Suspect wanted smuggle 50 missiles
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Suspect wanted to smuggle in 50 missiles, FBI says
Some question value of sting
Aug. 14, 2003 12:00 AM
WASHINGTON - Just months after the Sept. 11 terrorist hijackings, Hemant Lakhani began talking about selling a shoulder-fired missile to shoot down airliners in the United States with a man who said he represented a Somali terrorist group, officials said Wednesday.
Over the next year and a half, Lakhani, 68, a British national born in India and living in London, had 150 conversations, mostly in Hindi or Urdu, with the terrorists' representative about the sale of one Russian-made missile followed by 50 more in a $5 million deal, prosecutors and FBI officials said.
But when Lakhani showed up at a Newark hotel near the airport Tuesday to seal the deal by accepting a $500,000 down payment from the representative, he was arrested, as were two money-transfer agents in New York.
The terrorists' representative actually was an unidentified FBI informer, who for months had recorded talks with Lakhani and even traveled with him to Russia to meet with two Russian law enforcement agents posing as weapons suppliers, officials said.
"The president has made clear we are in an ongoing war against terrorism, and today the good guys won a battle in that war," New Jersey U.S. Attorney Christopher Christie said in a televised briefing.
Some terrorism experts, however, said the value of the sting was more symbolic than real. Lakhani is not a known terrorist or big player in arms deals, and no real terrorist group was involved, they said.
"This was not stopping a terrorist event," said Vincent Cannistraro, former director of the CIA's counterterrorism center. "This guy wouldn't have done it if the Russians hadn't set him up."
Yet the prospect that arms dealers were trying to sell missiles here stoked the political battle between Democrats and President Bush over homeland security and domestic anti-terrorism efforts.
Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., on Wednesday sent a letter to Bush urging him to use half of the $9.1 billion Missile Defense Agency budget over the next two years to pay for the $7 billion to $10 billion cost of anti-missile technology for 6,800 airplanes.
Bush defended his record.
"The fact that we were able to sting this guy was a pretty good example of what we're doing in order to protect the American people," he said.
On Wednesday, Lakhani appeared in federal court in Newark, where a magistrate ordered him held without bond until a hearing next week. Lakhani is charged with aiding terrorists and dealing weapons without a license. His court-appointed attorney declined to comment.
Moinuddeen Ahmed Hameed of Malayasia, age unavailable, and Yehuda Abraham, 76, the owner of Ambuy Gem Corp. in New York City, were charged with operating unlicensed money transmitting businesses after arranging illegal money transfers for the deal.
A U.S. magistrate in Newark ordered Hameed held without bail until a custody hearing Wednesday. Hameed's lawyer, Cathy Fleming, said her client maintained his innocence.
A magistrate in New York set bail for Abraham at $10 million and confined him to his home. Abraham is ill, said Larry Krantz, his attorney. "It was not alleged that Mr. Abraham engaged in conversations discussing missiles and terrorist activity," Krantz said.
After first meeting in December 2001, the informer told Lakhani on Jan. 17, 2002, that the Somali group he represented wanted to buy one missile initially and more later, according to an FBI affidavit.
Some officials said Tuesday that the FBI informer told Lakhani he was representing the al-Qaida terrorist group, but the affidavit did not mention al-Qaida.
Over the next several months, Lakhani sent specifications of weapons to the informer and arranged fake invoices for spare parts and medical supplies to cover the paper trail of the transaction, the affidavit says.
Lakhani faces penalties of up to 25 years in prison and $1.25 million in fines. Hameed and Abraham could face up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine.