| A New Jersey courtroom sketch of Lakhani. Reuters file picture
New York, Aug. 22: Hemant Lakhani is Passaic County jail’s most dangerous prisoner — so it would seem.
The overcrowded prison in New Jersey, built to hold 900 inmates, has a population of 1,500. Even so, an entire wing has been set aside to house the British businessman whose arrest last year was hailed as an “incredible triumph in the war against terrorism” by a US court official.
After a year in custody, Lakhani, 69, has broken his silence about his arrest on terrorist offences, the FBI sting that exposed his alleged arms dealing, and his doubts about the legitimacy of the “informant” who led the secret services of America, Russia and Britain to his door.
“They say I am a terrorist who wanted to shoot down a passenger plane,” stutters the Indian-born Londoner. “But there were never any missiles.”
Holding photographs of wife Kusum, 67, and son Sanjay, 39, Lakhani mutters about being “too foolish, too greedy”.
It was greed, he says, that led to him being branded the most important terrorist to be arrested since the attack on the World Trade Center when he was detained last August.
Lakhani, who will appear in court on November 3, faces up to 15 years in jail for “providing material support to terrorists” and a 10-year term for trying to supply a surface-to-air missile.
He claims that he is not the big catch the US administration thinks it has landed — protestations that are in stark contrast to the indictment against him. It claims that he told an investigator that shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles “could be used most effectively in terrorist attacks against commercial aircraft in the US if 10 to 15 aircraft were shot down simultaneously at different locations throughout the country”.
According to federal prosecutors, he boasted of sales to terrorist groups and thought he had struck a deal to sell a missile to a Somali group seeking to launch jihad, or holy war.
Lakhani says it was only weeks after the September 11 attacks in 2001 that he unwittingly first spoke to an FBI informant.
He claims that, living in Hendon, north London, he was working as a consultant for a company seeking backing for an Indian oil refinery project, work which would have earned him £5 million. A friend, he says, told him that he knew an oil executive in Dubai who might be able to help.
“I spoke to the man, and he said he had a friend in the United States called Air Haji, who was a financial adviser to the Saudi royal family, and could get them to invest the $250 million. Mr Haji phoned me four or five times, so I agreed to meet him.”
Haji, however, was a career FBI informant, the hotel room was bugged, and FBI agents were recording their conversation.
“He kept bringing up America’s influence on India,” claims Lakhani, who emigrated to England in 1958, “and told me ‘these people are all bastards’ — a statement which they later attributed to me and included in my indictment as proof that I was a terrorist.
“We talked for about two hours and all the time he was talking of terrorists and trying to get me to repeat what he said so that he had it on tape. He began asking about my previous work as a consultant to a Ukrainian weapons company, and asked if I could get a Stinger missile for his friends in a Somali group, he called the Ogiden Liberation Front. I wanted to please him so he would invest in the refinery, so I said I would try to get what he wanted.”
In April 2002, Lakhani says, he received an unexpected call from the oil executive in Dubai, saying that he had found a contact in Ukraine who could supply the missiles. Again, Lakhani did not know that this Ukrainian contact was an FSB (Russian intelligence) agent who, like the FBI informer, was working undercover.
“I told Haji that the deal was possible,” says Lakhani, “and he asked me to come back to New York to discuss the final details. We were in a hotel room in Newark talking about the deal and he asked if he could be excused for a minute. As soon as he was out of the room, armed officers burst in and told me to lie on the floor.”
America’s newly-formed department of homeland security had its man: a suspect who appeared to be a bona fide terrorist, caught on US shores by an undercover informant.