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Details of Sting Tell of Wider Threat

August 14, 2003|Richard B. Schmitt, John J. Goldman and Ken Silverstein | Times Staff Writers

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.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday August 15, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 39 words Type of Material: Correction
Missile arrests -- A front-page article Thursday about an alleged missile-sale scheme misstated the air carrier whose jet was fired upon by a similar shoulder-fired missile. The jet was flown by Akria, an Israeli charter airline, not El Al.

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. Atty. 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.

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