It was an elaborate sting operation conceived by the FBI over a period of 18 months and mounted in just 48 hours this week.
Four marines were arrested at their base, Camp Lejeune, in North Carolina on Thursday; a fifth was arrested nearby and the sixth at a camp near Boston where he had recently been transferred. Seven civilians were also arrested in North Carolina and an eighth is being sought.
Among the weapons the FBI said it had seized were rifles, rocket launchers and anti-personnel mines, along with quantities of explosives.
Precise numbers were not disclosed but the charges give some idea of the seriousness of the crimes. The 13 people arrested have been accused not only with violations of the federal firearms laws, but also with the illegal manufacture and distribution of machine-guns, rifles and plastic explosives. Crates of ammunition were said to have been recovered from the house of one of the marines.
The FBI agent in charge of field operations in North Carolina, William Perry, said the operation, codenamed Longfuse, had centred on the "theft and subsequent distribution of government, especially military, property and ordnance throughout the south-eastern United States". Two of the civilians arrested were described as weapons dealers.
Two aspects of the case will be especially worrying to the authorities. The marines are the elite corps of the US armed forces, a source of great national pride and the last place where anyone would look for a clandestine arms-selling operation. Second, as the FBI revealed yesterday, the probable destinations of at least some of the weapons were unofficial right-wing militia groups, such as the one which was involved in the siege at Waco in Texas three years ago.
These groups tend to be small, disparate and based for the most part in remote rural areas. As the siege at Waco showed, however, they have considerable arsenals at their disposal. Officials said that there was no evidence to suggest that the weapons in this week's case had been stolen for anything other than financial gain.
Reflecting the gravity of the theft, William Cohen, the Defense Secretary, yesterday ordered a nationwide security alert at military bases and arsenals across the US.
His response suggested that a radical reassessment of the danger had taken place since the previous day. Then he had defended the existing state of security, saying "very strong security measures" were already in place to prevent the theft of military weapons and explosives, and that he would wait to learn details of the current case before deciding whether security needed to be increased.Reuse content