WASHINGTON - A few weeks ago, a retired American intelligence officer was asked over lunch about the availability on the black market of portable shoulder-launched surface-to-air missiles, which government officials fear terrorists might use against civilian airliners.
The retired officer, who works for a private weapons business, called his secretary on a cellular phone and asked for the phone number of an East European arms broker. He dialed the broker, who picked up after a few rings.
"I have a gentleman seated here with me," the retired officer began after a short greeting. "Give me the price for the 'I' item, current production or a few years old."
After a pause of about 20 seconds, the broker came back on the line. A brief conversation ensued, and the two men said goodbye.
The officer then recounted the relevant details to his luncheon companions, including a reporter. The "I" item was code for the latest Russian-made portable surface-to-air missiles called Iglas (Needles). The arms broker had offered Iglas for $62,000 apiece.
In some ways, the apparent ease of the transaction might be misleading. The retired officer has been involved in the weapons business for nearly three decades. He is well acquainted with the broker, who knew that the "gentleman" on whose behalf he was negotiating was not a terrorist.
But the conversation nonetheless reflected the reality that portable surface-to-air missiles, known as SAMs, are available to buyers, legal or otherwise, with the funds to pay for them. Asked whether his broker would entertain an offer from an unsavory client, the retired officer replied that for the right price, "this guy would sell his mother."
The availability of portable SAMs on world markets is a growing concern to government officials. Last month, the British government deployed about 450 troops at London's Heathrow Airport after intelligence agencies reported a possible al-Qaida plan to use portable SAMs against civilian flights.
Three months earlier, suspected al-Qaida operatives fired two missiles at an Israeli charter flight taking off from Mombasa, Kenya, with 271 people aboard. They missed their target.
In May last year, terrorists fired a Strela at an American plane taking off from Prince Sultan Air Base in Saudi Arabia. The Saudis charged seven people alleged to have links with al-Qaida. The cell had held a second Strela in reserve; authorities found it buried in the desert near Riyadh, the capital.
Insurgent groups, which cannot legally buy weapons and must procure them on the black market, have scored numerous successes with portable SAMs during the past few decades. A Defense Intelligence Agency study found reports of 29 portable SAM attacks on civilian aircraft from 1978 to 1998, with more than 400 fatalities. Twenty attacks were in Africa, four in Afghanistan, three elsewhere in Asia and two in Central America.
Of the 750,000 portable SAMs manufactured worldwide during the past four decades, several thousand have been diverted from national arsenals, says Daniel Benjamin, who worked at the National Security Council from 1994 to 1999.
Portable SAMs have turned up on black markets from Latin America to the Middle East to the former Soviet bloc.
Sarkis Soghanalian, an Armenian-born Lebanese arms broker, says Ukraine and Yemen are among many places where portable SAMs can be easily purchased.
In addition to an assortment of Russian portable SAM models, the French Mistral, the Chinese Red Eye, the British Blowpipe and many others have turned up on the international black market.
Prices for some newer models can run as high as $125,000, but older versions cost far less. An international arms merchant provided the Los Angeles Times with a written quote he received in 1996 from Elmet Engineering, a Bulgarian firm.
The prices offered by Elmet - which the broker says are still roughly accurate for covert deals - were $7,400 apiece for older Russian-made Strelas, plus $3,400 for a launcher to fire the missiles. The price for a newer-model Strela, which features a bigger warhead and a guidance system greatly improved over the earlier model's, was $22,700 per missile and $9,150 for the launcher.
Elmet is not known to be choosy about its customers. In 1997, United Nations inspectors reported that the company had offered to supply more than $1 million worth of eavesdropping equipment to a Baghdad factory linked to Iraqi intelligence.
One of the most highly sought-after portable SAMs on the black market is the American-made Stinger.
Dick Stoltz, an agent for the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, posed as a Florida-based weapons broker from 1999 to 2001. He said a middleman for Pakistani intelligence agents placed an order with him for hundreds of Stingers at about $50,000 apiece.
The middleman claimed that the Pakistanis wanted Stingers for, among others, Osama bin Laden, Stoltz said. No weapons were delivered, and three months before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the middleman, a U.S. citizen, was arrested and later pleaded guilty to attempting to export Stingers.
Ken Silverstein and Judy Pasternak write for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.