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Bin Laden, Hamas and the Sudanese money man

<i>Mahmud Hams/AFP/Getty Images</i><br/>Rockets are fired from Gaza City towards Israel during the October 7 attacks.
Mahmud Hams/AFP/Getty Images
Rockets are fired from Gaza City towards Israel during the October 7 attacks.

By Uri Blau, David Kenner and Nima Elbagir, CNN

(CNN) — A Hamas-linked financier, once sentenced for 10 years on corruption charges in Sudan, maintains a network of business interests in Europe despite being under US sanctions, leaked documents show.

The business dealings of Abdelbasit Hamza, linked by the US to Osama Bin Laden, span two decades and include a Cypriot firm, a Spanish real estate company, an Egyptian gold business, and a Sudan-based company sanctioned by the US less than a week after the October 7 attacks.

He was arrested in 2019 in Sudan after the downfall of dictator Omar Al-Bashir and was jailed for handling Hamas’ money, among other charges. But he was only sanctioned by the US after the militant group’s October 7 assault on Israel.

CNN, in conjunction with Israeli investigative platform Shomrim and the International Consortium for Investigative Journalism (ICIJ), has uncovered details of Hamza’s portfolio of businesses in Europe, part of a network of global assets previously estimated by Sudanese anti-corruption officials as worth over $2bn.

The new revelations come against the backdrop of allegations by critics that Israel and the US underestimated the threat posed by Hamas and did not do enough to curb its illicit global network of business interests.

Hamza, who was freed from prison in after a 2021 military coup ousted the post-Bashir government in Sudan, denies any involvement in Hamas financing. In a written response to CNN, he also denied any relationship to Osama Bin Laden. Hamza said he had been a “political prisoner” and said he was released by Sudanese authorities in June 2021 because he was “completely innocent.”

Udi Levy, who served as an intelligence officer in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) for 30 years, says he briefed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in 2015 on the threat posed by Hamas’ financing networks but was ignored. The fact that Israel and the United States did not act against Hamza sooner is “a great oversight,” Levy said in an interview with Shomrim, the investigative platform.

The Israeli government denies that its actions in recent years had strengthened Hamas. Asked whether the funding provided by Hamza was critical in the October 7 attack, Ophir Falk, foreign policy adviser to Netanyahu, told CNN:  “As we have reiterated, this question and many more will be examined after the war. The Prime Minister’s war cabinet directed the IDF to destroy Hamas and free the hostages. Israel is fully focused on accomplishing those missions. All questions will be addressed in full after total victory.”

The US State Department had not responded to a CNN request for comment by the time of publication.

How Hamza made his money

Documents provided to CNN by the ICIJ from the “Cyprus Confidential” leak – a trove of more than 3.6 million documents analyzed by ICIJ and 68 media partners, including Shomrim – show Hamza is listed as owning a stake in Matz Holdings, a Cypriot firm incorporated in February 2005. Since its founding, Matz Holdings has held a lucrative concession to exploit two gold mines in Egypt.

Hamza sold a substantial portion of his shares in Matz Holdings the day before the ouster of his ally, Sudan’s former dictator Omar Al-Bashir in 2019 but still owns a 10% stake in the company. Hamza also owns a Spanish real estate company, hit by US sanctions targeting “assets in Hamas’s investment portfolio” roughly a week after sanctions were imposed on Hamza himself.

Hamza owns his stake in Matz Holdings through the Zawaya Group for Development and Investment, a Sudan-based company that was also only sanctioned by the US Treasury Department in October for being linked to Hamas’ investment portfolio.

The Treasury Department accused him of having “longstanding ties to terrorism financing” and said he had historic links to companies in Sudan that had been associated with Bin Laden, who lived in Sudan during the 1990s.

Jakob Bliggenstorfer, Hamza’s business partner in Matz Holdings was contacted for comment on the US sanctions by the Swiss media company Tamedia, part of the ICIJ “Cyprus Confidential” consortium. Bliggenstorfer denied to Tamadia that Hamza had any ties to Hamas and described the sanctions imposed on him as “a case of mistaken identity.”

In November the United Kingdom also sanctioned Hamza, but he has not yet been sanctioned by the European Union.

Shadow men

In the aftermath of Hamas’ deadly October 7 attack on Israel, when militants killed 1,200 people and seized more than 240 hostages, questions are being raised in Israel and internationally on the failure to neuter the threat from the Iran-backed group.

Netanyahu has faced allegations that he underestimated Hamas, with deadly consequences. CNN and Shomrim have previously reported how Netanyahu allowed Hamas to receive millions of dollars in cash-filled suitcases. Provided by Qatar for humanitarian reasons, the difficulty in monitoring such large sums of cash triggered concerns within Netanyahu’s own Cabinet, among other officials.

The group’s finance networks evidently remain a particularly contentious issue for Israel. The IDF said on Tuesday it had killed a Palestinian man accused of being a prominent Hamas financier as part of an operation to “dismantle Hamas’ funding lifeline.”

Levy, the former IDF intelligence officer, who headed Mossad’s economic unit “Zalzal” until 2016, characterized Hamza as one of a group of “shadow men” managing those money networks on behalf of Hamas.

“In recent years he [Hamza] has become a central figure in Hamas’ investment portfolio.” responsible for “dozens of companies – seemingly legitimate” whose revenue is “for the purpose of financing the movement’s operations, including its military activity,” Levy said, in an interview with Shomrim.

Too late

Sudanese authorities arrested Hamza in April 2019, in the immediate aftermath of Bashir’s fall from power. Hamza’s assets were seized by Sudan’s civilian rulers. The country’s new anti-corruption task force indicted Hamza in February 2021 for, among other charges, illicit and suspicious wealth, money laundering, corruption, and terrorist financing. Hamza was later sentenced to 10 years in prison.

Following a military coup in Sudan in October 2021, Hamza was one of several Bashir allies released from prison, and the seizure of his assets was reversed. Former Sudanese officials say this allowed another opportunity to halt Hamza – and Hamas – to slip away.

“We realized quickly that much of Abdelbasit’s financial network was large and complex,” Mohamed Al-Faki Suleiman, the former acting head of Sudan’s civilian anti-corruption committee, told CNN. “Investments in oil, hotels, marketing, contracting services,” and illegally acquired “millions of acres of land.”

Al-Faki said hundreds of millions of dollars of Hamza’s assets are still held outside Sudan, despite Sudan’s task force having flagged the funds to authorities in the US and Europe in 2019.

Al-Faki says he regrets that the US and others did not act on Sudan’s findings. “Everything we uncovered turned out to be 100% true,” Al-Faki said. “The US sanctions came too late.”

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