Entering Heathrow in October 2020, Tara Hanlon, 30, checked her phone, fixed her hair and prepared to shift towards departures for the next flight out to Dubai. Those watching wouldn’t have noticed anything too unusual about the brunette, except perhaps for the five heavy-looking suitcases she pulled behind her.
Suddenly, before the flight, there was a delay. Customs officials took Hanlon into a side room and began questioning her. She told officers she was going on holiday; she had £50 in cash and her suitcases were simply full of clothes, because it was a girls’ trip and she didn’t know what to wear.
Cash detection dogs, trained to pick up the scent of significant quantities of bank notes either in baggage or carried on a person, had picked up her trail. When officials searched and subsequently arrested her they found the cases were stuffed with vacuum packed bags of cash totalling £1.9m.
Hanlon, who’d recently been furloughed from her job due to the COVID pandemic, had accrued debts. Cross-checking documents at her home address and scouring her phone records, officers discovered she had carried £3.5m for money laundering gangs over three other Dubai trips. Hanlon ultimately pleaded guilty to money laundering offences worth more than £5m.
This one arrest helped unravel the UK’s biggest ever money-laundering group. The £104m “cash courier” money laundering ring, which pulled in a whole collection of otherwise unconnected individuals united by one thing - debts or a need for fast cash - with each being paid £3-8,000 per trip by their criminal network.
In text messages later showed in court, Hanlon told a friend, "Three big ones… with this wage and the next my debts go bye." Other messages on her phone referred to the job as a “perfect life, a few days in the sun and a few at home".
A few weeks after Hanlon’s arrest, Zdenek Kamaryt, 39, was held as he tried to board a flight from Heathrow to Dubai carrying £1.3m in cash. Nicola Esson, 55, from Leeds was arrested the following May - having made the Heathrow to Dubai trip three times between August and September 2020, checking in a total of 19 suitcases containing cash worth £6.4m - a combined weight of almost half a ton in bank notes.
In court, prosecutor Julian Christopher QC described the cash couriers as “typically young people, attracted by the money”. The investigation is still ongoing with a further 12 suspects charged in September, 2022, including glamour model Jo Emma Larvin, who once dated boxer Joe Calzaghe, alongside her current partner Jonathan Johnson.
Apart from detection, the biggest sweat for the couriers was losing a suitcase. This happened to Muhammed Geyas Ilyas, a 20 year-old cash courier from Slough, when one of his four suitcases went missing in Heathrow in February 2020. After a ten day wait, the mishandled bag was subsequently found. Unfortunately for Ilyas, it was picked up by Border Force officers who discovered £431,000 in hard cash inside. Ilyas subsequently pleaded guilty to carrying £2.5m in total.
Another suspected courier, a 30-year-old from Leeds, was found hanged at his home in August 2020. He began the courier flights to Dubai after losing his job as an NHS worker. His last Instagram post was him swimming in a pool at a five-star hotel in Dubai.
The modern view of money laundering typically conjures up tax havens; chains of shell companies that are impossible for governments to unpick, or huge sums transferred in Bitcoin.
It doesn’t usually conjure up the idea strangers with ordinary jobs humping tonnes of bank notes in suitcases to Dubai. According to Ian Turby, senior investigating officer, at the National Crime Agency (NCA), the group’s cash is suspected to have been washed on behalf of the UK’s thriving illegal drug trade. An almost exclusively cash business, the trade – particularly the county lines network – produces vast amounts of cash that can’t easily be digitised, meaning it has to be physically moved and invested into something else.
"Given the physical appearance of the cash,” which was bundled in elastic bands, “it looks like it was from street deals - we don’t know how the drug gangs got in touch with this network. Because of the prevalence of county lines in the UK and the amount of money involved here, we can assume there’s a large element of that involved,” says Turby.
The network collected cash from “counting houses”, usually rented flats in central London which regularly moved to disguise movement and avoid detection. The wads of bank notes were vacuum-packed and put into suitcases, each containing up to £500,000 and weighing around 40kg. These would be sprayed with filter coffee or air fresheners in an attempt to hide the distinctive smell of cash from detection dogs.
On arrival in Dubai, Nicola Esson, one of the cash couriers later arrested, had been able to declare a total of £6.4m in cash immediately. Whilst the money could be seized if found in the UK, once declared in Dubai it could be assimilated into other legal activities via local money lenders. The money was – according to sources at the NCA – converted into dirhams, and used to buy gold in Africa or cryptocurrency, before being released back to the drug gangs in the UK to be spent as legal tender.
Dubai is attractive to UK money launderers for several reasons, says Max Heywood, the head of public sector at Elucidate, a financial crime risk quantification platform. It has a cash-intensive, open economy; a high-end luxury real estate market and active trades in gold, precious metals and stones.
In March of this year, the United Arab Emirates - of which Dubai is the most populated city - was placed on a watch list of countries by the global anti-money laundering body Financial Action Task Force (FATF).
“The challenge is not so much the laws but how they are enforced,” says Heywood. “A 2020 FATF assessment found banks in Dubai do not take sufficient measures to deal with high-risk clients. Professional money launderers would know of these banks and intentionally target them. They would also be likely to use [foreign] shell companies to disguise their client’s identity when buying real estate.”
UK gangs are not the only ones moving money through Dubai. In 2010, Wikileaks revealed that Afghanistan’s vice-president, Ahmad Zia Massoud, was allowed into Dubai with $52m in cash the previous year, according to a US diplomatic report. In 2021, Afghan president Ashraf Ghani was reported to have fled his country for Dubai in a helicopter with $169m.
Angolan authorities sought to retrieve $1bn from former president’s daughter and Dubai resident Isabel dos Santos, who sent $115m to offshore company in the country, and – in another episode dubbed the “Russian Laundromat” – some $20bn was sent to 150 UAE companies from Russia during 2010 to 2014, despite authorities in three different countries flagging their concerns.
Unregulated transfer businesses help money to disappear in Dubai, says Neil Swift, a partner at Peters & Peters, a law firm specialising in business crime. Swift works with clients from the Middle East and Asia on high-profile and high-value financial crime investigations.
“There is a significant amount of informal exchange business – Money or Value Transfer Services (MVTS) – which is unregulated,” he explains. “The large size and openness of the UAE’s financial sector, the high numbers of foreign nationals resident there, and the consequent range of currencies in use, make it an attractive place to integrate dirty money into the financial system.”
In December 2021, police investigating the smuggling ring swooped on a smart residential address in Belgravia, London. The property belonged to a woman, but the man that police wanted was her partner.
Abdulla Mohammad Ali Bin Beyat Alfalasi, a 47-year-old Emirati national and father of six, ran a Dubai-registered company called Omnivest Gold Trading. Alfalasi had little criminal history, but was a key figure for the network. He had actually made multiple cash trips himself between December 2019 and March 2020.
Post-lockdown, he recruited a wider network of couriers after a chance meeting with British woman, Michelle Clarke, 42, a former worker at Sky TV Digital. She is believed to have helped recruit people to act as couriers for the Omnivest-linked cash mule scheme, including Hanlon and Esson. Clarke is still on the run and wanted by the NCA.
Evidence found against Alfalasi was overwhelming. In searches of his home, computers and three phones, police found pictures of suitcases of cash, invoices; a spreadsheet titled “Abdullah London” which recorded amounts of cash collected and then the value – in dirhams – of the commodities. His phone number and email address were also connected to flight bookings for cash mules.
Critically, for authorities, despite 19,000 pages of evidence served, nowhere did they locate the names of who the money laundering gang were moving cash for. They are believed to be part of a “gang courier service”, co-mingling multiple criminal gangs’ funds, washing the cash and then returning it. But someone, somewhere has a record of exactly which gangs and for how much, says Turby.
“These are absolutely the funds from dozens of criminal gangs in the UK,” he says. “[This laundering process] enables those networks to make upstream payments to cartels. There’s some indication it was used to acquire gold in Africa and we are following that up with Dubai police now.”
Alfalasi was sentenced to nine years and seven months in prison. Of those sentenced so far, Hanlon received 34 months and Kamaryt 26 months in prison for money-laundering offences. Others named above are still waiting for sentencing. All, that is, except for the major criminal gangs they were washing money for and who still evade detection and justice.