| Hemant Lakhani being driven to the Newark court. (AP)
Washington, Aug. 13: A London-based Indian arms dealer, who thought he was selling a surface-to-air missile to Islamic terrorists, was arrested in New Jersey yesterday by undercover FBI agents who posed as al Qaida operatives seeking the weapon to bring down Air Force One, the official plane of President George W. Bush.
Hemant Lakhani, 68, a British national, is said to be prominent in the international arms trade.
British Airways today abruptly suspended all its flights to Saudi Arabia after Lakhani was nabbed from his hotel near Newark airport in New Jersey. He was arrested shortly after he picked up the missile, disguised as medical equipment, from Baltimore port, where it had arrived by ship from Russia.
The US presidential plane is equipped with deterrents against missiles, but some defence experts here said today that the sophisticated “Igla” SA-18 missile system smuggled into Baltimore by Lakhani may have been capable of actually hitting the plane.
Also arrested at the same time as Lakhani were two gem dealers on New York’s posh Fifth Avenue who laundered money for Lakhani’s transactions through hawala, the illegal, parallel banking system.
Both men are US nationals, but one is of Pakistani origin and the other is from Afghanistan, it is understood.
Lakhani was produced at the US magistrate court in Newark today, where judge Susan Wigenton ordered that he be held without bail pending a custody hearing on Monday.
Another defendant, Moinuddeen Ahmed Hameed, was ordered to detention without bail till a hearing next Wednesday on charges of conspiring to operate an unlicensed money remittance business.
Charges will also be filed against a third man, Yehuda Abraham, in the federal court in Manhattan later on Wednesday for alleged money laundering.
The sting operation began almost a year ago in St Petersburg after the Federal Security Service (FSB), successor to the KGB, the Soviet secret service, discovered that Lakhani was in Russia shopping for a missile capable of bringing down aeroplanes.
When Bush, Russian President Vladimir Putin and British Prime Minister Tony Blair met in St Petersburg subsequently for the city’s 300th anniversary, they cleared final touches on the joint sting operation on Lakhani by the FSB, the CIA as well as MI-5 and MI-6, the British spy agencies.
Lakhani’s conversations were taped, he was videographed and is on record as promising 50 more “Igla” missiles to FBI agents posing as al Qaida men. The cost of each piece was to be $85,000.
As part of the sting operation, the Russians sold Lakhani an inert “Igla” missile, whose explosives had been removed before shipment even though the weapon was under the care of American and Russian agents throughout its journey to the US.
Sergei Ignatchenko, head of the FSB’s public relations centre, who is now in Washington, said this was the first joint spy operation by Russian, US, and UK special services after the end of the Cold War.