Corruption, greed fuel black market for arms

WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON - In the clandestine world of international arms smuggling, the real power is not in the payload of a surface-to-air missile or the deadly effectiveness of a rocket-propelled grenade.

In the subterranean network of weapons dealers and smugglers, it is money that matters more than country, more than ideology, more than human life.


"I would say that unfortunately in today's world, if you have the money, you probably can get the weapon," said Brian Jenkins, a senior adviser to the RAND Corp. and an internationally recognized expert on terrorism.

"The black market continues to be very, very vigorous. Unfortunately as more and more nations produce [them], weapons have become a commodity just like any other. We see them moved around from one conflict to another," he said.


Tuesday's arrest in Newark, N.J., of British national Hemad Lakhani in a plot to smuggle Russian surface-to-air missiles into the United States shows that the underground arms market has tentacles that reach into this country.

Terrorism experts said the FBI sting operation - in which a bogus Russian surface-to-air missile was allowed to be smuggled into an East Coast port under supervision - demonstrates that arms smugglers have the will, if not the means, to provide the weapons of war to terrorists seeking ways to wage new attacks on American soil.

Peter Brookes, senior fellow in national security affairs at the Heritage Foundation, said arms smugglers use a variety of means to acquire weapons.

Generally, he said, a smuggler will look first to contacts in the country in which the weapon is made. Often, individuals with legitimate access to weapons - perhaps employees at a munitions factory, government officials or military personnel - can be corrupted with money.

"There's always someone who is corruptible somewhere along the line. There aren't too many American soldiers who would give up U.S. weapons, but in other parts of the world, military personnel can be much easier to corrupt," Brookes said.

Once weapons are diverted to the black market, they become part of an underground exchange involving various entities that may include front corporations, smugglers, government agents, mercenaries and others. At each step of the way, the weapons get more expensive.

A surface-to-air missile that was diverted to the black market for an initial payoff of $5,000 to $10,000 would be worth many times that by the time it made its way into the United States.

The missile reportedly being offered to undercover authorities was to sell for $70,000 to $80,000.


A report issued this month by the Congressional Research Service of the Library of Congress said black market dealers charge $5,000 to $30,000 for shoulder-launched missiles depending on their type and on the circumstances of the sale.

Terrorists are not the only customers for black market arms dealers. Governments that are the subject of embargoes or United Nations sanctions that prevent them from legally obtaining weapons also turn to illegal channels.

"These dealers are driven by profit and nothing else. So when a government-to-government sale is not possible, they insert themselves into the process and provide a circuitous route to deliver the arms. It doesn't matter what the intended use is," Brookes said.