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Three Men Charged with Smuggling Missiles

Aired August 13, 2003 - 19:01   ET


ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: First three men today in a Newark federal court.
The charges involve a missile that authorities say could have been used to shoot down U.S. airliners. One of the men, accused arms dealer Hekmant Lakhani, was arrested in New Jersey yesterday.

Prosecutors say he was trying to sell a surface-to-air missile to government informants posing as terrorists.

Deborah Feyerick is in Newark with the latest -- Deborah.

DEBORAH FEYERICK, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Anderson, the government is calling this an incredible triumph on the war on terrorism and a blow to those who want to kill U.S. citizens.


FEYERICK (voice-over): The missile smuggled into the United States was to be one of many, prosecutors say. The suspected arms dealer, Hekmant Lakhani, accused of planning to secretly ship in 50 others by the end of August.

But before it could happen Lakhani was arrested at this hotel near Newark airport Tuesday. He had flown in from London, where he lived, to meet with the men buying the weapons. Authorities say Lakhani thought those men were Somali terrorists, waging a holy war to shoot down American planes. In reality, they were FBI agents, part of an elaborate sting.

CHRISTOPHER CHRISTIE, U.S. ATTORNEY: He believed he was going coming to the meeting for two purposes: first to see that the missile had actually arrived here in New Jersey and to present it to the cooperating witness.

Secondly, to finalize the deal for the next 50 of these missiles and to arrange for down payment of $500,000.

FEYERICK: Lakhani's wife waved to him as he entered court to face the charges. In an exclusive interview, Lakhani's brother-in-law tells CNN Lakhani is not an arms dealer, but that he's an Oxford- educated businessman who sells planes.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He's not in a war on anything. I can guarantee on that. I can swear about it. He's a man with character. FEYERICK: The cost for the smuggled missile, $85,000. Prosecutors say this man, Yehuda Abraham, handled the money. Abraham, who faces money-laundering charges, was released on $10 million bail.

A third man, Moinuddeen Ahmed Hameed, was also charged with money laundering. Prosecutors say he was to pick up $500,000, the down payment for the 50 missiles, which prosecutors say Lakhani promised to smuggle into America.

But could it happen?

LOUIE ALLEN, FBI: There's always that concern. And we've tightened security in the ports.


FEYERICK: This is one of the first pictures that we are seeing of Mr. Lakhani. He was in court today. This is an actual picture and not a sketch.

Lakhani entered no plea. His lawyer had only a couple of minutes to meet with him before this whole court proceeding.

Yehuda Abraham, his lawyer says he has no ties to terrorism. As for Mr. Hameed, his lawyer maintains his innocence.

We are just learning, Anderson, a little more about the cooperating witness, the man who helped set this up, working with the government. We are now told by a government source that he is a drug informant seeking leniency -- Anderson.

COOPER: Is the government alleging that this guy, Lakhani, was simply in it for the money or are they saying he has ties or just sympathy with terrorist groups?

FEYERICK: The government is saying that he did do this for the money, but during the course of the investigation he made very dramatic statements, saying that Osama bin Laden did a good thing.

He called the Americans all sorts of names and said he was in agreement with what happened and what had been done to America, the fact that he was trying to ship in 50 others shows, according to sources, that he was intent on doing even more damage.

COOPER: All right. Deborah Feyerick, thanks very much.

So just how easy is it for terrorists to acquire missiles that could be used to shoot down airliners? We asked national security correspondent David Ensor to look into that tonight.


DAVID ENSOR, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): As this training video shows, the Russian-made SA-18 shoulder launched missile, with its improved infrared tracking device and 17,000-foot range, could be a deadly weapon in the hands of terrorists. Shoulder-launched missiles were used in 29 attacks on civilian aircraft between 1978 and 1998, according to the Defense Intelligence Agency, killing over 400, mostly in Africa.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That's an awesome missile.

ENSOR: U.S. forces taking control in Iraq found a whole warehouse filled with SA-7 missiles. And American officials estimate there are more than half a million shoulder-launched missiles in existence worldwide.

Most are in safe hands, but others are not, including these crates of SA-18s in a secret warehouse somewhere in the former Soviet Union, the photos obtained by CNN from an international arms dealer.

STEVEN SIMON, RAND: American intelligence officials have said that the number available on the black market is in the hundreds. No one really knows for sure.

ENSOR: But the shoulder-launched missiles are designed to attack small planes and helicopters, like this Russian chopper shot down over Chechnya.

With only two kilograms, about 4.5 pounds of explosives in the heat-seeking warhead, the weapon has limited punch. When fired at a large multi-engine airliner, experts say, a single missile would likely take out only one of the engines, if the missile even hits its target.

JAMES CARAFANO, HERITAGE FOUNDATION: Even with an SA-18, I mean, you've got about a 50/50 shot at hitting a plane. And if you're an untrained firer, I mean, the odds of missing the plane are actually pretty good.


ENSOR: Still, multiple shoulder-launched missiles could take down an airliner, so a weapon small enough to fit inside a golf club bag is now considered a threat to national security -- Anderson.

COOPER: Dave, what happened or is it known what has happened to those, I think there were, like, 300 to 600 Stingers that were given to Mujahideen fighting the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. Any idea what's happened to them?

ENSOR: Well, those -- the Stingers, which of course are an American-made version of the shoulder-launched weapon, the CIA launched a buyback program. I'm told by officials that all but about 40 of those Stingers are believed to have been accounted for. Those that are still out there may no longer work, however. They have a short shelf life -- Anderson.

COOPER: That's good to hear. David Ensor, thanks very much.


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