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Missile Sting

August 13, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT
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MARGARET WARNER: To discuss yesterday’s sting operation and the threat shoulder-fired missiles pose, we turn to Cathal Flynn, who was the FAA’s associate administrator for civil aviation security from 1993 to 2000 — he’s now a consultant; Steven Simon, former senior director for counter terrorism on the National Security Council during the Clinton administration, he’s co-author of The Book of Sacred Terror, about al-Qaida; David Evans, editor-in-chief of Air Safety Week, an investigative industry newsletter that focuses on safety and security issues; and New York Times correspondent Philip Shenon, who’s been covering the story.

Welcome to you all. Phil Shenon, tell us how this sting unfolded, how did authorities first zero in on this Lakhani?

PHILIP SHENON: Well, there’s a little debate about that, but we were told by the Justice Department today by the U.S. Attorney in New Jersey that a confidential informant, a federal informant in New Jersey came to them back in December of 2001 and said that this fellow, Lakhani, seemed to be willing to offer his services as an arms dealer.

MARGARET WARNER: And then when did the Russians, how did they get involved?

PHILIP SHENON: Well, there’s some suggestion that the Russians themselves were onto this fellow as he was trying to buy his wares in Russia. The Russians have obviously been involved in this investigation for many months, if not from the very beginning.

MARGARET WARNER: Okay. So Lakhani is at the one hand telling the undercover agent here he can sell them these missiles and at the same time he’s in Russia negotiating to buy these missiles. At any time, I know that the missile that was shipped here was a dud, was a fake, but at any time do you actually have a line into real, people who really sell these weapons in Russia?

PHILIP SHENON: He certainly claimed he had those ins. We don’t have any evidence of it at this point, and obviously he was duped at both sides of the ocean, both in the United States and in Russia by FBI agents pretending to be these terrorists and by Russians pretending to be people willing to sell them these weapons, but we don’t have any evidence that he ever actually got near a real working shoulder-fired missile.

MARGARET WARNER: And then the other two men who were indicted, what was their role? They were involved in transferring the money, but how was that supposed to work?

PHILIP SHENON: Well, we know that they were brought in over the course of the last year and a half to collect the money that Mr. Lakhani wanted for these missiles. One gentleman, Mr. Abraham, who appears to be a United States citizen based out of New York, a gem dealer, has been involved for several months. The other gentleman, Mr. Hameed, an Indian living in Malaysia, appears only to have been involved in the last several days.

MARGARET WARNER: And he operates, the man in New York operates one of these hawalas, doesn’t he, where he takes the cash here and then he kind of arranges to get it transferred overseas?

PHILIP SHENON: Exactly, and those operations have been under intense scrutiny since 9/11 since there’s a suggestion that they were very actively involved in financing terror all around the world.

MARGARET WARNER: So what do authorities know about Lakhani himself, is he a serious arms dealer, who does he usually deal with, has he ever sold these missiles before for real?

PHILIP SHENON: At this point we’re dealing largely with rumor. I do know the Justice Department described him today as a significant arms dealer. I don’t think we’ve seen yet the evidence of that. I know there have been a large number of news reports and accounts from unnamed law enforcement officials that he has ties in the past to sales to al-Qaida and other terrorist groups, but I think we’re still waiting for hard evidence of that.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. And that was my final question to you at this stage: The connections to al-Qaida.

PHILIP SHENON: The connections to al-Qaida, we know that according to his public statements, Mr. Lakhani claims to have been a sympathizer, he expressed support for Osama bin Laden and for the attacks on 9/11. But at this point we don’t have any hard evidence of a tie to al-Qaida.

MARGARET WARNER: Steve Simon, tell us about this market in not only illegal arms but particularly these shoulder-fired missiles.

STEVEN SIMON: Well, the dimensions of the market are really unknown, it’s presumed to be big. But one can’t really get a handle on it in part because so many of these missiles are being produced in so many places under license. In Egypt, North Korea, China. So thousands are being churned out and what actually happens to them, not too many people really know. There are Singer missiles, which are U.S. missiles, that are out there too; approximately 900 were transferred to the Mujahideen in Afghanistan and there are about 100 that are now unaccounted for.

MARGARET WARNER: But if you wanted to buy 50 of these, who would you go to?

STEVEN SIMON: Well, there are about a half a dozen really major arms dealers that are well-known. And one of the things that makes them major, apart from the volume of their sales, if I can put it that way, is that they own airlines. They own ships. And they’re in a position to control the flow of weapons from origin to end user and falsify all the documents, and so forth.

MARGARET WARNER: What nationality are they?

STEVEN SIMON: Well, Central Asian, and Balkan, Russian. There are quite a few.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Now tell us about the Russians, because it was unclear, let me just read you what the general said, and we don’t have know how good the translation was. But he said, he suggested that there were real weapons at one point involved. He said that criminal elements living in Russia and abroad found an opportunity to buy this kind of equipment and this kind of weapon. He said through our investigation we’ve managed to identify, locate the people who were trying to acquire the weapon and foil the whole thing. But is that who’s involved in Russia? Is it the Russian mafia, who is it?

STEVEN SIMON: It’s a completely plausible story. There’s a real nexus between terrorist outfits and international organized crime, whether you want to call it the mafia or something else. And they work hand in glove. And it’s not just transferring weapons. They also transfer, for example, in Africa, illegal gems that support rebel movements, or they move large quantities of drugs from central Asia to Afghanistan and Russia to other points. So weapons are just one part of an overall trade in contraband.

MARGARET WARNER: David Evans, tell us about this – these SA-18s.

DAVID EVANS: This weapon called the IGLA is an advanced version of the SA-7 missile, it’s a shoulder-launched missile, fits in a carrying parcel or bag about the size of a golf bag, a little larger than that, weighs thirty to forty pounds, and can reach out and hit a target to an altitude of 10,000 feet, slightly higher, or slant range of about three miles.

MARGARET WARNER: And how much do they cost, and does it take special training to operate them?

DAVID EVANS: It does take some amount of training because you’ve got to hold the missile on the target, you’ve got to have line of sight, no trees and buildings in between you and the target, and it does take a certain amount of training to not lock the missile onto glare, water, clouds, you know, keep it on the airplane. Money talks. I would say the price depends on the degree of who you’re dealing with, how many you want, and so on.

MARGARET WARNER: And who tends to buy them?

DAVID EVANS: Well, the unfortunate situation we have is everybody that shouldn’t have them may well have them.

MARGARET WARNER: Meaning?

DAVID EVANS: Meaning the dark underworld of the international arms trade. We had before the attack with the two SA-7s on the Israeli airliner last year, a few days before that in Hong Kong three al-Qaida agents were intercepted by the FBI, attempting to purchase SA-7 missiles.

MARGARET WARNER: So al-Qaida does have these, Mr. Simon?

STEVEN SIMON: Oh, absolutely.

MARGARET WARNER: These shoulder-fired missiles.

STEVEN SIMON: Yes, absolutely. I should add that the missiles that were discovered in Saudi Arabia in an aborted plot to destroy an American jet were in the same production run as the missiles that were found in Mombasa.

MARGARET WARNER: And that tried to hit the Israelis?

STEVEN SIMON: That’s correct. So they have bought quantities of them.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Let me bring Mr. Flynn into this. Mr. Flynn, how vulnerable are U.S. commercial airliners — this was supposedly the plot — to this kind of attack?

CATHAL FLYNN: An airliner itself is intrinsically vulnerable to it. If there is no warning, if there are no indications, if there’s nothing done to diminish the ability of the terrorists to position themselves under the approach path or the departure of the aircraft, then the aircraft is quite likely to be hit by these missiles. A strike on a large jet airliner from what we have seen may well not cause the aircraft to crash. Of the large jet airliners that have been hit, most have survived to land safely.

MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Evans, what’s the actual technology, are these heat seeking, how do these actually hit that target?

DAVID EVANS: The lightweight portable missiles do not use radar, they’re going to home in on the infrared signature of the airplane, in other words the hot spot, the engine. The SA-18 will go 40 inches and if it misses the engine, it’s got an alternate feature in the warhead, if it glances against the airplane, it will blow then.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you agree with Mr. Flynn, though, that, say, aimed at a 747 it might not actually bring down the plane in one big explosion?

CATHAL FLYNN: That’s true. It’s only got about a four to five pound warhead. It depends on where it hits. If it hits in the engine and we’ve got hydraulic fluid, we’ve got jet fuel, we’ve got electrical power lines all going into the pylon, you could have a catastrophic explosion that would blow the wing off.

MARGARET WARNER: All right, Mr. Flynn, let’s talk about the two ways to protect. As you suggested, one way is, of course, to make sure that people with these missiles can’t get inside the perimeter of the airports, I guess, where they could aim at them coming in or taking off. How wide a security area would there have to be around U.S. airports to prevent that, and has the government ever done any kind of catalog of U.S. airports to find out how many really are vulnerable?

CATHAL FLYNN: Well, it isn’t inside the perimeter of the aircraft, of the airport. In fact it can be too close to the aircraft for the missile to be effective, and there’s some indications that that is what happened at Mombasa in the unsuccessful attempt against the Israeli aircraft. The missile has to fly a certain distance before its seekers go to work, in heading for the aircraft. But the area outside the perimeter is under the approach path. As David said, we’re talking about a slant range from the point that the aircraft is, that the missile is fired to the aircraft of well over a mile, couple or three miles, up to an altitude of over 10,000 feet. So think of that area under the approach path of an airliner to an airport, and what we have is an area from which the missile can be fired potentially of several hundred square miles. When that is in a built-up…

MARGARET WARNER: Around every airport, you mean?

CATHAL FLYNN: Around every airport, from which commercial airliners, where they arrive and depart. Now, in built-up areas, of course, it’s very difficult to be able to see whether there is anybody out there with a missile — relatively easy if the threat level is high enough for counter measures to be put in place, to sanitize, sanitize is the word when you have under surveillance or you keep people who look suspicious out of the area, it’s relatively easy when the approaches and departures are over water — relatively easy, but still not a trivial problem at our rural airports such as Denver.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, tell us then about the other potential protective measures, included in the plane — the Airline Pilots Association was saying today the systems are commercially available and they want them installed on U.S. commercial planes.

CATHAL FLYNN: Well, they have been used primarily on military aircraft. And they are available. It’s not an easy task to install them. We have had some experience in the, since 9/11, of setting arbitrary dates for things to be done, for example on checked baggage screening, and that has resulted in a lot of things having to be redone at great expense. So what I understand the government is doing, the Department of Homeland Security, is they’re evaluating the number of the systems, these counter measure systems to put onto aircraft, and they’ll probably put them initially on aircraft about which there is particular concern, for example aircraft going to Baghdad, and then make some hard decisions as to whether you equip the entire United States airliner fleet at a cost of over $6 billion.

MARGARET WARNER: Let me get a brief final comment from Mr. Evans. What is your assessment as to why these haven’t been installed so far?

DAVID EVANS: Well, cost and weight are big issues in the airline industry. Weight translates into money and extra fuel burn. It could be done at a cost of say 25 cents per passenger per trip, but as Admiral Friend said, we’re talking billions of dollars on top of the billions already being spent. I think we probably ought to go to the prototype, equip six or even airplanes, see how they work, separately conduct some realistic operational tests so that we know we’re getting some kind of insurance policy.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Thank you all four very much.