Newark, Aug. 13 (Reuters): Terrorism-related charges were levelled today against a British arms dealer of Indian origin who praised Osama bin Laden and thought he was smuggling into the US missiles that would be used to down commercial aircraft, federal prosecutors announced.
Two other suspected accomplices to the plot face conspiracy charges, the prosecutors said.
“This morning, the terrorists who threatened America lost an ally in their quest to kill our citizens,” US attorney Christopher Christie told a news conference on the plaza of the federal courthouse in Newark, New Jersey.
Moments earlier, two of the three suspects appeared before a federal magistrate amid tight security at the courthouse.
Hemant Lakhani, the arms dealer, was accused of providing material support to terrorists and of illegal weapons dealing, Christie said.
Lakhani was arrested after trying to sell a Russian-made shoulder-fired surface-to-air missile to undercover FBI informants.
In London, police said they searched two sites at the request of US authorities.
Lakhani, wearing a rumpled striped shirt, bowed his head and said nothing during his court appearance.
The charge of providing support to terrorists carries a possible 15-year prison sentence and a $250,000 fine, while the weapons charges could mean 10 years in prison and a $1-million fine.
According to a criminal complaint, the sting began in December 2001, when officials learned about Lakhani.
They used the unidentified informant to contact Lakhani, a British citizen born in India, and investigators said they audiotaped and videotaped 150 conversations between the two men. Lakhani made a number of anti-US remarks during those talks, it said.
“He on many occasions referred to Americans as bastards (and) Osama bin laden as a hero who had done something right and set the Americans straight,” Christie said.
“Mr Lakhani knew full well what he was doing, why he was doing it, and... he very clearly expressed his sentiments towards this country and its citizens,” he said.
The informant pretended to Lakhani that he represented a Somali group that wanted to purchase an anti-aircraft missile, the complaint said. The Somali group told Lakhani they would pay $85,000 for a sample missile and promised to purchase 50 more later.
The complaint said Lakhani told the informant “ours is a much higher quality” surface-to-air missile than those were fired in November 2002 at an Israeli passenger plane taking off from Mombasa, Kenya, but did not hit the aircraft.
The third suspect, Yehuda Abraham, took a $30,000 partial payment on behalf of Lakhani, it said.
Another payment of $500,000, which the US attorney said was 10 per cent of the price, was in the works to purchase the additional missiles.
Moinuddeen Ahmed Hameed, the second suspect, was only brought into the scheme in the last couple days to handle the larger payment, but money never changed hands, it said.
Russian authorities who worked in the sting provided an inert missile that was shipped to the US. Lakhani was arrested when he tried to retrieve it at a Newark hotel, authorities said.