FBI Director Robert Mueller and Department of Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge in Washington, announced the filing of a criminal complaint charging Hemant Lakhani
|Washington, D.C. August 13, 2003|
NEWARK, N.J. - A British arms dealer appeared in U.S. District Court today, 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, the U.S. Attorney's Office and Justice Department announced today.
Two other defendants were arrested. Both of them helped 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 yesterday 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.
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.
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 yesterday 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. The third defendant, Abraham, was expected to make an initial appearance in U.S. District Court in Manhattan sometime today.
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.
"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 complaint states 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."
Among the more than 150 other audio- or video-taped conversations during the investigation, Lakhani allegedly spoke approvingly of Usama bin Laden, saying bin Laden "straightened them all out" and "did a good thing." And, in a another conversation, Lakhani was recorded saying, "The Americans are bastards."
As stated in the complaint, the discussions continued about importation of the missile, and on Aug. 17, 2002, Lakhani said he understood that the buyer of the missile had wanted it for "the anniversary" - a reference to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on America. Three days later, Lakhani allegedly faxed the cooperating witness a document listing the price for an "Igla-S portable anti-aircraft missile complex," including a price breakdown between the missile and its launcher. In more recorded conversations during August 2002, Lakhani allegedly said the supplier was concerned that the deal for just one missile was "too risky," and that he had committed to the supplier that there would be a purchase of at least an additional 20 missiles.
The complaint further alleges that on or about July 12, 2003, Lakhani traveled to Moscow to meet with the suppliers and the government's cooperating witness. At a meeting two days later, Lakhani met with the witness and two officers of the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB), posing as the suppliers. The FSB officers showed Lakhani what appeared to be an actual surface-to-air missile, which was actually an unarmed replica. In subsequent meetings, Lakhani allegedly discussed payment arrangements and his desire to arrange a deal for the purchase of an additional 50 surface-to-air missiles.
The complaint alleges that during a July 18, 2003, recorded meeting, Lakhani provided to the FSB officers a document on corporate letterhead, stating that the company had authorized its foreign bank to release the payment of $70,000 to the account specified by the FSB officers.
Representatives of the State Department's Directorate of Defense Trade Control have advised that the surface-to-air missiles at issue in this case - a Russian-manufactured Igla-S portable anti-aircraft missile complex - are "foreign defense articles" subject to their regulatory authority. Lakhani is neither registered with the DTCT nor licensed to engage in the business of importing or transferring any defense articles.
Criminal charges were also filed against Yehuda Abraham, the owner of Ambuy Gem Corp. in New York City, for allegedly helping to arrange the delivery of a $30,000 down payment between the cooperating witness and Lakhani. Abraham, 75, of New York, who also owns a money remittance business, was arrested today and charged with operating an unlicensed money transmitting business.
Maximum penalties for the defendants:
Lakhani: providing material support to terrorists, 15 years in prison and a $250,000 fine; selling arms without a license, 10 years and a $1 million fine. Abraham and Hameed: conspiring to operate an unlicensed money transmitting business, five years and a $250,000 fine.
The case is being prosecuted by U.S. Attorney Christopher J. Christie of New Jersey and Assistant U.S. Attorneys Jeffrey Clark and Brian R. Howe. The international investigation that led to today's charges was assisted by law enforcement authorities in Russia, and is the product of New Jersey's Joint Terrorism Task Force, particularly agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Secret Service at the Department of Homeland Security, and the Defense Intelligence Agency.