The premise almost sounds like something out of a fictional thriller: FBI agents suspect that a terrorist cell is nestled in the suburbs of Charlotte, North Carolina, and wind up racing against the clock to unravel a web of criminal activity.
Except it feels like something even stranger than fiction. Who would believe that terrorists would pick a genteel Southern city to set up an American base of operations for carrying out sinister plots on behalf of one of the largest terrorist organizations in the world?
In fact, when this really happened in Charlotte two decades ago, Robert Clifford faced the same skepticism.
“Everyone kind of chuckled, because terrorism was so far from the minds of the FBI,” says Clifford in an episode of the CNN docuseries “Declassified: Untold Stories of American Spies” titled “Operation Smokescreen,” which focuses on the Charlotte case and premieres at 9 p.m. Sunday.
This was, after all, pre-9/11.
Clifford came to Charlotte in 1997, after leaving his post as chief of the Hezbollah unit in the FBI to become supervisor of counter-terrorism and counter-intelligence and civil rights for the bureau’s North Carolina field office. The move was prompted in part by an informant who — two years earlier — had reported that a dangerous Hezbollah operative was living in Charlotte.
Few people in the bureau took the tip as seriously as Clifford. In fact, as he notes in the upcoming documentary, some quite literally laughed it off.
“Every year, we have an all-agents conference, and so we had all of the FBI of North Carolina in one spot,” recalled Clifford in a recent interview with the Observer, elaborating on those to-be-televised comments. (He is now retired but still in Charlotte, where he recently started his own business as an international security and investigations consultant.)
At the conference, Clifford said, “each supervisor will give a presentation on the status of his or her programs — for example, financial crimes, criminal activity — and then it was my turn. So I came up and started talking about what I could see was a very real terrorist presence here ... and it met with laughs. People chuckled. They just could not comprehend that there’d be any kind of terrorist presence in North Carolina.”
In short, here’s what happened: In 2000, following a painstakingly meticulous investigation, federal authorities brought down a cell of the Lebanese terrorist organization Hezbollah that was operating out of a single-family home in a quiet neighborhood near Albemarle Road Park in east Charlotte.
The cell was accused of smuggling millions of dollars worth of cigarettes from North Carolina — where the tax was only 5 cents per pack — to Michigan — which had a 75-cent state tax on cigarettes — and sending proceeds from the illegal sales to Lebanon to help finance Hezbollah’s military operations.
“Once it blew up, it was just all over the front pages — you know, back then it was all print media — and it was a shock (to the city),” Chris Swecker said while talking about the documentary in a recent interview with the Observer. Swecker, now an attorney with Charlotte’s Miller & Martin law firm, was then the special agent in charge of the FBI for North Carolina.
“Then 9/11 hit, in the middle of the prosecution phase of it. ... Then we find out that the mastermind of 9/11 (Khalid Shaikh Mohammed) had gone to college in North Carolina, up in Greensboro, and people started to say, ‘What is it about North Carolina that’s drawing all these terrorists?’”
Swecker said that when he came through Charlotte in 1982 as a field agent, Charlotte was “a provincial, bucolic, little Southern city.” When he returned to run the office in 1999, Charlotte had gone through a boom thanks to the influx of big banks like Bank of America and Wachovia (now Wells Fargo), and it had become a hotbed for white-collar crime — so, much of his attention was on corporate fraud, mortgage fraud and similar crimes.
Which kind of explains why a place like Charlotte might be appealing to a terrorist organization like Hezbollah. And again, just consider the initial reaction Clifford got to his contentions that Hezbollah had people embedded in North Carolina and masquerading as regular folks.
No one would be looking for them here.
In the 42-minute “Declassified” episode airing Sunday, the story unfolds breathlessly — almost exclusively via interviews with Clifford, Swecker, former Charlotte FBI agent Rick Schwein and then-assistant U.S. attorney Ken Bell; and while it’s clear the investigation was masterfully handled, it’s also astonishing to consider how easily it all could have fallen apart.
Or how close the cell came to never being noticed.
But in the end, Mohamad Hammoud, the Charlotte cell’s suspected leader, was convicted of conspiring to provide material support to a terrorist organization and sentenced to 155 years in prison. (His sentence was slashed in 2011 to 30 years.)
As is strongly emphasized in the documentary, Hammoud’s conviction was historic: He was the first individual sent to prison under a 1996 federal statute outlawing aid to designated terrorist groups. Since his post-9/11 conviction, the material support statute has been invoked in issuing more than a hundred indictments involving members of Al-Qaeda, ISIS and other groups.
Yet for whatever reason, it seems to have faded from Charlotte’s collective memory — the couple of native Charlotteans we mentioned the case to said it sounded only vaguely familiar, while we basically got blank stares when we asked a couple of newer residents about it.
“How soon we forget,” Clifford told the Observer. “How soon we forget the infrastructure, the organization, the strategies of Hezbollah. All of our attention has been paid to Al-Qaeda, to ISIS — and rightly so. But ... I think our state, our nation, has not (paid) the appropriate amount of attention to Hezbollah.”
“It’s something that we should all be aware of, and learn the lessons from this. ... But a lot of people have completely forgotten. They just say, ‘Oh, yeah. I remember something about cigarettes...’ They don’t realize the the danger that this cell presented.”