Arms-smuggling sting sheds light on US security efforts

Federal authorities indict 18 men in the latest effort to keep deadly weapons away from would-be terrorists in the US

Call it one of the unfortunate legacies of a militarized world: a for-sale sign - no questions asked - for rocket-propelled grenade launchers, shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles, and automatic weapons of all makes and models.

Many of these weapons originate from Eastern European armories, part of the stockpile from the cold war. Others may have a questionable pedigree, perhaps part of a shipment of US arms to an unstable part of the world. And some of the arms dealers may still be wearing uniforms or be just retired.

"There is an ongoing problem of military weapons that have gotten loose from the former communist states," says Matthew Bunn, an arms expert at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. "Not only the garden-variety guns like AK-47s, but also RPGs and military-grade explosives that have fallen into the hands of criminals and terrorists."

The link between freelancing arms dealers and terrorism became more of a reality Tuesday after the government said it had indicted 18 men who had allegedly agreed to sell deadly weapons to what they thought was a terrorist group linked to Al Qaeda. The buyer was actually a paid confidential FBI informant.

According to the indictment, the sellers claimed they could buy an arsenal of weapons that ranged from antitank munitions to surface-to-air missiles. They claimed the weapons would be former Russian-made ordnance. One of the alleged leaders of the ring, Artur Solomonyan, was from Armenia, where US officials are now working with local authorities to try to secure the weapons.

At a press conference announcing the indictments, David Kelley, the US attorney for the Southern District of New York, said the United States was working with foreign governments to try 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 [the weapons] coming directly out of the military or some sort of black market."

Weapons experts are not surprised that some of the goods might be coming from Armenia. "Armenia has a lot of weapons that are not in use," says Uri Raanen, director of Boston University's Institute for the Study of Conflict, Ideology, and Policy. "I don't know for a fact if Armenia is involved, but it had a suspicious billion-dollar arms deal with Russia, and now there is a lot of weaponry not in use."

But it's not just Armenia, says Mr. Bunn. For example, in the former Soviet republic of Moldova, he says organized crime has access to military-grade weapons. "The criminals can do what they want, and they make major shipments of arms and drugs."

Security experts say the bust this week 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."

According to the indictment, the alleged smugglers claimed they could deliver their weapons in two months to the ports of Los Angeles, Miami, or New York.

Yet security experts believe that port security has been tightened substantially. "There are all kinds of ways of checking on containers," says Helmut Sonnenfeldt, a guest scholar at the Brookings Institution in Washington. "At this end, there is a fairly rigorous effort at the ports. It's not necessarily all that easy."

Indeed, US authorities have made some progress in shutting down this kind of activity. Last August, two leaders in a Albany, N.Y., mosque were arrested in a government sting operation for allegedly trying to buy a shoulder-fired missile and assassinate a Pakistani diplomat. Sting operations have also been conducted in Houston, San Diego, and Newark, N.J.

This latest sting began last March when the informant alleged to the FBI that a South African man, Christiaan Dewet Spies, said he connections to the Russian mafia in New York and Los Angeles. The informant told Mr. Spies he was interested in buying 10 to 15 rocket-propelled grenade launchers. According to federal authorities, Spies said he was interested only in selling 2,000 RPGs at a time.

The government alleges that Spies then introduced the informant to his contact, Mr. Solomonyan, in a Manhattan restaurant. 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. And by last summer, the meetings increased. It was then that Solomonyan is alleged to have offered enriched uranium, which the indictment says, "could be used in the subway system."

But US officials doubt there was any uranium. "It was not followed up ... uranium was never discussed again," said Kelley.

According to the indictment, the defendants indicated they could not leave the country to get larger weapons because they were in the US illegally. The FBI's source said he could get them a "green card," a permanent resident card. The US Citizenship and Immigration Services provided the FBI with green cards.

On Monday night, Solomonyan and Spies showed up, evidently to get green cards. Instead, they were packed off to jail.

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