By By Richard B. Schmitt and John J. Goldman and Ken Silverstein
|Times Staff Writers|
Aug 14, 2003 | 3:00 AM
NEWARK, N.J. -- Revealing the fruits of an elaborate, 18-month-long sting operated with agents of the Russian secret police, federal authorities on Wednesday unveiled criminal charges against three men who they say conspired to sell a shoulder-mounted missile and sought to acquire as many as 50 more.
A government affidavit in the case, filed in U.S. District Court here, spins an eerie tale of the ready availability of the deadly weapons on world markets and of the shadowy cast of characters standing ready to supply arms to terrorists.
The case has prompted calls from members of Congress to speed up development of new systems to foil missile attacks against commercial jets. The Department of Homeland Security is considering building a prototype defense system and has been taking bids from private companies to determine whether the idea is feasible and cost-effective.
The smuggling plot never came close to being executed. Court documents made public Wednesday showed that U.S. and Russian authorities constructed a complex ruse to lure a British arms dealer into the transaction, including a "cooperating" federal witness who posed as the buyer of the Russian-made SA-18. The disarmed weapon had been shipped into the United States -- under the control of Russian and U.S. authorities -- as "medical equipment," according to the affidavit.
But federal officials contended that they had taken a deadly threat off the street. The dealer, identified as Hemant Lakhani, 68, of London, "might well have paved the way for others to do the unimaginable," said Christopher J. Christie, the U.S. attorney in Newark whose office is handling the prosecution.
In addition to Lakhani, who was charged with attempting to provide material support to terrorists and attempting to sell arms without a license, the government filed charges against two men who they said had conspired to help transfer money to pay for the Russian missile and as many as 50 more. They were identified as Yehuda Abraham, 76, a New York City gem dealer and money remitter, and Moinuddeen Ahmed Hameed, 38, a Malaysian who arrived in Newark on Tuesday, expecting to negotiate more missile sales, the government said.
The arrests also followed a security scare Sunday in New York, in which three fishermen walked around undetected for a mile near a runway at John F. Kennedy International Airport after their raft ran aground on a secure portion of the airfield. Officials immediately upgraded patrols in the area; on Wednesday a reporter and a photographer from the New York Times, apparently following up on the report, were detained in a boat near the airport.
Adding to the anxiety level, British Airways on Wednesday suspended flights between London and Saudi Arabia because of heightened security concerns, citing "credible intelligence reports of a serious and specific threat against U.K. aviation interests in Saudi Arabia." The airline declined to elaborate. In addition, the U.S. State Department updated its travel warning concerning Saudi Arabia, citing "credible information that terrorists have targeted Western aviation interests in Saudi Arabia."
At home, President Bush praised the sting operation, saying it showed how airports were safer than before the Sept. 11 attacks because law enforcement officials have become more aggressive in taking steps to prevent terrorism.
"The fact that we were able to sting this guy is a pretty good example of what we're doing in order to protect the American people," Bush told reporters at his ranch near Crawford, Texas. "America is a safe place for people to fly, precisely because we're working hard to make sure that our homeland security is strong."
Wearing handcuffs, Lakhani, the alleged ringleader, and Hameed appeared briefly Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Newark and were held without bail for separate hearings next week. Lakhani, who was born in India and lives in London, wore a wrinkled, striped white shirt with short sleeves and gray pants, and appeared tired as he spoke with his court-appointed lawyer.
U.S. Attorney Christie told the court that both defendants posed a danger to the community and a significant risk of flight. Neither defendant spoke publicly.
Abraham appeared in federal court in New York, seeking to fight his transfer to New Jersey, but was unsuccessful. U.S. Magistrate Judge Andrew Peck ordered him transferred and held on $10 million bail.
A Western arms analyst based in Eastern Europe described Lakhani as "a complete mercenary who did not restrict his dealings to any particular country or cause."
The analyst, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Lakhani had done business with the Russian and Ukrainian state arms-export agencies and once organized the delivery of a number of BTR-80 armored personnel carriers that were destined for Angola.
"All that the FBI proved here was that, one, Russian-made portable SAMs [surface-to-air missiles] are easy to get on the world market, and, two, if you wave enough money around in what is an obvious scam, you can get someone stupid enough to come forward to try and provide them to you," the analyst said.
The government's affidavit paints a picture of a businessman eager to please, who spoke approvingly of Osama bin Laden, saying that the founder of the al-Qaida terror network had "straightened them all out" and "did a good thing," according to some of the more than 150 conversations agents taped as part of the investigation. According to the affidavit, Lakhani once bragged that his shoulder-fired missiles were of "much higher quality" than those used by terrorists who tried to shoot down an El Al passenger jet in Kenya last November.
The affidavit describes several meetings in New Jersey and Moscow between Lakhani and the federal witness, whom the government declined to identify, dating to December 2001.
The witness told Lakhani that he represented a Somali group that wanted to buy missiles, and that his client, initially, was considering a terror attack in the U.S. to coincide with the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, the affidavit says.
One of their meetings took place April 25, 2002, at a New Jersey hotel where the two men seemed to find common ground, the government affidavit asserts.
"The Americans are bastards," Lakhani said.
"This is not a legal business," the witness warned.
"I am ready to work with you," Lakhani responded.
The two even agreed to split the commissions from any sales, according to the affidavit.
At a later meeting at a hotel overlooking Newark International Airport in September 2002, Lakhani and the witness looked out and gestured at departing jets. According to the government, Lakhani said he understood the purpose of the sale was to down an aircraft and cause economic harm to the U.S. -- to "make one explosion to shake the economy."
Unbeknownst to Lakhani, however, the FBI was already on the case, constructing a scheme with the help of customs experts at the Department of Homeland Security and agents of the Russian Federal Security Service.
According to the affidavit, the witness initially agreed to buy a single missile although from the outset he indicated he intended to place a much larger order. The price for one was set at $85,000. The witness made a $30,000 down payment, in $100 bills, to Abraham at his office in New York last October, the affidavit states, and Lakhani gave the witness the serial number of a $1 bill that Abraham possessed to verify that he was the correct contact person.
The balance was paid in March -- wired from a federal law enforcement account to a foreign bank that Lakhani designated, the affidavit states.
In July, the affidavit says, Lakhani and the witness met in Moscow to finalize the deal in the offices of a company he was told was the missile supplier. The "suppliers" were, in reality, Russian FSB operatives who had already infiltrated the deal.
Lakhani remained in the dark until Tuesday, when he was arrested at a Newark airport hotel where undercover agents were waiting with the disarmed missile. The agents had also promised to give Lakhani a $500,000 down payment for the purchase of an additional 50 missiles, with a total value of $5 million.
The missile that entered the U.S. was a dummy and was always under the control of Russian and U.S. law enforcement, officials said.
"Mr. Lakhani understands the allegations and the potential penalties," Donald J. McCauley, a public defender, told U.S. Magistrate Judge Susan D. Wigenton at Wednesday's court hearing.
Hameed's court-appointed lawyer, Cathy Fleming, said her client was innocent and she might apply for bail next week. "He is upset, bewildered, and he has expressed confidence in the American justice system," she said.
Goldman reported from Newark and Schmitt and Silverstein reported from Washington. Times staff writer Edwin Chen in Crawford, Texas, contributed to this report.