The same banks used by kleptocratic governments to divert state assets can also be used by terrorist financing networks. This is what has taken place at one prominent bank in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Individuals and entities subject to U.S. sanctions, in connection with Hezbollah, used the bank to move money through the international banking system, despite several warnings from bank employees that doing so could violate U.S. sanctions. This was not just any bank. BGFIBank DRC, the institution that processed the transactions, is run by President Joseph Kabila’s brother and has been mentioned in a recent scandal in Congo involving the alleged diversion of public funds from state-owned mining companies and the national electoral commission.[i]
As set out in this report, in 2011 bank employees at BGFIBank DRC raised the alarm with senior officials at the bank, in writing, about a series of transactions. The concern was that the transactions involved companies linked to financiers of Hezbollah, a Lebanon-based terrorist group and political party. The main entities in question were subsidiaries of Kinshasa-based business conglomerate Congo Futur, a company under U.S. Department of the Treasury sanctions. Among the recipients of the warnings was Francis Selemani Mtwale, the bank’s CEO and brother of President Joseph Kabila.[ii] But the bank’s relationship with Hezbollah-linked companies continued. BGFIBank DRC even went so far as to request that certain transactions be unblocked by the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) after other banks refused to process them. And BGFIBank DRC continued to engage in correspondence with Congo Futur-affiliated company representatives in 2016. This raises major questions about the bank’s ability and willingness to fulfill its sanctions and anti-money laundering compliance obligations.
BGFIBank DRC has been reported to have been used to divert significant public funds in Congo, including millions of dollars in withdrawals by Congo’s electoral commission, and transfers of $8 million in cash in irregular “tax advances” from Congo’s largest state-owned mining company, Gécamines.[iii] Published reports raise serious questions about the bank’s regulatory and compliance regime.
Inadequate anti-money laundering compliance and sanctions enforcement standards at banks can empower a wide range of criminal groups and corrupt actors—and ultimately undermine governance and contribute to instability in Congo and elsewhere. Members of civil society have suggested that business interests could be part of the reason Kabila, who has sparked a violent nationwide political crisis by recently overstaying his presidential term limits, has maintained an iron grip on the presidency.[iv]
In the example profiled in this report, BGFIBank DRC’s approach to enforcing sanctions has allowed Kassim Tajideen—described by the U.S. government as “an important financial contributor” who “has contributed tens of millions of dollars to Hizballah”[v]—and his network to maintain access to the global financial system despite being placed under U.S. sanctions in 2009 and 2010. The documents reviewed by The Sentry also show links between Congo Futur and other firms under Kassim Tajideen’s control. These documents indicate that Congo Futur subsidiaries used BGFIBank DRC to operate accounts and make wire transfers after both Congo Futur and Kassim were placed under U.S. sanctions, despite warnings from bank employees that the bank should not do so. This is despite repeated public assertions from both Kassim and one of his brothers who is not under U.S. sanctions, Congo Futur General Manager Ahmed Tajideen, that the Kinshasa-based conglomerate had no links to any of the Tajideens under U.S. sanctions.
Congo Futur has continued to thrive in Congo despite U.S. sanctions; it even maintains financial ties to the Congolese government and has received government contracts. These continued relations raise serious questions about the Congolese government’s reliability in the fight against global terrorism, transnational crime, and illicit finance. Congo Futur has risen and remained prominent despite facing sanctions and the Kabila regime’s decreasing legitimacy. BGFIBank DRC has been used to facilitate Congo Futur’s access to the U.S. financial system, despite sanctions.
- Targeted Sanctions. The United States and European Union should urgently impose and implement three sets of targeted economic sanctions actions:
- The U.S. government should investigate and act pursuant to Executive Order 13224, which is the principal authority used for counterterrorism sanctions, to designate any officials at BGFIBank DRC who the United States identifies as having knowingly undertaken transactions on behalf of Congo Futur, as well as to designate any other entities in the Congo Futur network that the United States identifies as engaged in unlawful activities.
- The U.S. government should investigate and act pursuant to Executive Order 13671 and the European Union should investigate and act pursuant to Regulation (EC) No. 1183 of July 18, 2005 and Regulation (EU) 2016/2230 (2), which are the principal U.S. and EU authorities used for sanctions related to the Democratic Republic of Congo, to designate the networks of senior members of the regime, including financial advisors, Kabila family members, and their companies that the United States and the European Union identify as having engaged in unlawful activities.
- The U.S. government should sanction those responsible for “acts of significant corruption” in connection with the transactions described in this report, pursuant to the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act (Public Law 114-328).[vi]
The impact of these sanctions actions would be the same: to freeze the assets of any designated individuals and entities and block them from the financial system.
- Criminal Investigations. The U.S. Department of Justice should expand its investigation into the Tajideen network to evaluate the potential criminal liability of BGFIBank DRC leadership for knowingly doing business with Hezbollah financiers pursuant to the U.S. Patriot Act and the U.S. International Emergency Economic Powers Act (IEEPA). Specialized human rights and transnational crimes units in the United States and Europe should investigate whether entities within their jurisdiction have ties to the Tajideen network, with a view toward any financial facilitation of terrorist activities or human rights violations, including the potential facilitation of crimes occurring in Congo.
- Anti-Money Laundering/Counter-Threat Finance Actions. The U.S. Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) and financial intelligence units (FIUs) in Europe should immediately investigate the transactions described in this report and, if warranted, issue advisories to banks and other financial institutions. FinCEN should issue an investigative request, pursuant to its authority under Section 314(a) of the Patriot Act, to request that banks search for records related to the individuals and companies involved. If FinCEN identifies specific patterns of money laundering or threat finance, the advisories should state the risk that banks conducting business with BGFIBank DRC may incur by processing transactions on behalf of Hezbollah-linked entities. If warranted, FinCEN should also warn of the broader risks evident in the Congolese banking system, specifically the money laundering and threat finance risks related to the corruption of the Kabila regime and business network. This critical step would lead banks to conduct greater vigilance and reporting and could lead to further FIU actions.
- Bank Due Diligence/De-Risking. Global banks with commercial relationships in Congo should immediately undertake enhanced due diligence on those relationships with banks in Congo, including provision of correspondent banking, trade finance, and other services, while at the same time being cognizant of and avoiding over-compliance and de-risking.
- Public Corporate Registry. The Congolese government, led by the Ministry of the National Economy and the Ministry of Foreign Commerce, should create a searchable online public registry of all corporate entities formed in the country to improve corporate transparency, public oversight, and accountability.
[i] Xavier Counasse and Colette Braeckman, “Corruption au Congo: les preuves qui accablent le régime Kabila,” Le Soir, October 29, 2016, available at http://plus.lesoir.be/66290/article/2016-10-29/corruption-au-congo-les-preuves-qui-accablent-le-regime-kabila; Jeffrey Gettleman, “As President Joseph Kabila Digs In, Tensions Rise in Congo,” The New York Times, December 27, 2016, available at https://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/17/world/africa/congo-joseph-kabila-corruption.html.
[ii] According to the Congo Research Group and the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, “Selemani became an adopted son after his father, one of Laurent-Désiré’s rebel comrades, was killed.” Congo Research Group and Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, “All the President’s Wealth: The Kabila Family Business,” p. 7 (July 2017), available at https://allthewealth.congoresearchgroup.org/dist/assets/all-the-presidents-wealth-ENG.pdf.
[iii] Documents obtained and reviewed by the Sentry; Counasse and Braeckman, “Corruption au Congo”; Aaron Ross, “Belgium, Congo activists urge probe into Congo corruption claims,” Reuters, October 31, 2016, available at http://www.reuters.com/article/us-congo-corruption/belgium-congo-activists-urge-probe-into-congo-corruption-claims-idUSKBN12V1ZW; and Gettleman, “As President Joseph Kabila Digs In.”
[iv] Michael Kavanagh, Thomas Wilson, and Franz Wild, “With His Family’s Fortune at Stake, President Kabila Digs In,” Bloomberg, December 15, 2016, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/features/2016-12-15/with-his-family-fortune-at-stake-congo-president-kabila-digs-in; Kimiko de Freytas-Tamura, “When Will Kabila Go? Congolese Leader Long Overstays His Welcome,” The New York Times, July 23, 2017, available at https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/23/world/africa/congo-joseph-kabila-elections.html?mcubz=1.
[v] U.S. Treasury Department, “Treasury Targets Hizballah Network in Africa,” Press release, May 27, 2009, available at https://www.treasury.gov/press-center/press-releases/Pages/tg149.aspx.
[vi] S.284 – Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act 114th Congress (2015-2016), available https://www.congress.gov/bill/114th-congress/senate-bill/284/text; Letter from 23 organizations dedicated to the promotion of universal human rights and the fight against corruption to U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, September 12, 2017, available at https://enoughproject.org/blog/ngos-call-sec-tillerson-sec-mnuchin-robust-implementation-magnitsky-act.