'Britain's FBI' target more than 20 of the world's most corrupt politicians laundering millions of pounds through City of London

Exclusive: Officials will adopt tactics used against drug smuggling gangs to unravel the secrets of corrupt deals and money laundering

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The Independent Online

British police are targeting more than 20 of the world’s most corrupt politicians involved in laundering millions of pounds through the City in a major expansion of the UK’s international anti-graft operations.

Officials will adopt tactics used against drug smuggling gangs – including undercover operations and covert surveillance – to unravel the secrets of corrupt deals and money laundering, according to the head of Britain’s new International Corruption Unit (ICU).

Jon Benton told The Independent that he was aiming to run joint operations with key countries such as the US and Switzerland to “strike fear” into corrupt individuals and their families. The unit’s predecessors had focused on countries that received aid from the UK, but the ICU’s brief is expanding to examine other nations amid concerns over the flow of dirty money from Russia, China and Eastern Europe into the UK’s booming property market.

Britain is one of the key centres of operations for corrupt powerbrokers to launder and invest their millions hidden behind a complex web of offshore company ownerships, with the aid of lawyers, accountants and financiers who chose to turn a blind eye to the source of the wealth. Private schools are also popular destinations for the children of corrupt elites.

The unit, part of the National Crime Agency which tackles serious organised crime, is currently involved in dozens of operations in 20 jurisdictions across Africa, the Middle East, Eastern Europe and Asia, according to officials. About £200m of assets have so far been restrained by officials in the UK and abroad.

“They look a bit like the super-rich that appear in these magazines,” said Mr Benton. “They have all the trappings of wealth so they have the properties around the globe, they have the children in private schools, they have the private jet, the yachts and everything else.”

He added: “If an organised crime group was laundering money on behalf of traffickers importing class A [drugs] into the UK… then we would do everything we could to follow them, watch them and gather the evidence. It’s about taking that approach to corruption as well.”

Investigations into global corruption are among the most tricky. They involve the unpeeling of complex financial structures to discover the ownership of assets, combined with international diplomacy to persuade the plundered source nation to cooperate.

British officials are in discussions with Europol, the European policing body, about ways to target corrupt elites from outside of the continent.

It follows criticisms that Britain has previously done too little to tackle the issue, condemning corrupt regimes at a political level but accepting the proceeds of that corruption through City institutions.Campaigners want the UK to follow the US, where anti-corruption investigations include that against senior figures at football’s governing body FIFA. But they have cast doubt on how a unit largely financed by the Department for International Development, with £21m over the next five years, has enough resources and the legislative tools to tackle corruption.

The issue has, however, received powerful political backing following David Cameron’s pledge to lift the veil on corporate secrecy of foreign property ownership. The Government’s anti-corruption tsar, Eric Pickles, is currently considering plans for unexplained wealth orders – used in countries like Ireland and Australia – that would force people who get rich overnight to disclose the source of their riches.

London’s two police forces working on overseas bribery have investigated 150 cases since 2006 and 27 people have been convicted and £180m restrained or recovered, the Government said.

The new work builds on that of a Scotland Yard team headed by Mr Benton that secured the conviction and a 13-year jail term for James Ibori, a former cashier for a DIY store who became the governor of Nigeria’s oil-rich Delta state and embezzled £50m.

Previous work by British police forces has included inquiries into officials in Egypt and other Arab Spring countries, Ukraine and Nigeria. But it has proved slow, and attempts to secure convictions linked to the Hosni Mubarak regime in Egypt have been hampered by the counter-revolution that returned an authoritarian regime to power.

Nick Maxwell, of Transparency International, said: “One of the biggest problems is getting cooperation with local law enforcement to achieve local investigations. In countries like Russia, the UK will struggle to get cooperation.”

But Stuart McWilliam, of Global Witness, which has exposed huge profits made by Nigerian officials in oil deals, said: “This seems to signal a shift in their approach to tackle international corruption.”

Justine Greening, International Development Secretary said: “Corruption is not only picking the pockets of the poor, it is an enemy of prosperity and a brake on a country’s development. Through the ICU the best of British law enforcement will step up our aid work combating corruption head on.”

Wickes to riches: Ibori’s rapid rise

The rags-to-riches story of James Ibori contains all the hallmarks of high-level international corruption. On a Nigerian state governor’s salary of £4,000 a year, Ibori managed to amass a fleet of cars and a multimillion-pound global property portfolio, and place his children in UK private education. He was trying to buy a private aircraft when he was arrested.

Ibori, who came to Britain in the 1980s, started his rise to power as a cashier at a Wickes DIY store in west London. He was convicted in 1991 after being caught with his hand in the till. On his return to Nigeria, he moved on to substantially grander crimes, plundering millions from state coffers as the governor of the oil-rich Delta state from 1999 to 2007.

After his extradition to Britain, he admitted to crimes amounting to some £50m. The money was pumped into property including a £2.2m flat in Hampstead.

His conviction in 2012 marked the high point of success for the forerunner of the NCA’s international corruption unit.