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By Jamie Dettmer
The al Qaeda-affiliated groups in Syria have started working with crime syndicates and racketeering thugs for kidnappings, arms-smuggling, and widespread looting.
Syria’s insurgent militias are becoming ever more enmeshed with organized crime, blurring the line between insurgents and racketeers and undermining the rebels’ efforts to maintain sagging popular support for the uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
And it isn’t only militias affiliated with the Western-backed Free Syrian Army or Islamist militias profiting from the chaos and lawlessness to plunder and smuggle, extort and kidnap—the villainy is also being perpetrated by al Qaeda-affiliated jihadists, who present themselves as paragons of strict Islamic virtue and argue the spate of executions they have presided over are done to enforce morality.
Both of the al Qaeda affiliate operating in Syria—Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham, or ISIS—have folded within their ranks groups widely seen as crime syndicates and insurgent leaders who at heart are racketeers, say European intelligence sources. They point to four battalions that have shifted allegiance in recent months from the FSA-aligned Ahfad al Rasoul Brigade to al-Nusra and this week realigned once again, this time siding with ISIS.
One of the battalions, Liwa Allah Akbar, is led by Saddam al-Jamal, who was, until his defection, the FSA’s top commander on the eastern front, and who earlier this week announced that he was joining ISIS on the grounds that the FSA had become a puppet of Western and Arab intelligence services.
In a 30-minute video uploaded to YouTube, al-Jamal called on all rebels to dissociate themselves from the Western and Gulf-backed Syrian National Coalition and its military arm, the FSA, because of their opposition to the jihadists and because they want “to prevent the Sharia of Allah from being established in the land.” He complained in the interview that, while working with the FSA, he had to “meet with the apostates of Qatar and Saudi Arabia and with the infidels of Western nations such as America and France in order to receive arms and ammo or cash.”
But according to a Kurdish militia commander who has fought six battles against al-Jamal this year and managed to seize his headquarters at the border town of Ras al-Ayn, the Liwa Allah Akbar leader has had a checkered criminal history as an arms and drugs trafficker and been astute in the past at nurturing and playing off ties with both Syrian and Turkish intelligence when it served his purposes.
“He isn’t himself at heart an Islamist,” says Giwan Ibrahim, a top commander with the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, or YPG. “He has the mentality of a Mafioso and not someone who has the mind of an ideological fighter.”
The picture Ibrahim paints of al-Jamal is of a pirate and a personality not that dissimilar from the North African jihadist leader-cum-traffickerMokhtar Belmokhtar, the mastermind behind the bloody hostage standoff earlier this year at a natural gas complex in Algeria. Belmokhtar earned the nickname “Marlboro Man” for his extensive tobacco smuggling. And he too is suspected of having developed connections with intelligence services to help advance his criminal enterprises, including the kidnapping of foreigners for ransom.
Of al-Jamal, Ibrahim says, his men follow him because they are rewarded with loot, women and cash. Because of funding and weapons-supply challenges, al-Nusra and ISIS are increasingly open to dealing with cross-border crime groups and the likes of al-Jamal. “The jihadists are not as strong as you think and they have a lot of problems, especially with their funding and they are trying to get any means of supply. There are some severe divisions at the top and there are a lot disagreements caused by these new groups in their midst,” he says.
The jihadists aren’t the only ones who are blurring the line between insurgency and crime in an effort to generate revenue for arms and paying fighters. The increasing lawlessness and profiteering in rebel-held territory in northern and eastern Syria is undermining the battle for hearts and minds, with the racketeering adding to the disaffection of opposition activists and ordinary Syrians with a rebellion that has wrought widespread destruction and suffering and is just a few months shy of its third anniversary.
Anger with the corruption and cronyism of the Assad regime was one of the factors fueling the popular opposition to the government in the first place.
“The nexus between jihadists and organized crime is not a new one,” says Jonathan Schanzer, a Mideast expert with the Washington DC-based think tank, the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. “we’ve seen this among other al Qaeda groups like Al Qaeda in the Maghreb. On the Shia Muslim side of the street, Hezbollah is known to be entrenched in the criminal underworld. Welcome to the world of pious crime in the name of religion.”
Criminality has worsened dramatically in the last year in rebel-held territory, say refugees and those still living in northern and eastern Syria, who paint a bleak picture of mounting criminality—from extortion to kidnapping and the seizing of property—as civilians scramble to overcome shortages of food, water and fuel and prepare themselves for the hardships of a looming winter.
Hussein, a 45-year-old father of four from Tal Rifat, a town north of Aleppo, complains of rampant plundering by rebel militias. “They are out for themselves,” he says. Rebels controlling checkpoints and border crossings demand higher and higher fees for transporting goods and often demand a large share of what is being carried, he says. Hussein runs a small transport business.
Rebels forging alliances of convenience with organized crime is often a feature of uprisings and civil wars and was rampant in the Balkans, where nationalists formed close ties with organized crime groups—with notable intertwining between the Kosovo Liberation Army and the Albanian mafia, a relationship that involved heroin trafficking and syndicated prostitution. A similar dynamic developed in Iraq and Afghanistan. The danger for rebels when they resort to crime and criminals to generate needed funding is that racketeering can take over and a profit motive starts to kick in.
Criminals are often more skilled logistically at smuggling weapons and ammunition, securing communication equipment and shifting money through banks. They also have the networks able to traffic in plundered goods and equipment.
In August, UNESCO warned of extensive plundering of Syria’s rich cultural heritage and the looting of artifacts from archaeological sites for export. UNESCO’s assistant director-general for culture, Francesco Bandarin, told reporters that organized, armed gangs involving hundreds of hired men were exploiting the lack of security at archaeological sites.
In order to demonstrate the scale of the looting, UNESCO displayed before-and-after satellite images of Apamea, renowned for its Hellenistic ruins and founded by a general serving with Alexander the Great. The images from prior to the war show the site surrounded by flat fields while the later images reveal hundreds of bulldozed holes.
UN officials say the looters often work hand-in-hand with rebel militias. Syria has more than 10,000 archaeological sites left by Greeks, Romans and Ottomans and others, and Interpol, the European police agency, says dozens of ancient mosaics and artifacts from Syria have turned up on the international art market.
But looting isn’t restricted to ancient sites. The Syrian foreign ministry earlier this year complained that rebels had plundered a thousand factories in and around Aleppo, Syria’s largest city and its onetime commercial hub, and transported equipment, machinery and raw materials into Turkey for sale.
Not that criminality is all on one side. The networks of thugs that the Assad regime uses to enforce and intimidate, known as the Shabiha, are exploiting the chaos for business opportunities too, say opposition activists, and are also resorting to plundering, extortion and profiteering.
In 2010, Carl Dote and his his wife, Paula, said on WTTW-Channel 11’s show “Check, Please!” that they were the owners of Danny's restaurant in Melrose Park. The appearance raised questions about how Dote, a convicted felon, could own a restaurant with a liquor license. Felons typically can’t obtain a liquor license.
Convicted mob bookmaker Carl Dote has had good luck with the village government of Melrose Park.
The restaurant he once ran with his wife in town got a liquor license — despite Dote being a convicted felon.
And the 64-year-old Dote got an even more direct benefit from the village — a job as a dispatcher in the public works department that pays $32,500 a year, plus health insurance, the Sun-Times has learned.
Dote insists his criminal behavior is in the past, and he said he likes his public works job with the village, which provides much-needed insurance.
“I work and I work and I work,” Dote said. “I do my job, I’m there every day.”
The mayor of Melrose Park did not return calls seeking comment last week.
The hiring of Dote raises questions about the west suburban village, according to Arthur Bilek, the executive vice president of the Chicago Crime Commission.
Though there’s nothing wrong with hiring a convicted criminal,“this shows that former bookmakers can still find a haven in Melrose Park, a town long known for relationships with organized crime,” Bilek said.
Dote is also be known around Melrose Park for Danny’s, the restaurant he said he used to run.
Both he and his wife, Paula, got in trouble last year with the Illinois Liquor Control Commission after they appeared on WTTW-Channel 11’s show “Check, Please!” and proclaimed in 2010 they were the owners.
The appearance raised questions about how Dote, a convicted felon, could own a restaurant with a liquor license. Felons typically can’t obtain a liquor license.
Dote later insisted he was never the owner of the restaurant. He lists himself as a manager on a resume the Chicago Sun-Times obtained from Melrose Park. His name didn’t appear on the forms needed to get a liquor license, but the state Liquor Control Commission wasn’t pleased with what it found.
An investigation revealed that Dote and his wife were both cosignatories on the business’ bank account, a commission spokeswoman said.
“We fined the business $2,500 for subterfuge and required that both Carl and Paula Dote be removed from the business bank account and the license,” said Sue Hofer, the commission spokeswoman.
Paula Dote still works at the restaurant and told the Sun-Times she’s not the owner “but I’m still here.” Next door to the restaurant is a takeout window called “Paula’s Xpress.” A photo of what appears to be Carl Dote hangs in front of Danny’s register.
According to the liquor commission, the owner of Danny’s is Linda Scavo, who’s married to the suburb’s disgraced former police chief, Vito Scavo. Vito Scavo was sentenced in 2010 to six years in prison for muscling local businesses, including the now-closed Kiddieland, to hire his private security business. He’s expected to be released next year and the liquor commission said it will review the license annually “to make sure he is not involved in the business.”
Meanwhile, Dote says he has had nothing to do any more with bookmaking or any sort of gambling, much less with organized crime, since being convicted in a 2000 bookmaking case and sentenced to more than two years in prison. Dote was also a low-level player in Elmwood Park crew leader Marco Damico’s multimillion-dollar gambling operation, according to a 1994 case.
Dote first worked for the village in 2007 and resigned in 2009. He told the truth on his job application about his criminal past, according to records. He said a friend told him about the job, though he doesn’t specify who, and added that his qualifications included “good people skills.”
Dote returned to the village in December 2012, records show.
“It’s good insurance. I’m in need of insurance,” he said.
And he doesn’t want his past dredged up, again. He doesn’t want to lose his job, either.
“I’m not happy because I’m afraid this is going to [inform] people who don’t know about what happened 15 years ago,” Dote said. “I don’t think that’s fair.”
Contributing: Jon Seidel
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By Josh Saul
A Gambino crime-family associate who beat charges he knifed the owner of popular Brooklyn pizza joint Lucali was sentenced to 12 years behind bars Friday for stabbing another man inside a Bay Ridge bar in an unrelated incident.
Battista “Benny” Geritano, 40, who was convicted last month of attempted assault stemming from his 2012 bar brawl with Nunzio Fusco inside the bar Nouveau, had to be silenced by Brooklyn Supreme Court judge Albert Tomei for his emotional outbursts.
“I never stabbed this man, Your Honor. She tells you nothing but lies,” the mobster said, referring to Brooklyn assistant district attorney Lindsey Gerdes.
“The defendant is a career criminal. The second he’s let out of jail he commits another crime,” Gerdes said calmly. “He has not changes. He is still a cold-hearted and cold-blooded criminal.”
Surveillance footage shown during the trial showed Geritano brandishing the blade before plunging it into Fusco’s gut.
Geritano could have faced 25 years to life if the judge had found him a persistent felony offender.
Previously the Gambino goon had been accused of slashing dough-tosser Mark Iacono in Carroll Gardens in 2011 over a reputed love triangle.
The former friends allegedly fought over the curvy Annete Angeloni, who was shacked up with Geritano when the jealous mobster accused Iacono of trying to steal her, sources have told The Post.
The case was dropped after both Iacono and Geritano refused to cooperate with authorities.
An FBI agent testified at Geritano’s 2011 federal probation hearing that the Gambino associate was suspected of committing “at least four” murders.