4 Charged In Plot to Ship Arms
Saturday, September 30, 2006
BALTIMORE, Sept. 29 -- An elaborate sting involving a business in Maryland that was secretly run by federal agents has led to the arrests of four foreign nationals on charges of conspiring to illegally ship surface-to-air missiles and other weapons to the Sri Lankan rebel group known as the Tamil Tigers, authorities said Friday.
The suspects are accused of arranging, during negotiations that accelerated in April, for a $900,000 shipment of arms to be delivered to international waters in the Indian Ocean. The shipment was to be received by members of the violent separatist group, which the United States has designated a terrorist organization since 1997.
Mark J. Bastan, the special agent in charge of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's Baltimore office, said at a news conference that the shoulder-fired missiles, grenade launchers, machine guns and other weapons amounted to "an arsenal of U.S. military hardware -- enough to inflict serious casualties on any military force, let alone a civilian population."
Although the suspects lived overseas, one -- Haniffa bin Osman of Singapore -- traveled to Baltimore in July, according to an indictment unsealed yesterday along with two criminal complaints. Bastan said undercover agents "wined and dined" Osman as he stayed at a four-star hotel on the Inner Harbor. "We treated him like any other businessman," Bastan said.
At one point, he said, Osman test-fired some of the weapons at a firing range in Havre de Grace, Md., -- but only after signs indicating that the facility belonged to local police had been removed.
U.S. Attorney Rod J. Rosenstein said the suspects were arrested Thursday and Friday in Guam, where they had met with undercover agents to finalize the details of delivery to the ethnic separatist group.
The Tamil Tigers have been among the world's most lethal rebel groups, carrying out scores of suicide bombings on the island nation of Sri Lanka since the late 1980s. The conflict between the Tigers and the government, which is dominated by members of the Sinhalese majority, has by many estimates claimed at least 65,000 lives.
In 1991, a suspected Tamil Tiger member assassinated former Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi. Two years later, another suspected member of the group staged a suicide bomb attack that killed Sri Lankan President Ranasinghe Premadasa and 23 others.
In addition to Osman, 55, the indictment unsealed here accuses Indonesian nationals Erick Wotulo, 60, and Haji Subandi, 69, of conspiring to provide material support to a terrorist organization, conspiring to export arms without a required State Department license and money laundering. A related criminal complaint filed in Guam charges Thirunavukarasu Varatharasa, 36, a citizen of Sri Lanka, as a participant in the alleged conspiracy to export arms.
Subandi is also charged in a separate complaint, along with two other Indonesian nationals, with conspiring to ship state-of the-art night vision goggles to Indonesia without the necessary State Department approvals. Authorities said Subandi described the other defendants -- Reinhard Rusli, 34, and Helmi Soedirdja, 33 -- as his financial partners in that transaction.
Rosenstein said the suspects are expected to appear in federal court in Guam, a U.S. territory, on Monday and to later be transferred to Baltimore.
According to the indictment, Subandi presented himself as a broker as he corresponded with the undercover business on a regular basis beginning in March 2004 in an effort to secure military equipment and technology for potential buyers in Sri Lanka and Indonesia. The documents made public Friday do not indicate how those contacts began, and authorities for security reasons declined to provide details about the bogus company beyond what was contained in the public court file.
But in April, the indictment says, Subandi e-mailed the undercover business about a possible purchase of weapons that he said were for the Tamil Tigers. In May, it says, Subandi identified Wotulo and Osman as Tamil Tiger representatives who would be involved in the transaction.
In an e-mail to the agents May 26, the indictment says, Wotulo identified himself as a retired Indonesian Marine Corps general and wrote, "I understand this business is dangerous, also extraordinary, high risk." It says he later told the agents that "the chief" of the rebel group had requested that he and Osman travel to Baltimore -- although, in the end, only Osman allegedly did so.
In Baltimore, in late July, Osman told the agents that although he was helping the rebel group obtain arms, he was not a member. He said that if the delivery was successful, a second order could be worth as much as $15 million.
Also while in Maryland, Osman told undercover agents that Varatharasa would inspect the weaponry before it would be accepted by the rebel group, the complaint against Varatharasa says.
On Aug. 2, the undercover business received a $250,00 deposit in the form of a wire transfer from a bank in Kuala Lumpur, that complaint says.
It says Osman and Varatharasa met with the undercover agents in Guam on Monday. Then and the next day, they finalized the transaction, inspecting the shipment and arranging for $450,000 to be transferred as further payment.