‘African Queen’ dos Santos Allegedly Stored Stolen Millions in Disgraced Cyprus Bank

Now-shuttered FBME stored billions for some of the world’s most notorious outlaws

Isabel dos Santos, Africa’s richest woman and the subject of a major international investigation following the leak to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists of more than 700,000 documents that showed how she exploited Angola’s wealth, was one of the biggest depositors in one of the world’s shadiest banks, which was put out of business by the United States financial Investigation Crimes Network.

Money believed to be deposited by dos Santos (above, center), 46, the eldest daughter of former Angolan President Jose Edwardo dos Santos, remains sequestered in the now-closed Cyprus branch of FBME Bank, which according to an Asia Sentinel investigation had among its other depositors arguably the biggest collection of financial outlaws the world has seen since the days of BCCI, which authorities put out of business in 1991.

Dos Santos heads a now-endangered empire of more than 400 companies and subsidiaries with interests stretching from Africa to China, Hong Kong, Singapore and Indonesia, operating from financial boltholes whose opaque laws hide them from scrutiny, including Malta, Mauritius and Hong Kong, according to the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project.  

Dos Santos and her husband, a Congolese entrepreneur named Sindika Dokolo, were said to have amassed more than US$2 billion through stakes in vital Angolan industries including telecommunications, diamonds and construction. She operated from a privileged position as the daughter of Jose Eduardo dos Santos, who staged a 27-year civil war for primacy against forces aligned with Joseph Sabimbi, who was backed by US and South Africa. The civil war wrecked the country and mired it in poverty and corruption. Dos Santos ruled from 1979 to 2017, after which his daughter’s empire started to crumble.

According to the ICIJ, dos Santos and her family have been aided and abetted in hiding her US$2 billion fortune by some of the business world’s most respectable consulting companies including Boston Consulting Group, McKinsey & Company, Accenture and Price Waterhouse Coopers, or PwC, which said it had severed ties with dos Santos and that it would work “with speed” to make sure that incidents like these would not occur in the future. 

The files, dubbed the ‘Luanda Leaks’, were acquired by the anti-corruption charity Platform to Protect Whistleblowers in Africa. More than 120 journalists from 37 media outlets including The New York Times, the Guardian, the BBC, French newspaper Le Monde, and Portuguese newspaper Expresso, then collaborated to review the documents made available from the leak, which spans dos Santos’s operations between 1980 and 2018.

Dos Santos, her mother Tatiana Regan, her husband, and Angolan businessman Juan Muhsin Al-Barazi, completed €43.3 million (US$47.68 million) in transactions in multiple joint accounts at FBME Bank in 2013 alone according to Cyprus Central Bank records . 

Dos Santos family members transacted tens of millions of dollars and euros through 19 shell companies with accounts at FBME between 2006 and 2014 without being subjected to checks that a fully compliant bank would apply on corporate accounts, such as frequent updates on the state of an account- holder’s business, according to the central bank records.

At least 17 of the accounts, opened by dos Santos, her husband, her mother or Al-Barazi or a combination of them, and bearing names like  “Mines Ltd.,” “Littlefield Ventures Ltd.,””Opus Mining,””Cleda Ltd.,” “XMetals Ltd” and others carried the risk status of “High Politically Exposed Person,” meaning a person with a high political profile whose accounts must be watched closely, or “High Other.”

FBME, owned by Lebanese brothers Ayoub Farid and Fadi M. Saab, was blocked permanently in 2017 from access to the US banking system after a no-holds-barred legal campaign and thus basically shut down. 

As Asia Sentinel said at the time, “it was as if every illicit international operation on the globe from the Russian Mafia, allegedly backed by Russian President Vladimir Putin, to Indonesian, Japanese and Thai money launderers to Somali pirates to phishing scams to international drug syndicates and manufacturers of sarin nerve gas for Syrian President Bashir Assad decided that the bank, a branch of the Tanzanian FBME Bank Ltd, was the place to store ill-gotten gains.”

There are suspicions that Hezbollah, the Shi’ite organization labeled a terrorist group, routed its financial operations through shell entities found in the bank’s 6,500 accounts.

The bank was guided through the US Treasury-ordered self-liquidation in New York, Washington, Paris, Cyprus and Tanzania by law firms Quinn Emanuel Urqhardt and Sullivan and Hogan Lovells International LLP, which allegedly represent a wide range of FBME bank depositors.

One source told Asia Sentinel that it is likely that some of the depositors in FBME will never show up to reclaim their holdings because doing so would bring them to the attention of the international law enforcement community.  

“The case is complex,” at the time said Floris Alexander, a Dutchman who heads Legal Floris LLC, which represents more than 1,300 depositors seeking to recover their money from FBME. “The cross-border activities of the bank and the involvement of two central banks with different agendas make it difficult to come to a swift conclusion. Businesses have been forced to stop operating and individuals fear to lose their life savings. It could have stopped earlier, but the vision of the authorities and the owners of the bank are too far apart.”

Dos Santos was hardly alone among the satraps. According to one study of the Tanzania-based FBME Bank obtained by Asia Sentinel, the president of Equatorial Guinea had at least US$70 million stashed in the Cyprus unit of the bank. Others include Gimmy Ricci, an Italian who formerly headed a construction company in Equatorial Guinea who was kicked out of the country but had at least US$23.19 million stashed in the bank; Zibar Management, headed by Dmitry Kluyven, believed to be head of the sprawling Russian Mafia; and at least six companies believed to be connected to the looting of US$230 million from Hermitage Capital, once the largest international investor in the Russian stock market.

According to the New York Times, EuroBic, a Lisbon-based arm of a bank where dos Santos is the biggest shareholder, said on Monday that it was ending its “commercial relationship” with her and investigating transfers worth tens of millions of dollars, transactions.