Is an address in Highgate north London at the heart of Syria’s chemical-weapons trade?

Briton faces extradition to the US over export of banned technology to President Assad

chief reporter

With its Georgian shops, parks and population of well-heeled urbanites, the London “village” of Highgate is an unlikely location for a clandestine trade designed to subvert efforts to choke off Syria’s access to chemical weaponry.

But, according to American investigators, a British businessman did precisely that by using his £1m Highgate home as one of several forwarding addresses for laboratory equipment which US prosecutors claim was bound for Syria – in contravention of Washington’s sanctions designed to restrict the access of Bashar al-Assad’s regime to outlawed chemical weapons.

Ahmad Feras Diri, 41, is facing extradition to the US – and a potentially lengthy jail term – after he became the target of an investigation into the export of banned technology including chemical-weapon detectors to the country prior to the outbreak in 2011 of the civil war that has claimed 150,000 lives.

The Anglo-Syrian trader, who allegedly specialised in purchasing goods from the US and transferring them to Syrian customers via third countries including Britain, is accused with two others of creating false invoices, undervaluing items and listing fictitious purchasers over a nine-year period to smuggle hi-tech laboratory equipment worth $45,000 (£26,700).

In an indictment released last week, investigators said they had uncovered an international conspiracy stretching from an export company in rural Pennsylvania to Damascus, via Mr Diri’s north London home. His brother, Moawea Deri, who is now believed to be in Syria, is also said to have been involved.

The precise use of the equipment, which also included “magnetic stirrers” commonly used in laboratories, remains unclear. But prosecutors said that all three men were accused of a conspiracy to circumvent US export controls designed to “shut down the supply chain used by the Syrian state to support terrorism and develop and proliferate weapons of mass destruction, including chemical weapons”.

Mr Diri was arrested by Scotland Yard officers in March last year after allegedly procuring nine restricted items, including three detectors said to be capable of alerting a user to the presence of “nerve-, blood- and lung-warfare agents”.

He is also accused of using his London address for a consignment of gas masks which the indictment states would be capable of protecting users from nerve gas and poisons including hydrogen cyanide. His lawyers told The Independent that he denies  the charges.

The Syrian government first acquired chemical weapons in the 1970s. By the time the regime was forced to disclose their existence last year following a nerve-gas attack in Damascus which killed up to 1,500 people, it had  1,000 tons of agents, including the VX nerve gas.

American investigators said that while they were sure the items ordered by Mr Diri and his alleged co-conspirators did reach Syria, they do not know who in Syria, such as the military or police, the ultimate recipients were.

It is also possible opponents of President Assad’s regime may have been seeking detection devices. But the US authorities state that most of the shipping dates precede the start of the civil war, prior to which the country’s authorities maintained rigid control of material entering Syria.

Todd Hinkley, the Pennsylvania assistant US attorney prosecuting the case, said: “We know [the items] were exported to Syria.”

Mr Diri, who is married, is the latest in a long line of Britons who have faced being sent to America to face trial under the terms of the much-criticised UK-US extradition treaty signed in 2003.

Among those sent to a US prison were Kent businessman Christopher Tappin, who admitted a charge relating to aiding and abetting the attempted export to Iran of batteries for anti-aircraft missiles. He recently returned to Britain to serve the remainder of his 33-month sentence.

While the case of Tappin involved the use of a front company in a “sting” by US investigators, the authorities have declined to say how they discovered the alleged scheme involving Mr Diri.

They claim that from 2003 the Briton and his brother, who is a Syrian citizen, used a 73-year-old American businessman, Harold Rinko, as a “front” for the operation in order to circumvent US sanctions against the Middle Eastern country.

The investigators said Mr Diri and his brother  regularly asked Mr Rinko, who has struck a plea  bargain with prosecutors, to under-state the cost of the items ordered.

In correspondence about one item, the ChemPro 100 handheld detector for “nerve, blister, blood, choking agents and precursors”, it is claimed that Mr Diri wrote: “Please put 50-60 per cent less than the original price on the invoice, just for customs, so we pay less tax.”

Other restricted items allegedly ordered by the brothers included “high-volume magnetic stirrers” potentially capable of combining up to  25 litres of chemicals at a time, parts claimed to be for use in gas exploration, and a detector which could locate buried pipelines, according to  the lawsuit.

It is claimed that the materials were paid for by bank transfers from Lebanon and Jordan before being dispatched to addresses including Mr Diri’s Highgate home as well as  the United Arab Emirates and Jordan.

Wanted by the US: Extradition cases

Kent grandfather Christopher Tappin

Mr Tappin, in his 60s, was facing 35 years in prison after US officials accused him of helping export specialist batteries to Iran for anti-aircraft missiles. A plea deal saw him jailed for two years and nine months.

Asperger’s Syndrome sufferer Gary McKinnon

The Londoner faced a 60-year sentence for what US officials said was “the biggest military hack of all time” in his search for evidence of UFOs. The UK decided he was not well enough to stand trial overseas.

Paul and Sandra Dunham

The Northampton couple are due to be extradited to the US over allegations that Mr Dunham, 58, over-claimed expenses from a US firm  by $1m and that his wife helped him.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
peoplePair enliven the Emirates bore-draw
Arts and Entertainment
tvPoldark episode 8, review
Britain's opposition Labour Party leader Ed Miliband (R) and Boris Johnson, mayor of London, talk on the Andrew Marr show in London April 26
General electionAndrew Marr forced to intervene as Boris and Miliband clash on TV
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence
Public relations as 'art'? Surely not

Confessions of a former PR man

The 'art' of public relations is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef succumbs to his sugar cravings with super-luxurious sweet treats

Bill Granger's luxurious sweet treats

Our chef loves to stop for 30 minutes to catch up on the day's gossip, while nibbling on something sweet
London Marathon 2015: Paula Radcliffe and the mother of all goodbyes

The mother of all goodbyes

Paula Radcliffe's farewell to the London Marathon will be a family affair
Everton vs Manchester United: Steven Naismith demands 'better' if Toffees are to upset the odds against United

Steven Naismith: 'We know we must do better'

The Everton forward explains the reasons behind club's decline this season
Arsenal vs Chelsea: Praise to Arsene Wenger for having the courage of his convictions

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Praise to Wenger for having the courage of his convictions