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Missile Sting: Background

August 13, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT


BETTY ANN BOWSER: A federal courthouse in Newark, New Jersey, was the site for today’s arraignment for two of the three men charged in the missile smuggling plot. FBI officials arrested 68- year-old Hemant Lakhani, a British citizen born in India, at a Newark hotel yesterday after an 18-month-long sting operation conducted by a joint American, Russian, and British intelligence team.

Officials said Lakhani had agreed to sell Russian-made SA-18 IGLA missiles like these to an undercover agent posing as a representative for Somali terrorists who wanted to shoot down a U.S. commercial airliner. Lakhani is being held without bail on charges of conspiring with terrorists and illegal weapons dealing. The second man appearing in court, Moinuddeen Ahmed Hameed, is charged with conspiring to operate an illegal money transfer business. Officials said a third man involved, Yehuda Abraham, faces similar charges. U.S. Attorney Christopher Christie said Lakhani initially offered one Russian-made missile to the undercover agent.

CHRISTOPHER CHRISTIE: This was a sample missile. Mr. Lakhani told the cooperating witness with our law enforcement officers that we would have to order another 50 of these missiles to make the deal worthwhile, and yesterday was supposed to be the day that not only this missile was delivered, but that an initial down payment of approximately $500,000 was to be made on the next 50 missiles. That represented a 10 percent down payment that was to be made to Mr. Lakhani yesterday for an additional 50 missiles that he represented he could obtain for what he believed to be a terrorist organization. The operation was then taken down yesterday before that $500,000 was paid.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Christie said a missile was shipped into the U.S., but Russian officials made sure it was a fake.

CHRISTOPHER CHRISTIE: It is important to emphasize this was a dud missile, this was not a real missile, it was made to look like a real missile in order to continue the investigation, and that Mr. Lakhani would feel comfortable that the missile would actually be delivered. But right from the beginning, the joint terrorism task force, British intelligence, and most importantly our Russian partners knew where this was and how this was going, but we were just waiting for the end date which came yesterday.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: A member of Russia’s security service explained his country’s role.

GEN. SERGEI FOMENKO: (Translated): With our American and British colleagues managed to identify this transaction and prevent it from happening.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Christie said he’s certain Lakhani was sympathetic to terrorists trying to attack the United States.

CHRISTOPHER CHRISTIE: Mr. Lakhani believed and proved himself willing to deal with groups that he thought were terrorists and that specifically stated that they intended to use this missile for terrorist activity in United States against commercial airliners. So Mr. Lakhani knew full well what he was doing, why he was doing it, and as I told you, and as put out, I think, in good detail in the criminal complaint, he very clearly expressed his sentiments toward this country and its citizens.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Shoulder-mounted missiles have long been available on the worldwide arms market. In Chechnya, rebels have used IGLA missiles before. Last year they downed a Russian military helicopter, killing 100 troops. And last November, terrorists attempted to use a less sophisticated version on an Israeli airliner in Kenya. No commercial U.S. planes carry protection against such attacks.