Sri Lankan terror gang busted in ATM heist plot; Until his arrest, alleged ringleader Sivapalasri Velayuthampillai worked three jobs at Newark Airport as a security agent and baggage handler with complete security clearance
(NY Daily News) A band of men linked to Tamil Tiger terrorists – led by a Sri Lankan who used a fake passport to get security clearance at Newark Airport – has been busted in a massive plot to loot city ATMs.
Manhattan prosecutors told the Daily News the eight men had ties to the terror group and were part of a scheme to use stolen credit card numbers to steal $250,000 in New York – and tens of millions from ATMs worldwide.
Six were nabbed in January in a raid at the Chelsea Inn, a reputed lair for the ultraviolent Sri Lankan separatist group.
The other two, including alleged ringleader Sivapalasri Velayuthampillai, 31, of Newark, were busted in July.
Until his arrest, Velayuthampillai worked three jobs at Newark Airport as a security agent and baggage handler with complete security clearance.
Prosecutors said Velayuthampillai entered the U.S. with a fake passport and dubious tale of persecution. He was given political asylum in December 2001 under circumstances still under investigation by District Attorney Robert Morgenthau.
“The defendant is part of a large, highly organized ring of international criminals who steal account and PIN numbers … and then come to the United States to steal money from our financial institutions,” Manhattan Assistant District Attorney Kim Han said in court papers.
The U.S. and other Western governments consider the Tamil Tigers a terror organization. Velayuthampillai and the other alleged cell members came from families who emigrated from Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Somalia.
Prosecutors contend the men became part of a massive global identity theft scam last year when credit card numbers and PINs were stolen from thousands of customers at 200 gas stations in the United Kingdom.
In recent bail arguments, Han said Velayuthampillai booked hotels for his “criminal cohorts,” rented cars, drove them to various banks, moved them to different hotels every few days and hooked them up with a man who sent the money abroad.
Han said Velayuthampillai had 30 forged cards on him when he was arrested in midtown in July and more than 400 bogus cards in his rented car, all bearing account numbers stolen from two U.K. gas stations.
The operation was accidentally uncovered in the Chelsea Inn on 11th Ave. when NYPD narcotics detectives raided the hotel and one investigator shouted to everyone in the lobby, “Freeze! I will shoot you if you move!”
That’s when one rattled suspect, Ibrahim Abdifatah, 27, dropped 67 blank credit cards on the floor, police said.
“These are playing cards. We play with them,” Abdifatah said.
Cops found more than 250 blank credit cards, a coding machine, lists of financial account information and a laptop in an upstairs room that four of the defendants shared.
Abdifatah, who has pleaded guilty to more than 500 counts of identity theft and fraud, told cops he was recruited in England and promised $5,000 to use the bogus cards. Investigators said the Tamil Tigers target the U.S. because American credit cards don’t have the extra microchip security device that has helped curtail credit card frauds in Britain.
Another Sri Lankan, Krishantha Rasanayagan, 19, quickly fingered a cohort, Usman Mahmood, as the man who had organized the effort in London.
“He showed us how to encode the cards. We all do the encoding, and we each make withdrawals. Our goal was to reach $250,000,” Rasanayagan said.
All of the defendants, except Velayuthampillai, are being held without bail. Bail was set for him at $2 million.
Lawyers for the defendants deny their clients have terror ties. “I don’t think he was politically motivated,” Abdifatah’s lawyer Adam Freedman said.
“This is like tying a sidewalk crack dealer … to the Medellin drug cartel [in Colombia],” said Mahmood’s lawyer Michael Dailey.
British and Sri Lankan authorities say the proceeds from this kind of international ATM fraud are routed back to the Tamil Tigers, Han wrote.
This summer, Jane’s Intelligence Review said the Tamil Tigers raise up to $300 million a year through international credit card fraud, extortion and donations.
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