Suspects in Missile Sting Set for Court

 A suspected arms dealer who thought he was selling a shoulder-fired missile to a Muslim terrorist bent on shooting down an airliner actually was the target of an international sting operation that resulted in three arrests, federal officials say.

Authorities in the United States, Britain and Russia cooperated in the investigation, which began months ago with a tip that the dealer, a Briton, was seeking weapons to buy in St. Petersburg, Russia, several U.S. law enforcement officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The probe culminated Tuesday in the arrest of the alleged arms dealer at a hotel in Newark, N.J., where, officials said, he had flown from London to close the deal on a sophisticated Russian SA-18 ILA missile capable of bringing down commercial airliners.

The Muslim extremist who wanted the missile actually was an undercover FBI agent and the weapon was an inoperable copy brought from Russia to the United States aboard a ship to make the deal seem real, officials said.

Two other men, believed to be involved in money laundering, were apprehended about the same time as the British suspect at what was described as a gem dealership on Fifth Avenue in New York City, according to a federal law enforcement official who spoke on condition of anonymity. BEGIN POSITION 3 END POSITION 3

The names of the suspects were not immediately made available because the arrests and charges were under court-ordered seal. However, the law enforcement official said the British suspect is Hemat Lakhani. He will be charged with material support of terrorism and weapons smuggling, the official said.

Lakhani is not believed to be connected to al-Qaida or any other known terrorist group, federal officials say. Authorities also stressed that there was no specific, credible threat to shoot down an airliner in the United States.

But one official said the understanding between Lakhani and the undercover FBI agent was that the missile needed to be capable of bringing down a commercial airliner.

Evidence against Lakhani includes hours of audio and videotapes in which he discusses the plot, speaks favorably of Osama bin Laden and refers to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks as "a good thing," according to another federal law enforcement official who spoke on condition of anonymity.

All three suspects were expected to appear Wednesday in federal court in Newark, officials said.

Justice Department officials had no immediate comment on the case.

The investigation began when Russian authorities s passed on a tip about the reputed arms dealer's activities to the FBI, which was permitted to work inside Russia, U.S. officials said. British officials, including the MI5 domestic intelligence agency, helped track the man's whereabouts.

The investigation also involved the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Secret Service.

The chief spokesman for Russia's Federal Security Service or FSB, the main successor of the KGB, said the operation was a result of close cooperation among the secret services of the United States, Russia and Britain, the ITAR-Tass news agency reported.

"This action marks a new stage in the development of cooperation between the special services of these countries," ITAR-Tass quoted FSB spokesman Sergei Ignatchenko as saying. He said it was the first such operation since the Cold War.

Concerns about terrorists using shoulder-fired missiles to shoot down commercial airliners increased in November when two SA-7 missiles narrowly missed an Israeli passenger jet after it took off from Mombasa, Kenya. Officials concluded that al-Qaida probably was behind the attack, which coincided with a bomb blast at a nearby hotel.

Hundreds and perhaps thousands of shoulder-fired missiles - heat-seeking rockets that can hit low-flying aircraft within three miles - are said to be available on the worldwide arms market. Older missile launchers can be bought for as little as several thousand dollars.

Chechen rebels have used Igla shoulder-fired missiles against Russian military aircraft. Last week they used a missile to shoot down a Russian helicopter, killing three of the crew. And last year the rebels shot down a Russian troop-carrying helicopter, killing more than 100 people.

The Homeland Security Department has asked U.S. high-tech companies to look into developing anti-missile technology for commercial planes.

Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., chairman of the House aviation subcommittee, said Wednesday the technology is available to provide a defensive system "at a fairly reasonable cost and we have moved that program forward."

"We don't have to put it on every plane, but we should have a system that's converted to commercial use," he said on CBS's "The Early Show," noting that a single piece of baggage screening equipment can cost almost $1 million "and we're talking about $800,000 to $1 million" per plane for a defense system.

"It should be on all new aircraft and some select other planes that carry large numbers of people, just like we do (with) air marshals," Mica said.

Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., is backing a bill introduced by Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., that calls for outfitting all of the roughly 6,800 planes in the U.S. commercial fleet with anti-missile defenses. The cost is estimated at $10 billion.

"The danger of an airliner being shot down by one of these missiles is now staring the Homeland Security Department in the face," Schumer said. "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."

Meantime, the United States has sent experts to domestic airports as well as to airports in Iraq and major capitals in Europe and Asia to assess security. The investigators are trying to determine whether the airports can be defended against shoulder-fired missiles.

Associated Press reporter Elizabeth A. Kennedy in Trenton, N.J., contributed to this story.

Copyright 2003 Associated Press. All rights reserved.