Briton 'tried to smuggle in missiles to down US planes'

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The Independent US

Armed police with bomb-sniffing dogs guarded the federal courthouse in Newark, New Jersey, yesterday as an Indian-born British businessman stood trial accused of attempting to smuggle surface-to-air missiles into the United States to shoot down airliners.

Armed police with bomb-sniffing dogs guarded the federal courthouse in Newark, New Jersey, yesterday as an Indian-born British businessman stood trial accused of attempting to smuggle surface-to-air missiles into the United States to shoot down airliners.

More than a year after Hemant Lakhani was arrested in a hotel suite close to Newark airport on charges of plotting to sell weapons to an alleged terrorist cell in the US, he faces a trial that may last at least 10 weeks. If convicted, Mr Lakhani of Hendon, north London, could face 25 years in prison.

At the time he was arrested, President George Bush hailed it as an advance in the "war on terror". "We got a significant arms-dealer and a dangerous terrorist," the President said. "This is a major step in the global war against terrorism."

Just how significant a catch 70-year-old Mr Lakhani really was will be a focus of the trial. Apparently, he has no criminal convictions and no known ties to terror groups. Friends in London have described him as an ageing Del Boy, after the character in the TV programme, Only Fools and Horses, with a talent more for bungled business deals than international intrigue.

Mr Lakhani was held after a set-up orchestrated jointly by Russian and American intelligence. He attempted to sell a single, sample, Russian-made missile to a man he believed was linked to a Somalia-based terror group but who, in fact, was an undercover agent for the FBI. But prosecutors were expected to reveal tape recordings of Mr Lakhani's conversations with the agent posing as a buyer, in which he allegedly speaks enthusiastically of wanting to help terrorists shoot down at least 15 airliners in the US.

The charges against him state: "Defendant Lakhani engaged in a scheme, whose primary object was to sell shoulder-fired, surface-to-air missiles to individuals who defendant Lakhani believed were terrorists."

Henry Klingeman, Mr Lakhani's defence lawyer, is expected to open his case today, by describing his client as a small-fry player lured into a deal purely by greed, and not by political motive and that he was unfairly set up by overzealous American agents. "Mr Lakhani is definitely looking forward to trial," Mr Klingeman said. "There was no missile, there was no buyer, there was no seller. They were looking for somebody. After 11 September, they couldn't find or pick up anybody."

Mr Lakhani, who has spent the past 12 months in Passiac county jail, New Jersey, has also protested his innocence in interviews with journalists. "I'm not a terrorist," he said. "I'm not a member of any terrorist group and not associated with any terrorist group. If I am guilty of anything, it is stupidity and greed. All I wanted to do was to make money."

The defence may also try to undermine the credibility of the government informant, referred in court documents only as MR, who posed as the buyer in the sting. But the tape recordings, audio and visual, may be the prosecutors' best card. Michael Drewniak, a spokesman for the New Jersey prosecutors' office, said: "There are numerous conversations where he's talking enthusiastically about procuring a missile for the purpose of shooting down a commercial airliner."

They say the tapes show Mr Lakhani allegedly spoke approvingly of Osama bin Laden, saying the al-Qa'ida leader "straightened them all out" and "did a good thing".

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