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Leak sheds light on family tied to 9/11 hijackers, royals dabbling in Florida real estate

UA Flight 175 hits WTC south tower 9-11 (Robert J. Fisch/WikiCommons)

Members of one of the wealthiest Saudia Arabian families, the husband of a Jordanian princess and the son of a Saudi businessman who had been investigated for ties to the 9/11 attackers all rub shoulders in Florida corporation records and the secretive world of offshore havens, a new leak of documents reveals.

The documents come from a cache of records — dubbed the Pandora Papers — from 14 financial services firms from across the world that were leaked to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, who in turn shared the documents with the Miami Herald and other news outlets.

Setting up offshore companies or trusts is not illegal: It is a way to minimize taxes, and companies may have legitimate reasons to be secretive about their ownership. Recent investigations like OpenLux and the 2017 series Panama Papers, however, reveal how bad actors also sometimes use these havens to launder illicit cash and evade taxes.

The new leak shines fresh light on this shadowy world of corporate maneuvering and highlight the growing footprint of a class of investors not commonly associated with Florida real estate: Middle Eastern billionaires and Gulf royals.

The documents reveal a vast network of real estate companies owned by the Al-Ajlan family, influential Saudi billionaires doing business in sectors as varied as textiles, luxury cars and designer wear; a luxury Miami condo owned by Majdi Anwar Fared Saleh, husband to Princess Zein bint Hussein of Jordan; and investment companies owned by Adel Esam Ghazzawi, son of Esam Ghazzawi whose Sarasota home, according to government investigation reports first accessed by the non-profit news outlet Florida Bulldog, had been visited by 9/11 hijackers multiple times.

THE KING’S BROTHER-IN-LAW

Majdi Anwar Fared Saleh is the brother-in-law of King Abdullah II, the ruler of Jordan since 1999. Yet, when he filled out a customer form for financial services provider Overseas Management Company, he declared that he was not a “politically exposed person” — someone who is in public office or close enough to influence decisions of those in government and hence subject to greater scrutiny.

The leaked documents list him as the beneficial owner of a British Virgin Islands-registered company, Esnad Holdings Corporation, with around $465,000 and “real estate property in Florida.”

Through Esnad, Saleh owns a $2 million waterfront luxury condominium overlooking Dumfoundling Bay in Aventura, property records show.

Saleh did not respond to the Miami Herald’s questions sent to the emails listed on the website of his horse stables and in the leaked documents. The Jordanian Embassy declined to comment as well.

OMC, the firm that provided offshore services to Esnad, declined to respond to the Herald’s specific questions, citing client confidentiality.

“OMC is committed to compliance and maintains a robust compliance program . . . we comply with all applicable laws in the jurisdictions in which we operate, and cooperate with regulators and law enforcement,” it said in a statement.

Saleh’s family also has other Florida ties: His brother, Mohammed Anwar Al-Saleh, who is married to Princess Alia, another of King Abdullah II’s sisters, used to own an $11 million mansion in Palm Beach and was once business partners with Florida billionaire and GOP rainmaker Harry Sargeant III.

More recently, Sargeant has been in the news for working with Rudy Giuliani associates Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, allegedly in an attempt to install new management at Ukraine’s state gas company and steer contracts to companies of then-President Donald Trump’s allies. These dealings reportedly happened at the same time Giuliani, Parnas and Fruman were trying to pressure the Ukrainian government to investigate Joe Biden, then a presidential candidate. The incident led to Trump’s first impeachment.

Al-Saleh and Sargeant were partners in a Delray Beach company called International Oil Trading Company, which won a $1.4 billion contract to supply oil via Jordan to American military bases in Iraq after the war in 2003.

The partnership quickly went sour: Al-Saleh sued Sargeant and the company in a Palm Beach court in 2008 and demanded $53 million, alleging they had swindled him.

International Oil Trading Company countersued Al-Saleh in Miami, claiming that Al-Saleh had fraudulently pocketed $3 million of the company’s money, received illegal “kickbacks” and consulted for a rival company in the region, court records show. The company also alleged that it cut ties with Al-Saleh under orders from the Jordanian king as sort of punishment for Al-Saleh’s “failed attempts to peddle influence for the benefit of his Iraqi clientele and his involvement in illegal trafficking of African ‘blood diamonds,’” which had caused the king significant embarrassment.

The Miami court dismissed Sargeant’s countersuit, citing lack of jurisdiction, court records show. A jury in Palm Beach, however, awarded Al-Saleh $28.8 million.

Fifth richest

The Ajlan family started its businesses in Saudi Arabia with the establishment of Ajlan & Brothers, a traditional men’s wear manufacturer, in 1979. Over the years, the family expanded the company’s line of work to real estate, luxury cars and entertainment.

Ajlan Al-Ajlan, the company’s chairman, was ranked the fifth richest Saudi in 2016 by Forbes, with a net worth of $2.6 billion.

Al-Ajlan and his brothers, Mohammed and Fahad, own a British Virgin Islands-registered company, Demascata Group Limited, the leaked documents show. That company in turn was listed in 2013 as a director for a Florida firm, AB Florida Group (Whispering Isles), Inc., with a registered address in Tallahassee and a mailing address in Chicago. After 2013, the listed directors were the Ajlan brothers themselves.

The Herald found 18 companies — including six in Florida (two of which are now inactive) — that list the Ajlan brothers as their officers. The rest, four of which are now inactive, were in Texas, North Carolina, Missouri, Georgia, Michigan and Indiana. Besides one in Texas, which was incorporated in 2020, all were created between 2012 and 2014.

It is unclear what exactly the companies do — Demascata’s activities in the leaked document only refer to investment vehicles. However, another leaked document for a firm named Terra Nova Holding Limited, which has Demascata as a shareholder, perhaps provides a clue.

Terra Nova was established in 2016, according to the document, with funds from “business, textiles [and] real estate development” for the purpose of “investing mainly in real estate.” It holds assets worth more than $30 million in cash and real estate in the United Kingdom.

The Ajlans did not respond to the Herald’s questions sent to their businesses and to the emails in the leaked documents.

9/11 CONNECTION

Saudi businessman Adel Ghazzawi appears on a leaked 2015 company information form for Reflections International. The company holds both personal funds and money from commercial activities, the document says.

Along with some of the Middle East’s wealthiest families and businessmen, Ghazzawi was also a founding investor in a publicly-traded investment company, Marka, another leaked document shows. Marka’s primary area of business were the food and beverage, fashion and retail sectors of Abu Dhabi and Dubai before expanding into Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and elsewhere, a since-leaked prospectus says.

Ghazzawi is best known for his Dubai beach club, Cove Beach, which expanded to Las Vegas in 2019 and has plans to open branches in California and Miami.

Ghazzawi has a more sinister Florida connection: His sister’s family had been investigated by the FBI for suspected ties to the 9/11 hijackers.

The investigation centered on the residence of Annoud Ghazzawi, her husband and two children on Escondito Circle, in an upscale Sarasota neighborhood. The house which, according to property records cost at least $350,000 at the time of purchase in 1995, was registered to Adel and Anoud’s father, Esam Ghazzawi. Esam had been a former advisor to Prince Fahd bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, nephew of King Fahd of Saudi Arabia.

The heavily redacted (citing national security and foreign policy interests) reports from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and the FBI show that investigations “revealed many connections between the 9/11 attackers and the family.”

A counter-terrorism officer who had personal knowledge of the matter said the gated community’s visitor logs and security footage showed that the future hijackers had visited the home as well, the Bulldog reported in 2013.

In November 2001, the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office received information that Annoud Ghazzawi and her husband, Abdulaziz Al-Hijji, left their house two weeks before 9/11, according to the FDLE report.

“The power to the residence was left on … a vehicle was left in the driveway as well as two in the garage,” the report says.

“They left behind valuable items, clothing, jewelry and food in a manner that indicated they fled unexpectedly without prior preparation or knowledge,” an April 2002 memo from the FBI field office in Tampa noted.

The FDLE report said an inmate at a Hillsborough County Jail knew Al-Hijji as someone who admired Osama bin Laden as “a hero”, had spoken of going to Afghanistan and mentioned that he had been taking flight training at Venice Airport — the same place as the hijackers had. The FBI report also mentions a member of the family going to the same flight school.

The inmate also told the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office that Al-Hijji knew some of the 9/11 attackers and was friends with Adnan Shukrijumah, a senior Al Qaeda leader who had grown up in Florida and was then on the FBI’s wanted list. (He was later killed by Pakistani special forces.)

Adel and Annoud Ghazzawi’s father, Esam, had been on the FBI watch list even before 9/11 for dealing with the Bank of Credit and Commerce International — notorious for financial transactions with the Medellin cartel, Saddam Hussein, Islamic terrorists and government intelligence agencies including the CIA.

Annoud was later questioned by law enforcement while she was visiting the United States, the FBI report said. She denied that her family fled the country and said that it was a scheduled departure. The Ghazzawis haven’t set foot in the country since.

The FBI dropped its investigation into the family and initially had not any mention in the 9/11 Commission Report, fueling speculation that the agency had avoided looking into certain angles since they could be detrimental to American geopolitical interests in the Middle East.

When the Herald sent detailed questions asking SFM, the firm that serviced Ghazzawi’s companies, what compliance steps were taken given the press reports surrounding his family, the firm declined to comment directly: “SFM is not legally authorized to comment on the commercial relations that are attributed to it, nor even confirm their mere existence.”

“SFM abides by the applicable laws and regulations in every jurisdiction it operates in.” Adel Ghazzawi did not respond to questions sent to two of his businesses and his email listed in the leaked documents.

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© 2021 Miami Herald

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