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Man Suspected of Trying to Sell Missile Is Arrested

The Briton caught in New Jersey thought terrorists would receive the device, officials say.

August 13, 2003|Richard B. Schmitt and Greg Krikorian | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — A British arms dealer attempting to sell a surface-to-air missile to an undercover federal agent was arrested Tuesday in New Jersey as part of an elaborate sting operation led by the FBI, law enforcement officials said.

The suspect, who was led to believe that the missile would end up in the hands of terrorists, was taken into custody near Newark Liberty International Airport and charged with trying to smuggle a Russian-made missile into the U.S., the officials said, speaking on the condition of anonymity. The suspect was identified by a government official as Hemad Lakhani, an Englishman of Indian descent.

Surface-to-air missiles, known as SAMs, have been a growing concern to government officials because of their ready availability on world markets, legal and otherwise, and their appeal to would-be terrorists targeting commercial airliners.

Police and FBI agents also raided a 12th-floor office in Manhattan's Diamond District in connection with the investigation.

Two men who were not immediately identified were taken in handcuffs from the building on Fifth Avenue and 47th Street. Members of the terrorism task force also seized file cabinets, boxes containing papers and computer hard drives.

At least some of the charges, which were filed under court seal, are expected to be made public today in U.S. District Court in Newark.

The arrests were the culmination of a nearly two-year investigation by the FBI and its Russian counterpart, the Federal Security Service, or FSB.

"It is a significant case," the government official said, "because it is the first time the FBI has had a joint terrorism case with the Russians, and it signifies a degree of cooperation with the FSB we have never seen before."

FBI officials in Newark, which oversaw the sting, did not return a call seeking comment.

"There have been larger arms dealers arrested, but this is significant because of the terrorism implications," the official said. "When someone can acquire these kinds of weapons systems and think they may be providing them to terrorists ... that is something."

A Defense Intelligence Agency study found reports worldwide of 29 portable-SAM attacks on civilian aircraft between 1978 and 1998, resulting in more than 400 fatalities.

In February, the British government deployed about 450 troops at London's Heathrow Airport after intelligence agencies reported a possible Al Qaeda plan to use portable SAMs against civilian flights.

Three months earlier, suspected Al Qaeda operatives fired two missiles at an Israeli charter flight taking off from Mombasa, Kenya, with 271 people aboard. The missiles missed their target.

Agents launched the inquiry resulting in Tuesday's arrests after obtaining information about an unnamed arms dealer who was boasting about his ability to supply the weapons.

That information ultimately led them to Lakhani. Russian undercover authorities helped facilitate both his access to a missile and its shipment, disarmed, to the United States, authorities said.

"He thought the end customer was an Islamic terrorist," said the U.S. official, adding that the undercover sting went so smoothly that Lakhani thought he had made the sale before being arrested by federal agents.

Still, the official added, Lakhani, who is not Muslim, appeared to be motivated by money, not politics.

"I think he was out for the buck. He just wanted to make some money," the official said.

Officials in the Department of Homeland Security are studying a missile defense prototype for the U.S. commercial air fleet, and members of Congress, including Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), have introduced legislation to expedite the system's development.

"For some time we have been aware that these weapons are in the hands of terrorists around the world, and they have made it clear that they are willing to use them against American planes," Boxer said in a statement Tuesday.

"Today's news should serve as another wake-up call to critics who argued that these weapons are not a threat within the United States," she added.

Added Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), another sponsor of the legislation: "The danger of an airliner being shot down by one of these missiles is now staring the Homeland Security Department in the face."

*

Schmitt reported from Washington and Krikorian from Los Angeles. Times staff writer John J. Goldman in New York contributed to this report.

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