NEW YORK — A shadowy arms broker starts negotiating with some Russian mafia types to buy antitank weapons, surface-to-air missiles, rocket-propelled grenade launchers, and machine guns. The broker makes it clear: The weapons are for terrorists in the United States, probably connected to Al Qaeda. The arms sellers don't care: Just so long as they get their money.
But the arms broker actually worked for the FBI as a confidential informant. And Monday night, the whole scheme as described by US authorities fell apart for 18 men now accused of trying to smuggle in an arsenal for $2.5 million.
"It reads like a Hollywood script, but the plot is undeniably real," says Andrew Arena, the special agent in charge of the criminal division of the FBI in New York.
According to the indictment handed down Tuesday, men with nicknames such as "Soso," "Jabs," and "Tiko" claimed to have access to weapons in such countries as Armenia and Georgia. Over the course of a year, the men, mostly in the US illegally, began to trust the FBI's informant. Authorities say they delivered eight automatic weapons to storage sheds in Los Angeles, New York, and Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Also according to the indictment, they intimated that they not only could get more weapons, but also had access to weapons-grade uranium.
Security experts say the bust shows that the nation still has to be vigilant.
"If these people are so inclined, they can get weapons to carry out serious attacks," says John Cohen, senior homeland policy adviser to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. "It's very scary that there continues to be an open market for these types of weapons, and it clearly has to be one of our top priorities to do something about them."
At a press conference announcing the indictments, David Kelley, the US attorney for the Southern District of New York, said the US was working with foreign governments to try to locate the weapons and shut down the ring. "It appears to be some rogue folks in the Eastern European military circles we're dealing with," said Mr. Kelley. "It's hard to say at this point whether it's coming directly out of the military or some sort of black market."
The sting operation began last March when a confidential informant alleged to the FBI that a South African man, Christiaan Dewet Spies, said he had connections to the Russian mafia in New York and Los Angeles. The paid informant told Mr. Spies he was interested in buying 10 to 15 rocket-propelled grenade launchers. According to federal authorities, Spies said he was only interested in selling a full crate of 2,000 RPGs at a time.
The government alleges that Spies then introduced the informant to his contact, "Alex," also known as Artur Solomonyan, an Armenian, in a Manhattan restaurant. That's when the serious negotiations began. According to the indictment, Mr. Solomonyan indicated the weapons would come from Russia and would take two months or less to get to the US by ship - at the port of Los Angeles, New York, or Miami. The informant indicated he was willing to spend $2.5 million.
Their next meeting was in a sauna and hot tub at a Brooklyn spa. At this point, according to the indictment, Solomonyan said the RPGs would be known as "fliers," and he described them as military surplus from Chechnya. He also said his group already had weapons in the US earmarked for other customers. If that deal fell through, he is alleged to have said, then the informant could buy them.
By last summer, the meetings increased. It was here that Solomonyan is alleged to have offered enriched uranium, which the indictment says, "could be used in the subway system."
However, US officials doubt there ever was any uranium. "It was not followed up ... uranium was never discussed again," said Kelley.
Authorities say the defendants started to revert to code words for the weapons they wanted to sell. Machine guns became "condos" or "small properties" or "apartments." The RPGs became known as "large apartments." At yet another time, weapons became known as "cars," some with automatic transmissions, according to the indictment.
By late September, the FBI informant had purchased a machine gun in Los Angeles for $2,000. In October, two military assault rifles were delivered to a storage area rented by the FBI. By now, a much larger group of illegal arms dealers were involved, including African-Americans and Hispanics. The weapons now became "dogs," "puppies," and "toys." Money exchanged hands, and the government was wiretapping everything.
At this point, the indictment says, the defendants indicated they could not leave the country to get larger weapons because they were apparently in the US illegally. The FBI's source said he could get them a "green card," an immigration work visa. The US Citizenship and Immigration Services provided the FBI with green cards that were shown to Solomonyan. "This could be yours," he was told, says Mr. Arena.
On Monday night, Solomonyan and Spies showed up evidently to get their green cards so they could travel overseas. Instead, they were met by law-enforcement officers who packed them off to jail.
None of the defendants could be reached for comment.