SBK working with Lebanese businessman sanctioned by U.S. over Hezbollah

Turkish Financial crimes units raided Sezgin Baran Korkmaz’s companies in December, following the Turkish businessman’s troubles with the Kingstons Brothers from Utah, known as the Mormon Crime Brothers. Korkmaz was known to have been in Luxembourg and Switzerland since, until Ahval broke the news that he had travelled to the Congolese capital Kinshasa on Jan. 14.

Congolese intelligence briefly detained SBK on Wednesday, following Ahval’s story, but he was released after the Turkish embassy said there was no arrest order for the businessman in Turkey.

It later came to light that in Congo, Korkmaz, also referred to as SBK, had been acting together with Saleh Assi, a businessman sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury for aiding the Lebanese Hezbollah via money laundering.

SBK had been in Congo in September 2020, working with Assi, who is referred to as ''Brother Salih'' by SBK’s men in Turkey. The U.S. Treasury sanctions had gone into effect in December 2019.

Saleh Assi
Saleh Assi, photo source: Kateeb.org

According to the U.S. Treasury, Assi and his partner Nazem Said Ahmad transferred tens of millions of laundered dollars to the Hezbollah. Said Ahmad is also accused of smuggling blood diamonds in the same announcement.

After U.S. sanctions went into effect, Assi increased his commercial ties with Turkey and continued his supply chain operations with Mikado, a company founded by SBK’s close business partners Cüneyt Özen and Kamil Feridun Özkaraman, according to the Turkish Official Gazzete's Dec, 14, 2016 announcement. The operations were able to continue with Ahmad and Assi bribing Congolese authorities to keep the laundering chain going, the 2019 U.S. Treasury announcement said.

Mikado

A local source close to Assi told Ahval that his assets were seized in several countries following the sanctions order, and that he had been struggling to keep his operations going since his banks accounts are also frozen.

Money laundered through Nazem Said Ahmad’s diamond and other businesses, as well as over half a dozen front companies by Assi, was transferred to Adham Husayn Tabaja, a high-ranking Hezbollah official responsible for finances, according to the U.S. Treasury, which added that Assi was one of the few remaining sources of income for Tabaja and thus the Hezbollah.

According to sources speaking to Ahval, Assi can’t work in international commerce as easily anymore, as many banks have started to refuse him service after U.S. sanctions. Istanbul-based company Mikado Investment and Business Development is currently propping up his companies in Congo, with goods purchased from Turkey and other countries. 

Özen and Özkaraman are board members at Mikado, according to the company’s official records. Özkaraman was the only person who was arrested in the raids against SBK’s companies last month, and is one of the partners at energy company NOIL, together with Turkish-Armenian-American Levon Dermen (also known as Levon Termendzhyan), who was convicted of money laundering in the United States in March.

(More details on SBK’s relationship to the Kingston Brothers and the corruption in the United States can be found here.)

Özen was detained in December in a Turkish police raid, like Özkaraman, but he was later released. Meanwhile, Özkaraman remains under arrest.

The two men work with SBK in several companies and initiatives, but SBK himself is not listed in official documents for Mikado. 

SBK took a plane to Congo from Paris on Jan 14, together with Assi, who also provides the man with security in the country as he stays in Kinshasa as his guest.

SBK's close circles in Turkey denying any wrongdoings with the operation.

The question here is why SBK took a risk to travel to an insecure location such as the Democratic Congo Republic (DRC) as the money laundering investigation on him continued and international news agencies like the AP reported that he was a wanted man. Even if there were no investigations on SBK, it is enough of a risk that he is currently the guest of a man sanctioned by the United States for financing the Hezbollah. It is understood that Assi also a French citizen and France does not recognise Hizbullah as a terror organisation, like many other countries including the U.S., the U.K., Canada, Australia or the New Zealand.

It is not clear how Mikado was paid after the goods the company provided for Assi’s companies arrived in the Congo from Turkey, as the 2019 order to freeze Assi’s assets remains in place. Assi’s accounts were frozen after the sanctions went into effect, but back in the days immediately after the sanctions order, a Congolese government spokesman said Assi would be allowed to open new bank accounts under supervision. However, the accounts were never opened as Assi didn’t want to share control with the government, a local source who is familiar with the company's affairs told Ahval. Instead, he used bank accounts opened for shell companies he established.

There are unconfirmed claims that Assi may have sent cash to Mikado, using his ultra-lux yacht Flying Dragon or possibly private jets. What is more, a private jet belongs to SBK stopped over in Congo, as well as Venezuela and Moscow in recent times.

SBK is still in Kinshasa. There is an outstanding invitation on him to testify in Turkey, if not an arrest warrant. There appears to be an unclear situation over SBK's legal situation in Turkey.

Records show that SBK has been using Mikado for the last six months in his dealings with Assi. Ahval has obtained invoices from goods Mikado sent to Congo, via sources in Assi’s company. 

Assi is a big name in the food business in Congo, but the U.S. government has banned any contact with him and Ahmad for U.S. citizens, saying that anybody who trades or works with Assi could also face sanctions.

Former U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had announced the sanctions order on Assi and Ahmad, and the order stated that some half dozen companies had been involved in the money laundering scheme. Pompeo said the United States would continue to pursue the Hezbollah.

The Lebanese Hezbollah was founded by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard during Lebanon’s civil war between 1975 and 1990, and included in the United States’ global terrorism list in 2001. Under Donald Trump’s presidency, sanctions against the Hezbollah increased. 

The organisation remains influential in Lebanon, and is the only one that refused to lay down arms after the civil war ended in 1990.

Mikado