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Sting Operation Nets Man Smuggling Missile Into U.S.

Aired August 12, 2003 - 19:01   ET


ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: Good evening. Thanks for joining us. We start with the still developing story, a story you saw first here on CNN, news of an alleged plot to smug a surface-to-air missile into the United States.
FBI agents have already arrested one person, a British man of Indian descent, suspected of being involved in the plot. More arrests are expected.

We have a number of correspondents on this story right now. Jeanne Meserve has the latest information on the sting that led to the arrest and Deborah Feyerick will have details on the man in custody.

We start with Jeanne Meserve in Washington -- Jean.

JEANNE MESERVE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Anderson, I'm told the string operation went on for about a year, that it involved several countries and several agencies. The FBI, but also the Immigration and Customs Enforcement, known as ICE.

The way it happened was this. Authorities about a year ago got wind of an international arms dealer who was saying he could get hold of shoulder-fired missiles.

U.S. authorities posed as Muslim extremists and told him, "Yes, we're interested in buying one."

The Russians then picked up word that this individual was in their country, looking to purchase a shoulder-fired weapon. There were several undercover meetings in Russia; I'm told in Moscow and St. Petersburg, between U.S. Agents, Russian agents and this individual.

With the consent of the U.S., the Russians sold this individual an SA-18, which is a shoulder-fired missile. They sold him an inert one of these, meaning this was a weapon that contained no real explosives.

The movements of this individual and this item were continued to be monitored. He had it shipped into the U.S., into Newark, New Jersey. U.S. officials allowed it to be delivered. He, meanwhile, flew into the U.S. over the weekend. He has been arrested. He's identified as a British national of Indian descent.

I am told that some search warrants are being executed in England, looking for some more evidence. Also there are, I am told by government officials, there are individuals and businesses that facilitated the flow of money in this case. Those are also being looked at.

As for how much this is worth, people tell me that this was a transaction involving several thousands of dollars. No exact figure, but I'm told on the open market something like this could sell for as much as $100,000.

Anderson, back to you.

COOPER: Jeanne, it's just a fascinating story still developing. I know we're still getting details. But we use the word "sting." This really was a true sting. It was a setup. There was no real buyer.

MESERVE: That's absolutely correct. There has been concern about these shoulder-fired missiles. U.S. officials know they're out there; they know this is a potential danger for U.S. airliners. They've been looking at airports in this country and also overseas to evaluate their vulnerability and try to correct those vulnerabilities.

But in this instance, this individual believed that he was selling it to Muslim extremists. He wasn't. He was selling it to U.S. agents.

COOPER: Jeanne Meserve, thanks very much for that update.

Now, for details on the individual in custody we go to CNN's Deborah Feyerick -- Deborah.

DEBORAH FEYERICK, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Anderson, I see you there, so I think you're talking to me. So why don't I tell you what I know?

A law enforcement source says that a man -- that the man is an independent arms dealer. He is a British national of Indian descent.

The source says that he has sold weapons in the past to members of al Qaeda. However, this is not part of a terrorist operation. That is what law enforcement sources are telling me.

They say that this is a surface-to-air missile. It was loaded onto a ship in Russia and then it was smuggled into a port here in America in Newark, New Jersey. The law enforcement source tells me that it was delivered, but it is now in FBI custody, as is the man who sold the weapon.

Again, part of the operation was it was a sting so that's why they have the missile, because the end buyer was somebody who was working for the government.

Now, authorities have not released the name of the British national. He did arrive in the United States over the weekend. He was arrested this afternoon in New Jersey.

Two other men are also in custody. They were arrested this afternoon. We are told that they are gem dealers who work in a midtown Manhattan office. That office right now being searched by FBI agents. They are carting out boxes. They are taking things, filing cabinets from the office, so all that part of this investigation.

We don't know what their nationality is. We are told, though, that the company is an import/export company. The law enforcement source says that the two men were rounded up because they're believed to be the money launderers, the men who are handling the cash transaction, moving the money from the buyer to the seller.

Again, the seller never got that money. These two men apparently instrumental in getting that money to him.

The British national, the arms dealer, is expected to be in a federal courtroom in New Jersey tomorrow morning at about 10:30. The other two men scheduled to show at an initial appearance in a New York City court -- Anderson.

COOPER: Fascinating details. Deborah Feyerick, thanks very much for that.

Now, if you have any doubt about how dangerous shoulder-fired surface-to-to air missiles can be here's a statistic for you. According to the Defense Intelligence Agency, these missiles have been used in 29 attacks on civilian aircraft between 1978 and 1998. In those attacks 400 people have been killed.

Now, there have been several high-profile attacks that missed passenger jets. A suspected al Qaeda missile attack just missed an Israel flight taking off in Kenya last year. You may remember that.

Terrorists also took a shot at a U.S. plane taking off from Prince Sultan Air Base in Saudi Arabia. That was earlier in 2002.

The weapons are out there and the threat is real.

Joining us from Washington, Joe Cirincione, a defense expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Joe, thanks very much for being with us. How many of these weapons are out there? How much do they cost? How easy are they to get?

JOE CIRINCIONE, DEFENSE EXPERT: Sure. There are hundreds of thousands of the shoulder-fired infrared seeking missiles out there. They're in about 56 different countries. By one estimate there are approximately 50,000 of these SA-7 type Russian-made missiles out in third world countries alone. That's a lot of weapons.

Here's one other statistic. We sold or gave Stinger shoulder- fired missiles -- that's our version of this -- to the Mujahideen when they were fighting in Afghanistan against the Soviets. Some of those Mujahideen, including Osama bin Laden, later turned against us.

We have about 400 of those unaccounted for. In the year that U.S. troops have been in Afghanistan, we have recovered about 350 shoulder-fired missiles of all kinds.

COOPER: And what is so alarming -- I mean, you mentioned the SA- 7, Russian made. You mentioned the Stinger. There's also a Chinese made. I think there's one even made in Pakistan, isn't there? I mean, there are a lot of countries manufacturing these things.

CIRINCIONE: There's a lot of countries manufacturing this. The SA-7 is probably the most ubiquitous, the most proliferate of these missiles. The Russians really sold it around the world. The good news is that there's only one country now making the SA-7. The bad news is that it's Pakistan, a country right in the middle of some of the most militant Islamic fundamentalist struggles.

COOPER: And obviously, what so alarms security people around the world, really, is that relatively easy to operate, relatively, you know, very mobile, very low tech in some cases. I mean, I know there's some models which are much more high tech but you don't have to be a brain surgeon to operate these things. And there's really not at this point anything commercial airliners can do to protect themselves?

CIRINCIONE: Well, as you can see from the photos you just showed, these are bazooka style weapons. They are fire and forget. The cheap ones, the SA-7 basic model, costs about $5,000 on the open market.

The missile involved in this particular sting is a more advanced version of that, one that's been set up to defeat some of the jamming mechanisms that are available.

Most of our military cargo planes, and Air Force One that carries the president, have jammers in them, systems that can detect and then track and jam these missiles. And there are a number of calls to now equip U.S. airliners.

The bad news on that is that it's expensive to do that. Perhaps $2 million per plane. The good news is that if we have the will to do it we certainly have the resources in the Department of Defense that could be used to build this kind of missile defense system.

COOPER: Joe, we've got to go. Joe Cirincione, appreciate you joining us. A fascinating discussion. Thank you.

CIRINCIONE: My pleasure.



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