issama Hamade showed a man had checked in at what appeared to be an airport in Beirut, Lebanon, on February 13.
This man’s profile picture on the social network portrayed him as “The Godfather”— a reference to the same-titled American movie on an organised crime family.
Bail and extradition proceedings in Johannesburg
Naidoo said the Hamade brothers were expected to apply for bail in the Kempton Park Magistrate’s Court on Monday.
“The normal extradition process will be followed,” he said, in reference to the US wanting the Hamade brothers to be extradited to stand trial in Minnesota.
Naidoo would not divulge any further information, including whether more arrests were expected in South Africa.
Usama Hamade has made news locally before. In 2012, City Press reported that he had allegedly disrupted an estate in Kempton Park, illegally occupying three houses and shooting holes in a neighbour’s window.
It also previously reported that two years earlier, he had arranged to be illegally appointed as an honorary colonel of the Regiment East Rand of the SA National Defence Force.
Alleged smuggling to Hezbollah
The Hamade brothers and Berro are accused of working together to get certain items to Hezbollah.
South Africa, according to a US indictment, was a transit point in which some of these items— including items which can be used in drones— were channelled through.
Another court document from Minnesota in the US said: “The grand jury has alleged that all three defendants, from 2009 to 2013, conspired with each other, and with others known and unknown, to buy parts for unmanned aerial vehicles (hereinafter ‘UAVs’ or ‘drones’) from US suppliers, and then to export those UAV parts, in violation of US law, to Hizballah, which is designated as a ‘foreign terrorist organisation.’”
The US documents refer to Hezbollah as Hizballah.
Items were allegedly purchased by the suspects from four US companies and a Japanese company.
On Friday, a press release on the case was posted on the US’s justice department website.
The indictment was also referred to.
It provides details about what the Hamade brothers allegedly got up to with Berro.
Berro, according to the indictment, controlled SAB Aerospace, a Dubai-based company.
SA citizen ‘inadvertently’ helped suspects
It said a person known as Individual A, a South African resident and citizen, assisted the Hamade brothers and Berro with the “illegal export scheme”, but did not understand the scheme’s “illegal purpose”.
The press release said that, in October 2009, Usama Hamade had directed Individual A to order a jet engine and get it delivered to SAB Aerospace.
But, it said, Berra then sent the engine to Hezbollah co-conspirators in Lebanon.
“In September 2009 through November 2009, Usama Hamade directed Individual A to place orders for the digital compasses and the IMUs (inertial measurement units) for delivery to South Africa, falsely telling Individual A that the parts would be used in UAVs in South Africa to fly over wildlife areas to prevent poaching,” the press release said.
“Instead, Usama Hamade transshipped the digital compasses and the IMUs to Hizballah co-conspirators in Lebanon.”
It said Usama Hamade ordered Individual A to order more inertial measurement units in March and May 2010, to be sent to South Africa.
But again, he allegedly sent these on to Hezbollah in Lebanon.
“As a consequence, Individual A obtained an export license from the US Department of State, which permitted the export of the IMUs to South Africa, but prohibited their re-export without further authorisation,” the press release said.
In January 2010, the Hamade brothers allegedly directed Individual A to get an exhaust system for a jet engine.
The press statement said Individual A ordered this online.
Germany and Los Angeles also transit points
“As part of the conspiracy, between November 2009 and April 2010, Berro caused 20 piston engines to be shipped from the US to a temporary recipient in Frankfurt, Germany, and then on to SAB Aerospace in the UAE (United Arab Emirates),” it said.
“From there, Berro caused the piston engines to be shipped to Hizballah in Lebanon.”
Another person, Individual B of Arizona in the US, allegedly sent recording binoculars to Lebanon via a courier. This was allegedly on Usama Hamade’s orders in December 2013.
The courier, according to the press release, flew from Los Angeles to Beirut “where the binoculars were delivered to Hizbillah”.
Dollars channelled to SA company bank accounts
According to the indictment, around February 8 and February 10, 2010, to allegedly help pay for certain inertial measurement units, Issam Hamade “wired a total of approximately $59 000” from a bank in Beirut to the bank account of a South African company, Deltashelf 03, controlled by Usama Hamade.
The company was, according to the indictment, “used as a corporate vehicle for the illegal export currency”.
It said on April 14, 2011, Issam Hamade also transferred about $14 965 from Beirut to the South African bank account of New Sam’s Palace, which was a business owned by Usama Hamade.
“In the comments section of the wire transfer, defendant Issam Hamade stated that the wire funds were for ‘family support’,” the indictment said.
That same day a further $99 959 was transferred into the New Sam’s Palace bank account by Issam Hamade from Beirut.
Issam Hamade had indicated the funds were “to his brothers against buying spare parts”.—News24