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WASHINGTON -- Federal law enforcement officials are prompting a nationwide crackdown on black-market tobacco, as smugglers with ties to terrorist groups are acquiring millions of dollars from illegal cigarette sales and funneling the cash to terrorist organizations such as al-Qaeda and Hezbollah, reported the Washington Post.
The federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives has more than 300 open cases of illicit cigarette trafficking -- including several with terrorist links -- up from only a handful five years ago, ATF sources said.
"This is a major priority for us," said Michael Bouchard, assistant director of the ATF. "The deeper we dig into these cases, the more ties to terrorism we're discovering."
The lucrative trafficking of cigarettes, known as cigarette diversion, is a simple scheme but difficult to stop, law enforcement officials say. The traffickers purchase a large volume of cigarettes in states where the tax is low, such as Virginia and North Carolina, transport them up Interstate 95 to states such as Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania and New Jersey and then sell them at a discount without paying the higher cigarette taxes in those states.
With huge profits and low penalties for arrest and conviction, illicit cigarette trafficking now has begun to rival drug trafficking as a funding choice for terrorist groups, said William Billingslea, an ATF senior intelligence analyst who has studied the issue extensively.
Although black-market cigarette sales have been around for decades, the link to suspected terrorist groups is a new and growing phenomenon.
"The schemes provide terrorists millions of dollars which can be used to purchase firearms and explosives to use against the United States and others," said ATF Director Carl J. Truscott, who was appointed to head the agency two months ago after 22 years in the Secret Service.