How a quiet Tamil Brahmin from Madurai became an accountant for Hezbollah
The Lady Automaton, her head replaced by a retro telephone, cradled a cardboard box: Evidence, it read. Luke Agada, the artist who created the work, either had a strange premonition—or an insider’s sense of humour. From studios in Chicago and New York, the work of emerging masters like Lucy Bull and Flora Yukhnovich, as well as the canonical art of Mark Rothko and Jean-Michel Basquiat, had been flowing to the Artual Gallery, in downtown Beirut. Eyebrows had begun to be raised.
From his penthouse in Beirut, the suave art collector Nazem Ahmad—whose acquisitions are believed to have included Pablo Picassos and Andy Warhols—funnelled the art to collectors across Europe. He also traded top-grade diamonds sourced from blood-soaked battlegrounds of the Democratic Republic of Congo—one a 108.8-carat monster—arranging for their journey to dealers in New York, United States authorities say.
Each morning, at his home in London’s suburban Hayes, Nagarajan Sundar Poongulam Kasiviswanathan—a quiet Tamil Brahmin born in the temple city of Madurai—would open the ledgers recording the flow of under-invoiced wealth through a maze of shadowy companies stretching across four continents. The money helped finance Hezbollah —a jihadist empire stretching out from Lebanon that has harried the US and Israel for decades.
The accountant, films have taught, is the quiet eminence gris of every criminal cartel. Le Chiffre, Ian Fleming’s archetype, described thus: “Large sexual appetites. Flagellant. Expert driver of fast cars…carries three Eversharp razor blades, in hatband, heel of left shoe, and cigarette case.” The drug lord Franz Sanchez, villain of Licence to Kill (1989), hired the yuppie William Truman-Lodge as his financial manager, with bad consequences for both.
Fantasy, though, hasn’t prepared us for the prospect that a quiet Tamil—perhaps veshti-clad at home, and more fond of pepper-rasam than single malt—could play the same role.
An expatriate journey
Like much of the Tamil Brahmin community, the Nagarajan family moved West, searching for its fortune. Born to Saraswathi Nagarajan and Poongulam Kaviviswanathan Nagarajan in 1957, the only son among four siblings, Nagarajan is believed to have studied in the city and then acquired accounting qualifications in Chennai. Government records seen by ThePrint do not establish when he first went abroad, but he was embedded in Kenya by June 1999, when he was issued the Indian passport number A3997478 by the Indian Embassy.
From preliminary investigations conducted by the US, an Indian government official familiar with the case said Nagarajan appeared to have travelled extensively across Africa after 1999. He also obtained permanent resident status in Lebanon. The nature of his business interests is unclear, though.
Ten years after obtaining the passport from Nairobi, he obtained another Indian passport, Z1871965, issued in February 2009 by the Indian mission in Antwerp, Belgium. By this time, family sources say, Nagarajan had married Radha Nagarajan, the daughter of an ethnic-Tamil family long settled in Antwerp, holding Belgian citizenship. “There was some differences within the family over the marriage,” says an intelligence officer familiar with the case, “and it cut Nagarajan off from his sisters.”
Leaving behind their home on 33, Sint Therizenstad in Antwerp, the Nagarajan family moved to the south London suburb of Hayes, buying a discreet but spacious property. At the time of Nagarajan’s arrest, 1993-born younger son Siddharth was studying at a college in the city.
Elder son Bharath Sundar, born in 1988, is an engineer at an automobile firm, and his software engineer wife Teena Jayakumar, a graduate from Chennai, worked for a time out of the family home in Hayes. The two moved out, however, for jobs in the US and now live at a home valued at over $400,000 in the small town of Carmel, Indiana.
There is some evidence that Nagarajan retained ties with India. In passport documents seen by ThePrint, submitted to secure his 2009 Indian passport in Antwerp, he listed 4, Second Seaward Road in Chennai’s Thiruvanmiyur neighbourhood as his permanent address in India. Ten years later, while applying to renew this passport, he listed another Chennai address, 43/21 on Arundale Beach Road, just off the upmarket Kalakshetra Colony.
ThePrint was denied entry to both buildings, which do not bear the names of residents, by guards.
Former State Bank of India official Janaki Sundaram, the only one of Nagarajan’s three sisters ThePrint could locate, declined to discuss the case, saying she was in shock. Lawyers representing Nagarajan in his ongoing case to avoid deportation to the US also did not respond to ThePrint.
The Devil’s accountant?
Fighting extradition to the US, Nagarajan has claimed that as a practising Hindu, he would not have supported a jihadist organisation like Hezbollah. From prosecution documents filed in a New York court, though, it’s clear the US believes Nagarajan held a position of trust in the Ahmad criminal cartel, controlling spreadsheets that painstakingly documented fund transfers to shell companies and individuals throughout the syndicate.
Email records show he tracked individual diamond transactions with diligence and ensured paperwork for art purchases was immaculate. Late in 2019, Nagarajan emailed his bosses, noting that a certificate of authenticity had not been provided for a work of modern art purchased in New York. The artwork was eventually sold for $165,000.
Legal indictments prepared by the US Justice Department allege Nagarajan possessed a list with contact numbers for designated Hezbollah terrorists, including Adham Tabaja, who controls several engineering and construction front businesses for the terror group.
Elder son Bharath appeared in a London court last month, offering to put up his life’s savings of $68,000. Lawyers also said Nagarajan’s wife, Radha, had died by suicide on 21 April, days after Nagarajan’s arrest by counter-terrorism authorities in London. The court, however, decided against bail, noting, among other things, that some $28,000 in cash had been found in the Hayes house, along with evidence suggesting plans to leave for Lebanon or South Africa.
The cartel’s bosses
Ahmad’s own journey, in some senses, mirrors that of his accountant. The businessman’s family hails from the village of Haris, near Tibnin in war-torn southern Lebanon. The family moved to Sierra Leone, where Nazem Ahmad was born in 1956, to set up trading businesses. Ahmad himself moved to South Africa, where he is thought to have made a small—if not entirely transparent – fortune in diamonds. Ahmad was arrested in 2003 on allegations of smuggling conflict diamonds but acquitted.
Likely, sources in the investigation told ThePrint, the worlds of the Lebanese businessman and the Madurai accountant collided in Nairobi.
Notably, the key figures in the network remain outside the reach of US law. Hind Ahmad, Ahmad’s daughter and owner of both Artual Gallery in Beirut and Dida in Côte d’Ivoire’s Abidjan, is alleged to have acted as a key broker of the art sales, together with her Congolese-French husband, Daud el-Riz. In one interview, she denied the art galleries were laundering money. “I sell paintings for $2,500, $5,000. Do you really think Hezbollah needs that?” she asked.
Firas Ahmad, the director of South Africa-based diamond company Mega Gems and Thula Uzwe Trading, together with his wife Rim Nasser, also remains out of the reach of US law. Like them, brother-in-law Rami Baker, who owns a Lebanese real-estate development conglomerate, is also protected by Hezbollah’s State-within-a-State power in the country.
The stories of cartel accountants often end badly for them—but also for their bosses. The all-powerful Sinaloa drug cartel of ganglord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman was dismantled by its chief accountant, Jesus Zambada Garcia. Testimony from Cali cartel accountant Guillermo Alejandro Pallomari González destroyed the organisation.