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Three arrested in missile-smuggling case

The SA-18 Igla is an advanced Russian anti-aircraft missile.
The SA-18 Igla is an advanced Russian anti-aircraft missile.

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- A man who authorities say plotted to sell a surface-to-air missile to what he thought was a Muslim extremist is expected to appear in a New Jersey courtroom today after being nabbed with two others Tuesday in an elaborate FBI sting operation.

The arrests came at the end of a yearlong undercover operation in which U.S. agents, aided by Russian officials, posed as Muslim extremists to buy the missile, U.S. government sources said Tuesday.

The weapon arrived from Russia Tuesday afternoon at a port in Newark, New Jersey, with the full knowledge and cooperation of U.S. officials.

Officials said undercover agents received the weapon and arrested the man, identified by a senior U.S. government source as Hekmat Lakhani.

Lakhani, a British citizen of Indian descent, is an independent arms dealer who has sold weapons to terrorist cells, Muslim extremists, and "rogue nations," according to a source close to the investigation.

Later in the day, authorities arrested two Manhattan gem dealers who law enforcement sources said were thought to be the "money launderers" in the case, taking care of the cash between the buyer and the seller.

Shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles have raised concern among government and security officials because their portability makes them easy to use against commercial airliners.

The Department of Homeland Security estimates there are 750,000 shoulder-fired missiles in the world, and they are easy to obtain on the black market.

Each missile weighs about 30 to 40 pounds (13.6 to 18.1 kilograms) and could fit inside a golf bag, counterterrorism expert Brian Jenkins told CNN.

While sources could not give a dollar amount for the missile involved in the sting, they estimated it would probably sell for about $100,000. (Factfile)

Russians, British aided sting

U.S. government sources said the sting operation began after U.S. agents learned of Lakhani, who advertised his ability to buy missiles.

After U.S. agents posing as Muslim extremists approached Lakhani, he made inquiries in Russia about purchasing a missile, the sources said.

Russian authorities became involved and posed undercover with the U.S. agents in several meetings with Lakhani in St. Petersburg and Moscow, the sources said.

With U.S. approval, the Russians provided Lakhani with a Russian-made shoulder-launched SA-18 Igla missile, several U.S. government sources said.

Lakhani arranged for the missile to be shipped to the United States, without explosives, with full knowledge of the United States, the sources said.

Lakhani arrived over the weekend to complete the cash transaction, those sources said. He was expected in federal court in Newark Wednesday around 10 a.m. The other men will appear in federal court in Manhattan.

Besides the Russians, the British also played a large role in the sting, U.S. government sources said. Search warrants in the case were executed Tuesday in Britain, but it was unclear what they yielded, the sources said.

The two gem dealers worked at an office called Ambuy, located on the 12th floor of a building on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan's jewelry exchange district, officials said.

One eyewitness said he watched about a dozen FBI agents Tuesday afternoon carry out 32 pieces of evidence, including boxes and filing cabinets.

Failed attempt a 'wake-up call'

A failed attempt in November to shoot down an Israeli charter jet with a shoulder-fired missile as it took off from the airport in Mombasa, Kenya, was a "wake-up call" for U.S. intelligence agencies, several officials said, underscoring the vulnerability of airliners.

The attempt occurred within minutes of an al Qaeda-claimed suicide bombing at a nearby Israeli-owned hotel that killed more than a dozen people, and authorities believe both attacks were coordinated.

The Department of Homeland Security has asked eight government contractors to come up with plans for anti-missile technology that could be put on airliners to prevent a missile strike.

An interagency task force likewise has been assessing additional security measures that can be taken at airports, such as fencing.

Sen. Charles Schumer, D-New York, said the sting proved the threat to commercial airliners from shoulder-fired missiles "is no longer theoretical."

"The fact that DHS is planning to take at least two years to develop a missile defense prototype to outfit the U.S. commercial fleet verges on the dangerous," said Schumer, who is sponsoring legislation to put anti-missile technology on the U.S. airliners.

"The White House ought to be providing Homeland Security with the money it needs to begin protecting civilian aircraft with jamming devices immediately, before it's too late," he said.

The Bush administration is trying to stem the proliferation of the missiles by encouraging other nations to better control their inventories and by reinstituting buyback programs in some high-risk countries.

The Department of Homeland Security also has been evaluating about a dozen overseas airports to determine their vulnerability to attacks with shoulder-fired missiles. (Full story)

CNN correspondents David Ensor, Jeanne Meserve, Deborah Feyerick and Kelli Arena and producers Kevin Bohn, Ronnie Berke and Vivienne Foley contributed to this report.


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