Federal authorities Friday charged 18 people with smuggling cigarettes out of North Carolina to raise money for the terrorist group Hezbollah in Lebanon.
Agents arrested most of the suspects in raids of houses and businesses in and around Charlotte early Friday.
An FBI affidavit said investigators were searching for evidence that the defendants were providing resources to Hezbollah, but it did not specify how much money the alleged scheme has funneled to the group.
Seventeen of the 18 suspects were arrested Friday morning; the other was arrested Friday night. All were indicted on federal charges including immigration violations, weapon offenses, money laundering and cigarette trafficking, U.S. Atty. Mark Calloway said.
Calloway said at a hearing that they were not alleged to have participated in terrorist activities. But three of the suspects are believed to have provided Hezbollah with material support or resources, including night vision devices, global positioning systems, digital photo equipment and computers.
One of the men arrested, Mohamad Youssef Hammoud, identified as the group's ringleader by a state-federal task force that investigated the group, was described in an affidavit as well-connected to Hezbollah members in Lebanon. The affidavit said he is believed to have received Hezbollah-sponsored military training.
One source "believes that if Hezbollah issued an authorization to execute a terrorist act in the United States, Mohamad Hammoud would not hesitate in carrying it out," the affidavit read.
It was unclear whether Hammoud or any of his co-defendants had an attorney who could comment on the case.
The ring allegedly bought cigarettes in North Carolina, where taxes are five cents a pack, and unloaded them in Michigan, where prices are higher because of the state's 75-cent-a-pack tax.
The profits had allegedly been used to smuggle money to Hezbollah in Lebanon since 1996.
An FBI informant said one of those arrested, Ali Hussein Darwiche, had transported more than $1 million to Lebanon. An additional $360,000 in cashiers' checks was traced to Lebanon, according to an affidavit filed in the case.
Hezbollah draws its support from the 1.2 million-member Shiite Muslim community, Lebanon's largest sect, and enjoys the financial backing of Iran and the crucial political endorsement of Syria.
Hezbollah remains shunned by Western governments. In the 1980s, it was believed to be the umbrella group for militants who kidnapped Westerners and destroyed two U.S. Embassy compounds, the U.S. Marine headquarters at Beirut and a French military base. About 290 Americans and about 60 French soldiers were killed.
Scholars who follow terrorism and Middle East politics said groups such as Hezbollah use both legal and illegal means to raise money.
The investigation began in 1996 when Iredell County authorities noticed people with out-of-state license plates making large cash purchases from JR Tobacco, a discount tobacco outlet.