A British arms dealer has been arrested after an international security operation foiled a plot to smuggle an anti-aircraft missile into America.
MI5, MI6, the FBI and the Russian internal security service, FSB, co-operated in the five-month mission during which agents tracked the movement of the rocket from Moscow to Baltimore.
The British businessman was arrested in Newark, New Jersey, yesterday afternoon after being followed on a flight from London to New York by MI5 agents.
It is believed that the suspect had bought a Russian-made Igla missile from a Russian arms company for £85,000 and offered to sell it to an "Islamic fundamentalist'' to carry out an attack in America. The dealer told the prospective client that up to 50 such missiles could be obtained for future operations.
However, the "terrorist'' was an FBI undercover agent of Arabic extraction who was sent to Moscow after American authorities had been tipped off by their Russian counterparts about the attempt to obtain the anti-aircraft missile.
According to unconfirmed reports, the FBI agent said he wanted to buy missiles to carry out attacks on commercial airliners, but the arms dealer suggested that enough of the weapons could be purchased to bring down the presidential flight, Air Force One, with George Bush on board.
Two other men, believed to be involved in money laundering, were apprehended at about the same time at a gem dealership in central Manhattan.
The missile was shipped from Russian to Baltimore in a crate labelled medical equipment. It was tracked all the way by various security services and kept under observation in a warehouse in Baltimore.
The British businessman, who is believed to be of Asian extraction, continued negotiations with the undercover agent before flying off to New York on Monday, followed by the MI5 officers. The original plan was for him to be arrested along with any alleged accomplices at the warehouse in Baltimore, but the FBI decided instead to seize him in New Jersey for "operational reasons''.
The Igla, which can be fired from the shoulder, has been sold to a number of militant groups. One of the missiles was used to bring down a Russian aircraft in Chechnya recently, killing more than 100 Russian military personnel.
Last night the FBI and the Justice Department in Washington denied that Mr Bush, or Air Force One, was a target. They also insisted that the potential threat was always under control because of the infiltration by their undercover agents.
It is believed the Russian intelligence organisation FSB was ordered by President Vladimir Putin to inform the US authorities as soon as information was obtained about plans to secure the missiles.
Whitehall sources last night said that the operation was American-led and British authorities co-operated with their international counterparts.
Two surface-to-air missiles were fired at a charter flight carrying Israeli tourists in Kenya last November. The attack, carried out soon after the aircraft took off from Mombasa, missed.
Three months later a specific terrorist threat sparked a massive high-profile security operation at Heathrow airport.
More than 400 soldiers and around 1,700 extra police officers were drafted into the airport and other key London locations in February. Scores of tanks were sent to protect the airport in west London.
It was believed that the terrorist threat included the possibility that al-Qa'ida terrorists could attempt to shoot down an aircraft in the UK with a shoulder-held rocket launcher.Reuse content