Trying to move tons of gold or whisk a dictator to safety? Need to extract a corporate executive from house arrest and spirit him across the world?
The company of choice for Carlos Ghosn’s audacious escape from Japan was a Turkish charter operator whose aircraft have helped with all of that and more.
Two planes operated by a unit of MNG Holding Co., a conglomerate with hotel, finance and transportation services, surreptitiously carried Ghosn first from Osaka to Istanbul, Turkey, and then from Istanbul to Beirut in his home country of Lebanon, according to a senior Turkish official.
While details are still emerging, the dramatic exfiltration is drawing attention to the company and the private world of charter flights. The Venezuelan government of President Nicolas Maduro has used aircraft from MNG to ship gold to Istanbul. Reza Zarrab, a gold trader who was convicted of violating U.S. sanctions against Iran, tapped the company to manage his private plane.
Charter jets give customers a cloak of privacy. Planes are often owned by one entity and operated and managed by another specialty company. Still, tail numbers and registrations can be tracked, partially piercing their secrecy. That’s how MNG’s name has surfaced in the Ghosn drama.
“I’m sure they’re on everyone’s radar screens now,” said Michael Burton, an attorney specializing in international trade law.
MNG Jet says customers can do whatever they want with the aircraft they have chartered, as long as it isn’t illegal. It said, however, that it had filed a criminal complaint over the flights linked to Ghosn over what it said amounted to “the illegal use of its jet charter services.”
“Similarly to a car rental agency, MNG Jet is renting out planes, and does not bear any responsibility for what the passengers do with them,” the company wrote in an emailed response to questions. “According to the international aviation code, it is not MNG Jet’s role, responsibility and rights to enquire about the reasons behind the travels or to check the content of the luggage transported by the passengers in the planes.”
For its part, Turkey has detained seven people, including four pilots, and is investigating the Ghosn transport.
MNG has a significant cargo unit that does business with clients including UPS and DHL. That unit, MNG Airlines, serves Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Germany, the U.K. and the Middle East. A smaller affiliate, MNG Jet, operates at least half a dozen aircraft out of Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport.
The MNG unit said it leased two jets to two different clients: one scheduled to fly from Dubai to Osaka and then to Istanbul, and another from Istanbul to Beirut. It added that the leases didn’t appear to be connected and that Ghosn’s name didn’t appear on any flight documentation. MNG didn’t provide the names on the leases.
According to the company, one MNG Jet employee, who is under investigation by Turkish authorities “has admitted having falsified the records.” He also “confirmed that he acted in his individual capacity, without the knowledge or the authorization of the management of MNG Jet,” the company said.
When Ghosn boarded one of the company’s aircraft in Osaka, he became the latest passenger on a jet aircraft that has been followed meticulously for the last year by amateur sleuths. It has made several trips from Caracas to Istanbul, ferrying gold for a Venezuelan government eager to raise hard currency, according to a person familiar with the matter. Those routes were confirmed by Sweden-based flightradar24.com.
That Bombardier Global Express, tail number TC-TSR, has “VIP seating for 13,” according to the company, and a range of 6,000 miles. Earlier in the spring, it made a trip to Venezuela, but apparently not for gold. It was dispatched from Moscow to Caracas when an April 30 uprising against Maduro prompted talk of a quick escape. U.S. Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo said that the plan was to ferry Maduro to safety in Cuba but that the Russians persuaded him to stay. (Maduro never left and called Pompeo’s statement “craziness.”)
Several weeks later, the same jet transported Venezuelan officials to Oslo for talks with opposition leaders, according to the person familiar with the matter. The government has given the plane a special designation that allows it to avoid customs and security at Caracas’ airport, the person said.
The company is one corner of a business empire founded by Mehmet Nazif Gunal, a Turkish-born civil engineer. From a construction company he started in the 1970s, Gunal has expanded throughout the Middle East and now employs more than 20,000 people. He also controls Avesoro Holdings, a Channel Islands-based firm with gold mines in Liberia and Burkina Faso.
Gunal also appears to have a soft spot for Russia. His conglomerate built an 874-room Turkish coastal resort called the Asteria Kremlin Palace, an onion-domed replica of the Moscow original with pools in place of Red Square. He has done well in the era of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and is part of a consortium that’s building a new airport in Istanbul.
A competitor of MNG famously touched off an incident involving a cargo of gold seven years ago. On a foggy New Year’s Eve 2012, Turkish customs officials boarded an Airbus A330 in Istanbul. They found a ton and a half of undeclared gold. The plane was operated by Turkey-based ULS Airlines. (Calls to ULS this week went unanswered.)
Zarrab, the gold trader, later said the shipment was part of a broad scheme to channel billions of dollars to Iran for oil shipments in violation of U.S. sanctions. His own private plane was seized at an MNG hangar by Turkish authorities taking his assets.
As fate would have it, when Ghosn landed in Istanbul for the final leg of his journey to Beirut, he boarded Zarrab’s former plane. That Bombardier Challenger 300, which flies under tail number TC-RZA, is still operated by MNG.