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Corruption Watch: August 21, 2003

21 August 2003, Volume 3, Number 29
By Roman Kupchinsky

According to U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) estimates, from 1978 through 1998, 29 civilian airplanes, most of which were flying in war zones, were downed by shoulder-fired missiles killing a total of 550 people. Some of the missiles used in these attacks were Soviet-made SA-7 (Strela) shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles. The last known incident of such a weapon being used in an attack on a civilian airplane was in November 2002, when attackers fired two Strelas at an Israeli civilian airplane in Mombassa, Kenya. The missiles missed their target, but the attack was a shocking wake-up call for the West.

Security organizations were put on notice that no airport in the world was safe from terrorists armed with the 15-kilogram, 1.5-meter-long missile, which can easily be carried in a van or on top of a car in a canvas bag. In the last 15 years, more than 50,000 such shoulder-fired missiles have been sold to Third World countries (Pakistan still manufactures the basic SA-7 Strela) and, according to a 2 December 2002 report on ABC News, ( at least 17 terrorist organizations are believed to have such missiles.

Costing as low as $5,000 apiece and capable of reaching an altitude of 4,000 meters in seconds, it is an ideal weapon for a terrorist organization intent on downing a civilian (or military) airplane. The Strela can be accurately launched from as far as 3 kilometers away from an airport runway. (Presumably it could be fired from a small fishing boat trawling the Atlantic a mile or so away from New York's JFK airport or Miami International.)

The counterpart to the SA-7 is the U.S.-made Stinger missile. With a range of 8 kilometers, it flies at Mach-2 speed and can hit aircraft at 3,000 meters or higher. The Stinger weighs only 5.7 kilograms and is also 1.5 meters long. Stinger operations manuals can be purchased in army-surplus stores or through the Internet for $12.

The good news is that defenses against the current models of shoulder-held missiles are available -- but at a high price. According to MSNBC (, the costs of outfitting the roughly 6,800 planes in U.S. commercial fleets is estimated at $10 billion. On-board antimissile systems send out high-temperature flares to confuse the missile and change its course. Such systems are rated at 90 percent effective and are used on U.S. military aircraft.

"The New York Times" reported on 7 August that "the Department of Homeland Security has decided to open a special office to deal with the missile threat and in an unpublicized request to Congress last month sought $2 million for the new office's initial budget.

"The department has also notified eight government contractors in recent weeks that they are finalists for a potentially huge federal contract to develop prototypes for an electronic antimissile system that could be installed in thousands of passenger jets, similar to systems that are already installed in American military planes, including Air Force One."

Presently the United States uses less-refined methods of early warning of a possible shoulder-held missile. The "Financial Times" on 14 August wrote: "the U.S. still relies on more primitive methods, such as getting clam diggers near Boston's Logan airport runways to alert them to suspicious activity.... 'I think we've been damned lucky [the terrorists] haven't been able to do it so far,'" a retired U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) officer told the newspaper.

The threat of shoulder-held missiles was brought home on 13 August when the media reported that U.S. federal authorities arrested three people for plotting to smuggle a Russian-made SA-18 Igla, the higher-tech replacement for the Strela, into the United States. The Igla was used by rebels in Chechnya in an attack last year to bring down a Russian transport helicopter, killing 118 soldiers.

A British citizen of Indian descent, Hemant Lakhani, who arrived on a British Airways flight, was arrested in a hotel near Newark International Airport after agreeing to sell the missile to an undercover FBI agent posing as a Muslim extremist. According to U.S. authorities, the arms dealer from London was aware that he was selling the weapon to a terrorist. According to Western media reports, Russian and British law enforcement agencies were involved in foiling the plot.

Commenting on the arrest of the British subject and the cooperation of the FBI with the Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB) in the case, "Jane's Intelligence Digest" on 15 August wrote: "Despite the plethora of overexcited media headlines earlier this week, the classic 'sting' operation which was organized by the Russian secret service (FSB) and the U.S.'s FBI to entrap an alleged arms dealer [who] was allegedly seeking to sell an Igla missile to what he apparently believed was a group of Islamic terrorists in the U.S., revealed little beyond the intelligence services' insatiable desire for positive publicity. Put bluntly, there was no realistic prospect of this sort of advanced weapon being supplied to anyone without the active collusion of the Russian state authorities."

According to "The Times" of London on 14 August: "In June, the Russian authorities attempted to take control of the sale of the Igla system across the former Soviet Union but were rebuffed by the former Soviet republics of Azerbaijan, Georgia, Uzbekistan, and Ukraine."

Yevgenii Volk, head of the Moscow office of the Heritage Foundation, told "The Boston Globe" on 14 August that "the sting would have no effect on the illegal trade in shoulder-fired Russian-made missiles. 'This market is very large, and it is not just connected to international terrorism,' Volk said in a telephone interview. 'To control it within the former Soviet Union is harder than conducting a sting operation.'"

Responding to these charges on the Russian website on 15 August, Aleksandr Smirnov, a department head at the KBM design bureau which devised the Igla told Reuters: "As far as commercial airliners are concerned, most have several engines and the loss of one of them does not entail the loss of the whole craft.... Also, the amount of explosive matter in a rocket is such that it cannot cause disintegration of the craft's body, which is a reinforced structure. That is why it is impossible to shoot down a big airliner with a single rocket."

"The Moscow Times," citing Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies head Ruslan Pukhov as its source, wrote on 15 August that "the fact that Lakhani was going to make a mere $15,000 from the missile sale indicates he was probably new to the arms black market, since no professional illegal arms dealer would have agreed to such a sum given the complexity of the transcontinental deal. According to the affidavit, the missile was to be the first of 50 missiles to be delivered to the United States this summer."

Another factor to consider in this incident will be the legal proceedings which will be brought against Lakhani. It is conceivable that his defense will argue that the FBI overstepped the legal bounds of a sting operation and committed entrapment.

A key member of the Al-Qaeda organization who is suspected of masterminding the bombing of a nightclub in Bali, Indonesia, in October 2002 was captured in Thailand on 14 August according to press reports.

The man, Riduan Isamuddin, 39, also known as Hambali, was captured without injury in a CIA operation according to "The New York Times," on 15 August. He was taken to an undisclosed location for questioning.

"The New York Times" quoted U.S. President George W. Bush, speaking to troops at the Miramar air station near San Diego on 15 August, as saying: "He's a known killer. Hambali was one of the world's most lethal terrorists. He is no longer a problem." RK

A high-level Saudi counterterrorism official told reporters on 12 August that as many as 15 Al-Qaeda leaders and operatives are currently being held in Iran, but that the government there is not responding to requests from Arab governments to extradite them. "Iran has given us the runaround" stated the unnamed Saudi official, "The Boston Globe" reported on 13 August.

Among the detained terrorists are said to be the 23- or 24-year-old Saad bin Laden, the son of Al-Qaeda head Osama bin Laden, as well as Saif al-Adel, the organization's security chief.

The Saudi official also pointed out that FBI agents have been given access to Ali al-Ghamdi, the head of Al-Qaeda in Saudi Arabia, who was arrested in June and has been accused of planning the 12 May attacks in Saudi Arabia that killed 34 people.

Analysts believe that the latest Saudi developments stem from the charges raised by a joint U.S. House-Senate investigation of the 11 September 2001 attacks. In a report released by this investigative body in early August, a deleted section is said to contain information which some claim links two of the terrorists to Saudi government officials. According to "The New York Times" on 4 August: "The classified section of a congressional report on the [11 September] attacks says that two Saudi citizens who had at least indirect links with two of the hijackers were probably Saudi intelligence agents and may have reported to Saudi government officials, according to people who have seen the report." Recently Saudi officials have adopted a mode of greater cooperation with the West in order to counter such charges.

"It's another sign of our cooperation," "The Boston Globe" article quoted the Saudi official as saying. "In past years, U.S. investigators said that Saudi officials had barred them from interviewing terrorism suspects jailed in the kingdom," the newspaper commented. RK