Frozen and counterfeit dollars in Syria’s Raqqa

30-year-old Muhammad (a pseudonym) looked nervous during his usual work hours in an Autonomous Administration institution in the city of Raqqa, north Syria. Muhammad made a phone call, speaking words that seemed like riddles, then placed his phone on the table and lit a cigarette.

He sighed, and then said, “Oh, no. I have been a victim of fake dollars.”

For years, the city of Raqqa has been witnessing an increasing number of cases of counterfeiting and promotion of counterfeit currency, and traders and residents in the city have fallen victim to the counterfeit dollar, which has caused many to lose their money in light of the sharp collapse in the value of the Syrian pound.

However, the absence of official statistics and the Internal Security Forces’ (Asayish) failure to comment on the matter make it difficult to accurately disclose the amount of money seized so far.

In this investigation, North Press obtained exclusive testimonies of victims, as well as moneychangers who explain the various fraud operations in circulation. In order to know about the methods and mechanisms of networks, our reporter posed as someone wanting to obtain currency.

Phenomenon and victims

Muhammad, who works in a car dealership, sold a car for $4,500 yesterday.

The young man left the money with his brother to buy another car that he had purchased from his owner earlier, but the last call he received was from his brother, telling him that the dollars contained seven counterfeit $100 notes.

Muhammad is far from the first, and definitely not the last person in Raqqa to call victim to counterfeit money.

Warnings have been issued by dealers and money changers about fake currency entering Syria through Turkey and Lebanon, where many sources, including the counterfeiters themselves, accuse Hezbollah of being behind the counterfeit currency and the facilitation of its entry from Lebanon into Syria.

“Not long ago, one of my neighbors came to me with a $50 note, asking me to check if it is real or not,” the owner of a money exchange shop in al-Mansour Street in Raqqa told North Press.

Although moneychangers assert that the $50 note cannot be forged, as it has many watermarks that distinguish it, the counterfeiter with whom our investigator spoke unanimously agreed that this note is the most sought-after, and is quickly running out in the market.

The process of finding fake money in the city of Raqqa is not difficult, as its dealers are spread through organized networks and money can be found through individuals with knowledge of counterfeit dealers. Most counterfeit dealers, according to the reporter, are young and aspire to gain wealth quickly.

When we contacted one of the counterfeit dealers, a young man living in the city of Raqqa, he offered us a $100 note in exchange for fifty dollars.

Ahmed, a resident of Raqqa, says, “Less than a year ago, one of my relatives was released from prison unemployed, but within three months he built a house that cost more than $20,000,” adding, “Currency dealing is the only business by which you can make such money.”

What are the watermarks?

Watermarks are used in currencies as distinctive features. Some of them are visible and some need to be observed and studied or magnified, and their number varies from one banknote to another.

Hamid al-Ghanim, a moneychanger working on al-Mansour Street, says that he does not need to test the distinctive signs in money notes, because he identifies them as soon as he takes them from the customer.

Al-Ghanim recalls an incident in which a customer came to him and gave him money, and despite being unable to use his testing device due to a lack of electricity, he was able to spot the counterfeit notes.

Jassim al-Rabeeh (pseudonym), a moneychanger in Raqqa, tests $100 notes of both the older type and the new type with purple watermarks, which are locally known as “laser.”

Jassem takes out his magnifier and a note to show to us the location of the cross in the lamp in the old printing and the number 100 drawn inside the zero, which is not identifiable with the naked eye. He then rubs the green mark (stamp) on a piece of paper.

He then took out a $100 laser bill, indicating that “the corrugation can be seen in the laser line.” Then he took out a pen and ran it over it, and said, “This is how I find the counterfeits.”

In interviews with the owners of money exchange shops on al-Mansour Street, it was found that the methods to detect counterfeit currency differ from one person to another, noting that many money changers don’t know about some of the signs that distinguish some currencies.

Exchange shop owners are afraid to inform the security forces if any counterfeit currency comes to them. “I don’t want to be questioned by the police,” says one of them, adding, “recently, the Asayish have forced us to put surveillance cameras and distract anyone trying to exchange suspicious currency until they arrive.”

The bait

In addition to counterfeit currency, dealers also deal with “frozen dollars.” This type of dollar is officially printed, but its serial numbers are prohibited in banking internationally.

The use of this term goes back to the second Gulf War after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and the looting of Kuwaiti banks, of which the Iraqi army was accused, in addition to its common use during the war in Iraq in 2003.

Under this term “frozen dollar”, an account on Facebook bearing the name Ahmed al-Daour publishes a video clip of bundles of dollars with a modern “laser” print, and asks anyone who wants frozen dollars to communicate with him.

This account is not the only one, as there are many frozen dollar dealers on social media.

As soon as you type the phrase “frozen dollar” on Facebook, several accounts appear, and the location of the account holders mostly indicate Turkey.

The Libyan frozen dollar

Prior to the overthrow of Libyan President Muammar Gaddafi, the US administration froze the assets of the country’s banks under the pretext of preventing the Libyan president from benefiting from them.

Former US President Barack Obama issued a decision to freeze the assets of Libyan banks in 2011, while the US Federal Reserve Bank at the time revealed the issuance of a new bill with anti-counterfeit measures in 2013.

The owner of a chain of money change offices in Raqqa says that he has a Proscan P2 machine to count and detect counterfeit and frozen dollars.

He boasts that this machine may be the only one in the market, which is confirmed by many moneychangers who told North Press that they had never seen anything like it in the city.

The moneychanger finds nothing wrong with the use of the frozen dollar, as long as he does not deal with a bank. For this reason, his machine is not technically updated because it will “save the serial numbers of that currency,” he says.

According to an economist who refused to be named, “there is no specific percentage in which the amount of frozen dollars can be counted. There is a percentage of dollars that is suitable only for exchanging locally.”

Variation in accuracy of counterfeit

The investigator found three counterfeit copies of $100 notes, which differed according to the quality of the paper and the source, and showed them to moneychangers for checking.

One of the copies “is worn and can be easily detected,” according to what the moneychangers stated, “because it is locally printed and made from Iraqi-sourced paper.”

The pen and electronic testing methods may not succeed in detecting some distinctive signs in the second copy.

As for the old printing, the moneychangers say that it is not found out by the magnifying glass of the number 100 written inside the two zeroes, but is discovered as it does not contain a cross in the lamp.

Money changers agree with the counterfeit dealers that the third copy, whose source, as they say, is Lebanon, is the closest to the real currency, and they see that the new printing is the best counterfeit one, though it can be detected with a little scrutiny and observation.

From Lebanon to Syria

Abu Hamza (a pseudonym), a young man from the city of Raqqa who lives in Lebanon and works as a counterfeit dealer between Lebanon and Syria), tells North Press about his job, saying: “I deal with a network of counterfeit dealers in Raqqa who ask me for money, so I send the amount agreed upon in advance. After I have contacted a Syrian broker, and asked him for my money I sent.”

When asking Abu Hamza about the ways of sending the counterfeit money, he says, “money does facilitate anything you want,” revealing that he sends it with a driver working on the Beirut-Raqqa line.

Like all counterfeit dealers, Abu Hamza became serious when we showed him our desire to obtain counterfeit money, as he sent photos, features, and video clips that proved the accuracy of the counterfeit.

The man claims that he does not know who is personally behind the counterfeit currency, except that he is called Abu Hassan and lives in the Lebanese region of Brital, which is under the control of Hezbollah.

He recounts that he communicates with a broker of Syrian origin called Abu Tony, whom he meets in Beirut at a place decided upon by the broker, and often comes to the meeting earlier.

Abu Hamza buys the 10,000 counterfeit dollars with 3,400 real dollars, while he sends it to Syria to be sold for $4,000.

The young man does not care about the dangers his work. “There is no place for those who are afraid in this work, and whoever thinks about the consequences cannot do anything,” he says.

Currency from Turkish-held areas

Areas controlled by the Turkish-backed Syrian National Army in north Syria are a source of counterfeit, as it enters the Autonomous Administration areas in the northeast of the country through smuggling operations.

Abdullah al-Unezi (a pseudonym), from the Deir ez-Zor Desert, resides in northeast Raqqa and works as a livestock breeder.

However, at night al-Unezi works in smuggling fuel to the National Army regions, explaining, “Of course, we do not live off of raising livestock, which is of no benefit these days.”

Al-Unezi says that last summer, a trader called him to buy a load of diesel. They agreed to price it at $2,200, but after unloading the cargo, they disagreed on the amount agreed upon in advance.

He says, “The trader paid only $1,500, and we had to accept it at gunpoint, only to discover later that the amount he paid us was counterfeit.”

Muhammad (a pseudonym) reveals that he is currently intending to exchange counterfeit Syrian money because no one suspects it, and it is making a great profit in the market very quickly, especially with the thousand-pound denomination.

To dispose of the counterfeit money, the young man says goes to the livestock market and buys sheep or fodder, then sells them after a period of time and buys either gold or US dollars.

The young man disposes of counterfeit sums in the markets of remote areas (Kobani, Deir ez-Zor, al-Mansoura, Jarnieh, and Manbij), adding that he goes to those areas once. Muhammad says that Deir ez-Zor is the best place to deal with the counterfeit money due to the presence of fuel dealers.

He states that “as soon as the customer sees the money, they buy it. Every time I deliver counterfeit money, I rent a new apartment so no one can find my whereabouts.”

The young man says that he buys Syrian currency in Lebanon because of the quality of the paper used (Cypriot paper). He also uses a special method to avoid detection of the currency. “I spread the notes in a room, and I spray them using hairspray, and after less than an hour I turn notes on the other side and spray them again.”

Counterfeiting issuance

On January 24, the Syrian Central Bank issued a new, 5,000 pound banknote. As soon as it was issued, the bank published the new currency ID accompanied by eight distinctive marks and the signature of the former Prime Minister of Syria, Imad Khamis, and the date of issuance was in 2019.

Al-Watan newspaper, which is close to the Syrian government, reported in its Thursday, February 18th edition that the head of the Damascus Criminal Security Branch Abdulalim Abdulhamid denied that it was possible to counterfeit the 5,000 pound note.

Abu Hamza, however, has another opinion. After the new 5,000 banknote “was counterfeited and sold…it took only five days to be counterfeited,” he says.

However, due to “the strict travel restrictions in Lebanon these days, I cannot send some orders. One of them has bought 11 million Syrian pounds, and I will send him the money from the new denomination as soon as the lockdown ends,” Abu Hamza says.

Darwish (a pseudonym), a moneychanger from Raqqa, reveals that those involved in the operations of the new 5,000 pound note have stopped counterfeiting operations as a result of its high cost compared to the market value of the paper.

The moneychanger says that “the cost of counterfeiting one 5,000 pound note is equivalent to 3 dollars,” which means that it is no longer profitable.

Nevertheless, counterfeit dealers and counterfeiters affirm their ability to secure whatever currency the customer may ask for, and “the only condition for doing so is to purchase large quantities of it before the counterfeiting process begins.”

Hiding from security forces

27-year-old Jassim is hiding in the countryside of Raqqa, out of sight, following the arrest of a counterfeit dealer in possession of five thousand dollars.

Jassim admitted to having obtained the counterfeit money from Khalid (a pseudonym), a 34-year-old man who gets his counterfeit money from Jassim.

Khalid is also still in hiding, and until now security forces have not been able to arrest him after the Social Justice Board in Raqqa issued two subpoena warrants against him.

While the Asayish continues to search for him, the Social Justice Commission in Raqqa sentenced Khalid of 15 years in prison in absentia, as a judge in the commission confirmed to Jasim, “My group told me that a patrol had come to arrest Khalid, so I informed him of the necessity to escape,” Jasim says, adding, “I do not want things to get out of my hands…we will find a solution for him.”

Jassim claimed that he bribes people in positions of authority with whom he has strong ties, and they inform him of the patrols’ movement, or if testimony is made against him during the investigation by counterfeiters who were arrested, and they write off his name before the investigation report is sent to the court.

Heavy penalties

In the Autonomous Administration’s Penal Code (Decree No. 9 of 2016) and in Article 118, the penalties for counterfeiting currency in the Autonomous Administration regions are defined as follows:

“He shall be punished by imprisonment from 3 to 6 years and a fine not exceeding one million Syrian pounds, along with the confiscation of the criminal materials.”

This sentence applies to “whoever counterfeits a banknote or gold or silver coin circulating legally in or out of Rojava, with the intention of trading it or participating in it knowing about the issue of counterfeiting or has introduced it to Rojava from other countries,” as well as “whoever counterfeits banknotes, whether Syrian or foreign, circulating legally, and takes part in the process while knowing about the issue of counterfeiting.

If their work is restricted to mere dealing, they shall be punished with imprisonment of up to 3 years, a fine of one million Syrian pounds, and the confiscation of criminal materials.

Whoever receives counterfeit currency without knowing that it is counterfeit, but continued to use it after finding out it was counterfeit, shall be punished by imprisonment for up to one year. There is no punishment for anyone who uses fake currency without knowing that it is counterfeit.

In Syrian law, whoever introduces counterfeit currency into Syria, exports it, or deals in it is punished in the same way as those who counterfeit the currency itself. Penalties for these activities, according to Articles 430-434 of the Syrian Penal Code, amount to three to fifteen years of hard labor and a fine of up to 100,000 Syrian pounds.

The penalties are increased to a minimum of five years and fine of 250,000 Syrian pounds if the crimes involve gold or silver coins. However, whoever participates in these crimes but tells authorities about them before their completion is exempt from punishment, according to Article 442.

Laxity and arrests

Speaking about how the security forces in Raqqa dealt with the issue of counterfeiting and trafficking in currencies, a lawyer who requested anonymity, was surprised that the Autonomous Administration issued three pardon decisions that included those accused of money counterfeiting within six months.

The first of these decisions was issued on the occasion of Newroz Day 2020, and stipulated granting a general amnesty for crimes committed before its date, though the amnesty did not apply to treason or crimes involving drug trafficking. The second decision was issued on May 17, and the third was issued on September 10.

He points out that there is “laxity” in applying the rulings, despite the clarity of the provisions in the penal code, for every act that harms individuals or society, whether a felony or a misdemeanor.

However, an official in the General Council in the Autonomous Administration defended the issue of the two amnesty decisions in 2020, and the General Council is concerned with issuing and approving decisions.

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that “after we issued the first amnesty decision, we were informed of the need to issue a second decision to include the largest number of offenders, especially since coronavirus has spread significantly and the biggest concern is that it spreads among the prisoners.”

Our reporter tried to contact those responsible for internal security (Asayish) to ask about their response to accusations of them being lax in combating and prosecuting counterfeiters, as well as to know the extent of this phenomenon and the number of those involved wanted or convicted, but he did not receive a response to his questions.

However, the Asayish announces arrests of those accused of counterfeiting on its Facebook pages from time to time.

In the period between December 2019 and July 2020, the Asayish account published a number of arrests of people accused of counterfeiting. The amount of seized funds amounted to about one hundred thousand US dollars, and it also published video recordings of what it said were those involved in counterfeiting.

Report by Ayham Sharqawi