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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Doubts Linger Over the Igla Sting

Doubts lingered Thursday about how much of a real threat was posed by British citizen Hemant Lakhani, who is accused of buying an anti-aircraft missile from Russian undercover agents to sell to their U.S. counterparts, apparently without noticing that the missile was inert.

In a double sting operation unveiled with much fanfare, Lakhani was arrested Tuesday in New Jersey. The arrest was intended to be a publicity coup for the FBI and FSB, but newspapers in both countries wondered Thursday whether Lakhani would have pursued anti-aircraft missiles at all if not lured by U.S. and Russian agents.

Newspaper accounts of Lakhani's actions and background differed drastically, with one British newspaper describing him as an "idiot" with no experience, while a U.S. newspaper portrayed him as a "complete mercenary" who had dealt in arms before.

The Guardian reported Thursday that Lakhani had little if any experience in buying arms on the black market.

Quoting a source familiar with the Moscow end of the sting operation, the newspaper said Lakhani had travelled to Russia in March "on the off-chance" he would find something after U.S. agents posing as terrorists had asked him to supply a missile capable of shooting down a passenger jet.

The Guardian's source described Lakhani as an "idiot" and said he "made a direct approach" to the Russian plant that manufactures the Igla shoulder-fired missile.

Employees of the plant, which the source said was located in the Krasnoyarsk region, then informed the Federal Security Service about the purported buyer and it responded by dispatching undercover agents to pose as suppliers, the Guardian said.

Lakhani then arranged for his "client" -- who was in fact an FBI informant -- to travel to Moscow to meet the FSB agents on July 14. Their meeting in a Moscow office -- during which Lakhani is given an inert missile to inspect -- was videotaped, according to the Guardian's source and the FBI affidavit filed in U.S. federal court.

One possible hole in the Guardian's source's account, however, is that there is no Igla-manufacturing plant in the Krasnoyarsk region and the newspaper acknowledged it.

When reached Thursday by telephone, officials at the Moscow region-based Kolomna Engineering Design Bureau and the Vladimir region-based Degtyarev plant, which design and manufacture the missiles, respectively, denied any knowledge of Lakhani.

The Los Angeles Times, however, quoted a source saying Lakhani had done business with the Russian and Ukrainian state arms export mediators and once had arranged delivery of BTR-80 armored personnel carriers that were on paper destined for Angola. Lakhani is a "complete mercenary who didn't restrict his dealings to any particular country or cause," the newspaper quoted the source, identified only as a Western arms analyst based in Eastern Europe, as saying.

Russia and Ukraine each have one state-owned arms export mediator. An official at Russia's Rosoboronexport agency declined to comment on whether Lakhani had done any business with his company. He noted, however, that Rosoboronexport does business only with dealers who have been authorized by the governments of their countries to procure arms. Calls to Ukraine's Ukrspetsexport mediator went unanswered Thursday.

"All that the FBI proved here was that 1) Russian-made portable SAMS [surface-to-air missiles] are easy to get on the world market and 2) if you wave enough money around in what is an obvious scam, you can get someone stupid enough to come forward to try and provide them to you," the analyst said.

Russia's Kommersant daily also raised doubts about the practical benefit from the operation, which it said netted "mediocre middlemen." "The most striking thing is that the services didn't even try to track real sellers and buyers of arms in their countries," the paper said Thursday.

According to two leading Russian arms experts, Lakhani is unlikely to be a professional arms dealer and would not have posed a formidable danger if he had been acting on his own.

Ruslan Pukhov, head of the Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, said 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.

Pukhov, who heads Russia's most prominent conventional arms think tank, said neither he nor his colleagues had heard of Lakhani. "This could not have been serious. It sounds cheap. He could not have been a professional," he said in an interview.

Alexander Pikayev of the Carnegie Moscow Center said Lakhani would have had trouble buying a Russian missile and then smuggling it all the way to the United States without assistance from the FSB and FBI. The whole sting operation has more political than practical importance. "It proves that the secret services of Russia, the United States and Britain have resumed cooperation," Pikayev said.

Although a public relations coup, this joint FBI-FSB operation alone is unlikely to discourage terrorist groups or Chechen rebels from seeking poorly guarded Russian conventional arms, Pikayev said.

FSB officials declined to comment on details of the operation and referred all questions to spokesman Sergei Ignatchenko, who remained in the United States. He could not be reached by phone Thursday.

One FSB official told Itar-Tass, however, that Lakhani was very determined to buy a Russian missile and contacted Russian gangsters in hopes of buying one. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the FSB had placed Lakhani under its "full control" during his stay in Russia.

The official said the FSB decided to take part in the joint operation because it was concerned about the proliferation of such missiles, which Chechen rebels have used to shoot down Russian warplanes.