A British man identified as Hemant Lakhani was arrested in a hotel in Newark, N.J., where he had flown from London to sell the first of some 50 Russian Igla SA-18 missiles, shoulder-fired surface-to-air weapons capable of bringing down a commercial airliner.
The buyers were actually FBI informants posing as Muslim extremists and the weapon was an inoperable fake sent from Russia to make the deal appear authentic, officials said.
Authorities from Britain, Russia and the United States participated in the investigation, which began months ago with a tip that the suspected dealer was looking to buy weapons in Russia, officials told news agencies.
According to an FBI affidavit filed to support the charges, Lakhani asked for a commitment from the Russian “suppliers,” who were actually undercover Russian agents, for 50 more missiles to be sent to the United States by Aug. 30. He also said he was interested in purchasing a ton of C-4 plastic explosives, according to an Associated Press account.
Two other men were arrested in New York on Tuesday, at the same time the British suspect was apprehended, for running an unlicensed money transfer operation that had wired suspect funds.
Lakhani and one of the two men involved in the money transfer scheme appeared in U.S. District Court in New Jersey on Wednesday to have their charges officially defined. Lakhani is accused of providing material support to terrorists and illegal weapons dealing, U.S. attorney Christopher Christie said at the hearing.
Lakhani is not believed to be part of any terrorist group but rather an independent illegal arms dealer who reportedly did not hide his disdain for the United States.
Officials have hours of audio and video tapes of Lakhani where he discusses the plot, speaks well of Osama Bin Laden and refers to the Sept. 11 attacks as a “good thing,” a federal law enforcement official told the AP.
Lakhani’s lawyer refused to comment to reporters on the case after the hearing.
The second man, Moinuddeen Ahmed Hameed, faces charges of conspiring to operate an unlicensed money transmitting business, apparently in connection with the plot.
Christie told reporters some $500,000 was expected to change hands as a good faith payment on the missile transaction during Tuesday’s sting.
A third man, Yehuda Abraham, is scheduled to appear in U.S. District Court in Manhattan and also will be arraigned on money-laundering charges, officials said. Abraham allegedly accepted an initial $30,000 down payment on behalf of Lakhani, presumably to be transferred overseas, according to Christie.
The international investigation represents a close collaboration between Russian, British and U.S. intelligence and law enforcement officials.
The chief spokesman for the Russian Federal Security Service called the arrest a “new stage in cooperation” among the secret services of the three nations, the Russian news agency ITAR-Tass reported.
The shoulder-fired SA-18, known as an Igla or a Grouse missile, could prove extremely dangerous in the hands of terrorists, according to weapons experts.
“It is an advanced surface-to-air missile, which could have devastating potential in the hands of terrorists,” Jane’s World Armies editor Charles Heymen told the BBC.
“It is possible it could hit a large airliner and the explosion could bring the airliner down out of the sky, especially if it hit the engine,” Heymen said.
Weapons experts and lawmakers alike widely agree that Tuesday’s bust is the tip of the iceberg in the illegal arms market.
Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), chairman of the House Aviation Subcommittee and the author of legislation aimed at protecting airliners from shoulder-fired missiles, said on the CBS Early Show on Wednesday that the threat from such weapons is “very serious.”
“Not just a few groups, but dozens of terrorist organizations have access to these weapons,” Mica said.
“It’s not just a few. It’s thousands of these weapons that are available on the market,” he added.