WASHINGTON (Talon News) — The British arms dealer recently arrested by FBI agents in an undercover sting operation appeared in U.S. District Court Wednesday, on charges that he tried to complete the sale of a shoulder-fired missile, with the understanding that it was going to be used to shoot down an American commercial airliner, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office and Justice Department.
The FBI is reporting that two other defendants were arrested for helping in a planned money transfer that was part of the transaction. One of those two individuals arrived in the U.S. to allegedly arrange for a $500,000 downpayment from a government cooperating witness for 50 more shoulder-fired missiles.
U.S. Attorney Christopher J. Christie of the District in New Jersey and FBI Director Robert Mueller and Department of Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge in Washington, announced the filing of a criminal complaint charging Hemant Lakhani with attempting to provide material support to terrorists and attempting to sell arms without a license. Lakhani, 68, of London, England, flew from London to John F. Kennedy International Airport on Sunday and was arrested Tuesday by Special Agents of the FBI/Newark Joint Terrorism Task Force, as he was meeting with a government cooperating witness to complete the sale of a single shoulder-fired surface-to-air missile.
U.S. Attorney General Ashcroft said the investigation, which began in the months after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks on America, also involved law enforcement authorities in the Russian Federation, who infiltrated Lakhani’s pipeline to a weapons supplier.
In addressing the recent arrests of would-be missile dealers, Secretary of State Colin Powell said that the arrests were “very significant” because the United States and the Russian Federation “worked together to stop this kind of traffic in arms.” Powell added that surface-to-air missiles in the hands of terrorists “put us all at risk.”
In an interview with the Univision Television Network, Secretary Powell said that terrorists who would traffic in a surface-to-air missile that would go up in the sky and hit an “innocent plane full of innocent people” as an act of terror are “disgraceful.”
“And that is why the world must work together,” Powell said. “All of us have a part to play in this campaign against terrorism, and I am pleased this time it worked and we caught them.”
A criminal complaint against Lakhani filed under seal on Monday in U.S. District Court in Newark alleges that Lakhani went to New Jersey to arrange for the sale of at least another 50 anti-aircraft missiles to the cooperating witness, who was posing as a representative of a Somali terror organization.
According to the FBI, separate criminal complaints were filed against Yehuda Abraham, 76, a New York City jeweler and money remitter, and Moinuddeen Ahmed Hameed of Malaysia. Hameed arrived from Malaysia on Tuesday allegedly as part of the planned sale of another 50 missiles. Hameed was to collect an initial payment of $500,000 from the government cooperating witness, according to the complaint. Both men are charged with conspiring to operate an unlicensed money transmitting business.
Lakhani, a British national born in India, and Hameed, appeared before U.S. Magistrate Judge Susan D. Wigenton in Newark. At the government’s request, Judge Wigenton continued the initial appearance for several days, during which the defendants will remain in federal custody.
“This investigation shows that all agencies of the federal government and our international allies will work together tirelessly to keep innocent people safe,” said Ashcroft. “America is vigilant against danger. Justice will be done.”
“This was deadly serious business,” said Christie. “Without the very effective intervention of the FBI — Newark, the Joint Terrorism Task Force composed of our federal, state and local law enforcement partners and the indispensable help of the Russian FSB, Lakhani might well have paved the way for others do unimaginable damage.”
According to the criminal complaint, contact between Lakhani and the cooperating witness began in December 2001, with most of the conversations spoken in Urdu or Hindi. The following month, after the cooperating witness said he wanted to purchase one surface-to-air missile initially and more to follow, Lakhani represented to the cooperating witness that he could export weapons from sources in the former Soviet Union. At a meeting between the two in New Jersey, Lakhani provided a military arms brochure and business cards from individuals with whom he had connections.
The FBI reports that during a video- and audio-taped meeting at a hotel overlooking Newark Airport in September 2002, Lakhani and the cooperating witness looked out and gestured at departing commercial aircraft. Lakhani allegedly said he understood the purpose of the sale was to shoot down an aircraft and cause economic harm to the United States – to “make one explosion … to shake the economy.”