Antiterror alliance nets arms 'sting'
Intelligence-sharing by the US, UK, and Russia uncovers a plot to smuggle a missile into the United States.
MOSCOW — A missile-sting operation that nabbed a British arms dealer trying to smuggle a missile into the US is one of the most significant acts of East-West intelligence cooperation since the end of the cold war.
US officials are pleased that Russia - despite misgivings over the invasion of Iraq - is still on board with the US war on terror.
The arrest in New Jersey Tuesday of British citizen Hemant Lakhani, who believed he was delivering the Russian missile to Al Qaeda militants aiming to bring down a commercial plane, underscores a rare coincidence of Russian domestic and international policies.
Russia's success in first learning of the sale of the shoulder-held, heat-seeking Igla missile stems from its own efforts to halt the spread of such missiles, after losing more than a dozen helicopters to guerrillas in Chechnya since late 1999.
But the arrests also point to the depth of intelligence cooperation between the former rival superpowers, which grew swiftly during the post-Sept. 11 conflict in Afghanistan.
"This is the first major result of cooperation that can be reported," says Oksana Antonenko, the Russia and Eurasia program director for the International Institute of Strategic Studies in London. "In the past, there was much speculation about its effectiveness - there were many claims that it helped stop some terror attacks, but nobody was really sure. This really is an indication that the cooperation works ... despite the events in Iraq."
The arrests are also a reminder, however, of the threats posed by the sheer volume of weaponry left behind by the collapse of the Soviet Union, and how today that weaponry, especially easy-to-handle items like the Igla missile, can be a tempting target for terrorists searching for poorly guarded equipment.
Russian officials reportedly first tipped off US intelligence five months ago to the presence of Mr. Lakhani, a known British arms dealer of Indian origin, who was in St. Petersburg and Moscow.
Lakhani allegedly offered the missile for $85,000 - and wanted a downpayment of $500,000 for a promised future shipment of 50 missiles, according to US Attorney Christopher Christie, who detailed the 18-month investigation. Lakhani allegedly spoke favorably of Osama bin Laden and called Sept. 11 a "good thing."
Mr. Putin reportedly gave personal permission for the Russian agents of the Federal Security Service (FSB) the successor to the KGB, to work hand-in-hand with an FBI agent on Russian soil.
British agents were also involved when the dealer flew through London on his way to the US this weekend.
"This action marks a new stage in the development of cooperation between the special services of these countries," FSB spokesman Sergei Ignachenko was quoted as saying by Itar-Tass in Washington. He added that it was the first such cooperative operation since the Cold War.
Such cooperation is in keeping with the promises Mr. Putin and other European leaders made at the G-8 summit in France earlier this year, to stamp out illegal sales of surface-to-air missiles - and to prevent their getting into the hands of militants bent on attacks against civilians.
But for the Russians, cooperation is seen through the lens of its ongoing war in Chechnya. The high-profile loss of Russian helicopters to Igla missiles and their three-mile range, analysts say, is one reason Putin has deployed FSB agents to work with units of the demoralized Russian military.
A chief task has been to keep an eye on Russian weapons stocks, to prevent sale by rogue officers and soldiers trying to get rich quickly at the expense of fellow soldiers fighting in Chechnya.
"Those Igla and Stinger missiles represent a very dangerous weapon in the hands of terrorists, and the Russians face a considerable problem with them in Chechnya," says Alexander Pikayev, head of nonproliferation issues at the Carnegie Moscow Center.
Cooperation with the US and UK on the sting operation is one way Russia is trying to convince former Soviet states to also take greater care to stop the "illegal export of such missiles, that are so dangerous for the Russians, and potentially for the world."
But the operation also points to the firmness of US-Russia ties and personal relationships established by Presidents Bush and Putin before the Iraq crisis. "Despite political disagreements on Iraq and other questions, this is a symbol that still the cooperation between special services goes on, while in other cases they continue working against each other."
"It represents a continuation of the new unique situation that emerged in US-Russia relations after Sept. 11," says Mr. Pikayev, when the Russians provided quite unexpectedly a very considerable amount of intelligence information about Afghanistan."
But the possibilities of proliferation still exist, despite official Russian efforts to shut it down.
"The central problem is the surpluses of the Red Army arsenals, which are spread across the former Soviet Union," says Ruslan Pukhov, of the Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies in Moscow. "The control is particularly weak in such failed states like Ukraine and Tajikistan - all countries where there is a so-called 'democratic regime.' In [authoritarian] countries like Turkmenistan and Belorussia, everything is under control."
Russian soldiers, especially those outside of Moscow, are underpaid. They use their access to military equipment to sell it on the black market. One such missile brought down a troop-ferrying helicopter last year, killing more than 100 troops on board.
"Russian military and civil authorities try to combat it, but when we see regular attacks on soldiers [with such missiles] in Chechnya ... it's clear that it still happens," says Mr. Pukhov.
Thousands of such missiles exist, and Al Qaeda is known to have dozens left from the US effort in the 1980s to force Soviet forces from Afghanistan using US-trained Islamic militants.
But getting them from Russia is increasingly difficult, as the new arrests attest. "Compared to the 1990s, when [Soviet] weapons were being sold right, left, and center from many sources. After Putin came to power, the scale decreased," says Ms. Antonenko.
"There is regular checking now in the units, so it is a lot harder to sell, especially new weapons, which are registered. The reason for this was the major supply of weapons to the Chechen side ... from Russia" through criminal networks, she says.