U.S. charges 18 in Russian weapons-smuggling plot
Feds allege traffickers attempted to sell weapons to terrorists
From Phil Hirschkorn
NEW YORK (CNN) -- U.S. authorities on Tuesday announced the arrests of more than a dozen men on charges of attempting to smuggle Russian-made military weapons into the United States for sale to terrorists.
Eighteen men of various nationalities were charged by federal prosecutors for attempting to smuggle into the country arms that ranged from shoulder-fired missiles and rocket-propelled grenades, U.S. Attorney David Kelly said at a news conference in New York.
The identity of the potential buyers of the arms was unknown, authorities said.
The defendants were arrested late Monday and early Tuesday inside the United States, where they allegedly plotted the illegal sales. They were charged in a 62-page complaint with conspiring to traffic in machine guns and other weapons, and allegedly sold eight automatic weapons to a paid confidential informant who posed as an arms trafficker, authorities said.
"It appears the defendants were planning to obtain that weaponry through contacts they had developed in Eastern European military circles," Kelley said. "We are now working with our counterparts overseas to secure the weapons and to bring to justice conspirators who may be abroad."
"These defendants may not have been terrorist themselves, but they have showed transparent willingness to do anything with anybody, so long as it generates money for their organization," added FBI Special Agent Andy Arena at the news conference.
The arrests resulted from a yearlong undercover investigation by the FBI that included wiretaps of some 15,000 telephone calls.
The defendants are predominantly Armenian, Russian, and Georgian. The group's alleged ringleaders -- Artur Solomonyan, 26, from Armenia and Christian Spies, 33, of South Africa -- were among the 10 suspects arrested in the New York area.
Six suspects were arrested in Los Angeles and two others were arrested in south Florida.
All suspects were due to make their first court appearances before federal judges later Tuesday.
Solomonyan and Spies, who were in the U.S. illegally, were arrested Monday night at a Manhattan hotel, where they believed the informant was going to provide them with "green cards" enabling them to leave and re-enter the United States.
According to the criminal complaint, the conspirators offered the informant a shopping list of available weapons, including rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs), shoulder-fired "Stinger" missiles, Russian-made AK-47 assault rifles and Claymore mines, a type of explosive.
Solomonyan at one time told the informant that he could also obtain enriched uranium, which he suggested could be used in the New York subway system, according to the complaint.
"There was never, however, any such uranium," Kelley said at the news conference.
Solomonyan and Spies allegedly gave the informant a password to a Russian Web site where he viewed 17 digital photos of available weapons, and Solomonyan discussed importing 200 RPGs from Armenia as recently as January, according to the complaint.
In phone calls and meetings, the alleged conspirators used code words to discuss the weaponry. "Fliers" meant RPGs, while "toys," "puppies," "condos" and "SUVs" were code for machine guns, according to the complaint.
Solomonyan told the informant that the "fliers" were from Russian military surplus in Chechyna, according to the complaint.
The alleged conspirators met around New York City and were under surveillance in restaurants and at least once in a Brooklyn steam bath.
Despite the talk of high-end explosives, prosecutors allege only eight machine guns were delivered between last September and December -- three each in New York and Los Angeles and two in Fort Lauderdale, Florida -- to warehouses rented by the informant.
Videotaped evidence shows the informant giving Solomonyan $3,000 for the first two machine guns, while the prices for later sales were in the same range, according to the complaint.
The attempted sales of shoulder-fired, surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) and rocket-propelled grenades never went beyond the discussion phase, and those weapons never entered the United States from abroad, the complaint says.
The sting began when Spies - the South African defendant -- told the informant he had connections to Russian mafia figures who wanted to sell weapons they could obtain from former KGB officials. The informant said he had $2.5 million to spend.