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Sunshine & Lollipops: The Unlikely Cash Mules of Dubai

Sunshine & Lollipops: The Unlikely Cash Mules of Dubai
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How did a mother from Leeds end up coordinating a £100 million cash mule operation? And whose money is it, really?

Welcome to Whale Hunting, a weekly newsletter delving into the hidden worlds of wealth and power from the team at Project Brazen. This week we are exploring the bizarre and fascinating scandal here in the UK known as the Sunshine and Lollipops case. Catch up on all Project Brazen's work here, including Spy Valley (Tribeca Film Festival "Official Selection 2023"), our Gateway podcast about Europe's drug wars and The Closer, all about how deals change the world. — Bradley

By Arnav Binaykia

It’s Saturday evening in October 2020. Two women are in the Emirates check-in line at Heathrow Airport. They look like any other pair of tourists, carting large backpacks and trolleys stacked with heavy suitcases. The check-in agent waves them through, but they don’t get far. As they head to their gate for boarding, U.K. Border Force officers swarm the two passengers. Their suitcases are opened. In them, nearly £2 million in cash is found. Later, Border Force will say they were acting “on a tip.”

Both women, it turns out, were couriers for a money-laundering gang that U.K. authorities say moved more than £100 million in cash from London to Dubai. Investigators tell the press that the couriers used a WhatsApp group named “Sunshine and Lollipops” to coordinate their flights. Tabloids jump on the story, plastering pictures of the young women over their pages with headlines like: “KIM KARDASHIAN WANNABE CAUGHT AT HEATHROW.”

Over the next year, over a dozen other couriers were rounded up, many of them attractive young women who, according to the lead investigator on the case, were happy to move cash “in return for a sunshine holiday and a slice of the profit.” The gang’s “ringleader,” an Emirati man named Abdulla Alfalasi, is arrested with similar ease after making the unwise decision to return from the U.A.E. Investigators claim Alfalasi was caught after travelling “to London at Christmas with his family to see the lights.”

According to the U.K.’s National Crime Agency and the tabloid press, that’s the story of how an international organised crime group responsible for transporting millions of pounds was stopped in its tracks.

In reality, the story is a lot more complex. The case caught our attention at Whale Hunting, and we’ve been able to uncover new information about how the investigation unfolded. Many of the most basic questions remain unanswered: Where were the bundles of cash being packed into suitcases coming from? Where was it all going once it arrived in Dubai? How did the operation continue for months undetected?

We're investing our time in understanding this story from the beginning to the end. If you have any insights into how this all happened, we're eager to talk and can protect your identity.
Reach out at projectbrazen@protonmail.com or reach Bradley on Signal at +44 7746 516 719.

“Cash couriering is the simplest and oldest method of transporting funds across borders to places that are more welcoming,” says Michael Levi, a professor of criminology at Cardiff University who has been conducting research on money laundering for more than 30 years. “The system relies on the poverty of resources of the investigators and the unwillingness of different jurisdictions to assist when asked.”

How To Run a Money Laundering Operation

A typical “Sunshine and Lollipops” trip would involve a luxury car service picking up suitcases of cash from one of a number of swanky London addresses. A courier would also be collected and chauffeured with the luggage to Heathrow Airport. There, couriers are instructed to use a specific check-in counter, where a discrete airport employee will accept their baggage without asking any questions. The couriers then text a photograph of their baggage tags to their handler and board their seven-hour flight to Dubai, where they’ll enjoy all the benefits of their business class ticket.

Upon landing, they collect their bags and declare all the cash to Dubai Customs officers, using partially falsified documents from a company named Omnivest Gold Trading LLC. Again, no difficult questions are asked. Paperwork signed, the courier heads for the exit where they meet another driver who’ll take the suitcases off their hands and deposit them at a five-star hotel for a weekend in the sun.

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