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FBI: Suspected Dealer Sought 50 Missiles

FBI: Suspected Dealer Sought 50 Missiles

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NEWARK, N.J. (AP) -- A suspected arms dealer ordered held without bond Wednesday began arranging to smuggle 50 more shoulder-fired missiles into the United States soon after securing one of the weapons, which he thought was intended to shoot down a jetliner, according to an FBI affidavit.

The document also says that Hemant Lakhani, dealing with an undercover FBI agent he believed to be a Muslim terrorist, was recorded as saying Osama bin Laden "did a good thing" and "straightened them all out."

Lakhani, 68, a Briton described as a "significant international arms dealer," is charged with attempting to provide material support and resources to terrorists and acting as an arms broker without a license.

"The terrorists who have threatened America lost an ally in their attempts to kill our citizens," Christopher J. Christie, the U.S. attorney for New Jersey, said after Lakhani's arraignment.

Lakhani and two other men were arrested Tuesday after an 18-month investigation by the FBI's Joint Terrorism Task Force in Newark and Russian and British authorities, Christie said.

The most serious charge Lakhani faces carries a 15-year maximum prison sentence. Counts against the other men carry five-year maximum sentences.

President Bush, speaking at his Texas ranch, said Lakhani's arrest undercuts criticism by Democrats that his administration was not doing enough to fight terrorism.

"The fact that we're able to sting this guy is a pretty good example of what we're doing in order to protect the American people," Bush said.

Justice Department officials applauded the sting, but some said they were frustrated that news of Lakhani's arrest leaked Tuesday before investigators could determine whether he might lead them to other operatives.

Lakhani was arrested at a hotel near Newark Liberty International Airport, a day after a sealed arrest warrant was issued for him and the other men.

Lakhani had agreed to deliver a missile to U.S. agents posing as buyers after he obtained it from Russian agents posing as sellers, Christie said.

Lakhani's lawyer, Assistant Federal Public Defender Donald J. McCauley, refused to comment on the case.

Moinuddeen Ahmed Hameed, 38, who was arrested in New York on Tuesday, is charged with conspiring to operate a money laundering operation as part of a scheme to pay for the missiles. Hameed, an Indian citizen living in Malaysia, appeared in court with Lakhani and was ordered held without bail pending an Aug. 20 hearing.

Christie said Hameed had been summoned by Lakhani from Malaysia to launder a $500,000 down payment on an additional 50 missiles that undercover agents sought from Lakhani, after one missile was shipped at a cost of $86,000.

Lakhani and Hameed were brought into the packed courtroom in civilian clothes, with their hands cuffed in front of them. Neither man spoke, and both declined interpreters.

Hameed's lawyer, Cathy Fleming, said her client maintained his innocence. "He is upset, bewildered, and he has expressed confidence in the American justice system," she said.

Officials also announced money laundering charges against Yehuda Abraham, 76, of New York City, who Christie said handled the funds for the initial missile purchase.

Abraham was arrested in Manhattan with Hameed at what was described as a gem dealership off Fifth Avenue. His bail was set at $10 million during an appearance in federal court in Manhattan, where a judge ordered him extradited to New Jersey.

Abraham's four children, his rabbi and about a dozen other supporters attended the hearing but did not speak to reporters afterward.

Abraham's lawyer Larry Krantz told U.S. Magistrate Andrew Peck that his client is in poor health. Arguing for lower bail, Krantz noted the charge against Abraham does not say his client knew he was dealing with terrorists.

Abraham, Lakhani and Hameed were being held at the Passaic County Jail, where the government houses federal prisoners.

According to the FBI affidavit, the probe began in December 2001, when a "cooperating witness" under federal law enforcement control began talking to Lakhani about obtaining anti-aircraft guns and missiles.

Lakhani is not believed to be connected to al-Qaida or any other known terrorist group, federal officials say. Authorities also stressed that there was no specific, credible threat to shoot down an airliner in the United States.

But one official said the understanding between Lakhani and the undercover FBI agent was that the missile had to be capable of bringing down a commercial airliner.

Christie said evidence against Lakhani includes hours of audio and video recordings in which he discusses the plot, speaks favorably of bin Laden and the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

The cooperating witness told Lakhani he was representing a Somali group that wanted to buy one missile initially "with a purchase of a greater number of missiles to follow," the affidavit says.

In April 2002 at a hotel in New Jersey, the witness told Lakhani that he wanted one shoulder-fired missile to be used for "jihad" and to shoot down a plane, according to the affidavit. Lakhani confirmed he would work with the witness and offered as many as 200 missiles.

In September 2002, the two met again in New Jersey, where Lakhani verified that the purpose of shooting down a commercial aircraft was to harm the U.S. economy, the affidavit says. "Make one explosion ... to shake the economy," Lakhani is quoted as saying.

In December 2002, Lakhani told the informant to get copies of news magazines discussing the failed al-Qaida plot to down a jetliner in Mombasa, Kenya, the affidavit says. Lakhani is quoted as saying that the missiles used in that attack are older and that "ours is much higher quality."

Lakhani traveled to Moscow on July 12 to finalize the sale of a missile. Lakhani met there with the cooperating witness and two officers of Russia's Federal Security Service posing as suppliers.

They displayed what appeared to be a sophisticated Russian SA-18 Igla missile, but Christie said it was an inoperable copy later brought to the United States aboard a ship to make the bogus deal seem real.

On July 15, Lakhani asked for a commitment from the Russian "suppliers" for 50 more missiles to be sent to the United States by Aug. 30. Lakhani also said he was interested in buying a ton of C-4 plastic explosive, according to the affidavit.

(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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