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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

18 Suspected Arms Smugglers Were 'Amateurs'

The 18 suspects in a plot to smuggle portable anti-aircraft missiles and grenade launchers into the United States were most likely amateur opportunists caught in a sting operation, experts on Russian organized crime and arms proliferation said Wednesday.

U.S. Attorney David Kelly and FBI Special Agent Andy Arena told a news conference in New York on Tuesday that authorities had arrested and charged 18 individuals with smuggling weapons into the country from the former Soviet Union.

Five suspects were charged with conspiring to smuggle RPG anti-tank grenade launchers and anti-aircraft Strela missiles, while the rest were charged with smuggling machine guns and other weapons. Strela missiles and modified versions of the grenade launchers could be used to shoot down commercial airliners -- a threat that last month prompted the United States and Russia to sign an accord curbing the proliferation of shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles.

Most of those arrested were from former Soviet countries, U.S. media reported, while investigators identified Armenian Artur Solomonyan, 25, and South African Christiaan Dewet Spies, 33, as the ringleaders.

Investigators said the two planned to travel to the former Soviet Union and deliver missiles to an FBI informer, who had posed as an arms buyer on behalf of al-Qaida, the Los Angeles Times reported.

U.S. media reported variously that the weapons were to have been obtained from federal military arsenals in Chechnya, or from Armenia, Georgia and Ukraine.

In a yearlong sting operation, the FBI informer bought only Kalashnikov, Uzi and other assault rifles from the suspects, but discussed purchasing a further $2.5 million-worth of missiles and other weapons. He also promised to provide the smugglers with green cards to re-enter the United States.

Investigators said the informer had taped conversations with the suspects in which Solomonyan offered to sell him enriched uranium, suggesting it could be used to build a dirty bomb for detonation on the New York subway, Russian media reported. But Kelly said none of the defendants appeared to have links to terrorist groups.

The FBI informer had previously worked with the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, helping to bust gunrunners in Miami, the New York Post reported.

"On the whole, this looks pretty small-scale and opportunistic," said Mark Galeotti, director of the Organized Russian & Eurasian Crime Research Unit at Britain's Keele University, by telephone Wednesday.

"Serious criminals" do not make unsolicited offers to sell uranium, Galeotti said, adding that in any case, "the United States has a very healthy underground firearms economy of its own."

He said that professional terrorists would be looking to acquire the latest Igla and Stinger anti-aircraft missiles, rather than Soviet-designed Strelas, as leading airlines would soon be ready to deploy passive defense systems on their airplanes.

Ivan Safranchuk, head of the Moscow office of the Washington-based Center for Defense Information, said the case looked similar to that of British businessman Hemant Lakhani, who was suspected of offering to sell a shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missile to a U.S. buyer last year. Lakhani has denied any wrongdoing and maintained he was trapped in a sting operation.