FBI agents from Michigan descended upon a convenience store near the Lowry Park Zoo Wednesday, arresting its owner on suspicion that he illegally funneled $136,500 to Europe and the Middle East.
Hasan Qasem, 42, is being held in the Hillsborough County jail without bail, accused of violating regulations over foreign commerce under the U.S. Travel Act.
Qasem is the owner of Britt's Grocery off W Sligh and N Rome avenues and the owner of a small home just a block away.
Federal agents say he structured money transactions so that banks and money order providers didn't have to file required Internal Revenue Service reports for exchanges in excess of $10,000, according to a federal affidavit filed in the eastern Michigan U.S. District Court.
Qasem is scheduled to be in federal court in Tampa today, charged with conspiring to violate foreign commerce statutes.
The case against him is based on bank records, physical surveillance, witness interviews and court-authorized communication intercepts, court records show.
Between 2002 and 2004, Qasem sent cash to people in the Israeli West Bank, Luxembourg and Yemen in a way FBI Special Agent Mathew Smith said was aimed at sliding under the government's radar.
Smith is assigned to a counterterrorism squad in Detroit where he investigates terrorist activity, terrorist funding and related crimes. He listed nine transactions of either $8,500 or $9,500 each that went to either Arab Bank PLC-Nablus in the West Bank or Luxembourg-Banque General. Because the transactions were each less than the $10,000 threshold, the IRS wasn't notified.
Smith also said that on three occasions in 2004, Qasem sent a total of $53,000 to travel agency Arabian Horizon Travel and Tourism in Dearborn, Mich.
That agency claims to be the exclusive North American ticket agent for Yemen Airways, owned by the Yemeni and Saudi Arabian governments.
The money, in the form of several checks and money orders, went to Yemen Airways employees but was unrelated to the travel business.
Agent Smith says it seems Qasem purposefully attempted to avoid government detection when, in one case, he split more than $10,000 that he sent to the travel agency into two SunTrust Bank checks that he bought.
Had he put the money on one SunTrust check, the bank would have been required to file an IRS transaction report because it exceeded $10,000.
The travel agency wired the checks to people in Yemen, records show.
On another occasion, Smith said Qasem bought thirteen different money orders to avoid triggering another IRS financial report. That money ended up in Yemen, too.
Qasem did the same thing on another occasion with $18,000 that he split into 20 money orders all purchased around the same time, Smith said.
Neither the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency, travel agency records nor airline records show that any of the money was used for Qasem or anyone else's travel, Smith said.
"Based on my training and experience," Smith wrote, "it is also highly unlikely that one individual would purchase $53,000 of airline tickets in less than a three-month period."
Ahmed Bedier, central Florida director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said Qasem is not a prominent member of the local Muslim community.
He is "not active at any of the local mosques and has kept pretty much to himself," Bedier said, "running his convenience store and spending time with his American wife."
Since 1997, Qasem has owned Britt's Grocery, where gyros, pressed Cuban sandwiches and barbecue are all billed as "Hot Food to Go!" It shut down early Wednesday, hours after agents closed in on the store.
Qasem's daughter declined to comment through the store's metal screen doors, and his family declined to comment at their home.
U.S. Attorney's Office Tampa spokesman Steve Cole declined to discuss specifics of the case, and a message left with Detroit's FBI spokeswoman was not returned Wednesday afternoon.
Times staff writers Brady Dennis, Meg Laughlin and Cathy Wos contributed to this report.