Deadly cargo

PUBLISHED : Friday, 05 May, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 05 May, 2006, 12:00am

A deal is done to ship 200 Chinese shoulder-fired missiles, capable of bringing down aircraft, to the US via the Southeast Asian nation of Cambodia. The US government, fighting illegal trade in these weapons, makes it a priority to foil the shipment, vowing to stop a terrorist attack such as September 11 happening again on its soil.

The daughter of a high-ranking Cambodian official allegedly agrees to take a US$2 million bribe to ensure the Chinese missiles escape detection in her country. A US Federal Bureau of Investigation officer is the undercover buyer and he's about to bust a multi-million-dollar weapons smuggling deal that would supply enough missiles to arm a regiment of soldiers.

This plot could be straight out of an Ian Fleming novel. But it was a real undercover operation codenamed Smoking Dragon, and these details form the FBI's court case against Chinese-Americans Wu Chao-tung, 54, and Chen Yi-qing, 41, who are the first people charged under a 2004 law that forbids the importation of aircraft-destroying missiles.

The missiles, Chinese military Qianwei-2's (QW-2), are designed for attacking aircraft at low altitude, possibly during takeoff or landing. Wu pleaded guilty on April 19 in a Californian court to the charge. The timing of his court appearance coincided with the visit of President Hu Jintao to Washington to hold talks with US President George W. Bush.

The missiles were never delivered in this spy story, but even so Wu will be sentenced on July 31. His alleged co-conspirator, Chen, goes to trial on June 27. Under US law both men face a minimum penalty of 25 years in prison and the possibility of life without parole.

There would be few people in the world who did not know that the US had declared war on terrorism and that its intelligence agencies were on high alert. This makes the bid to import illegal missiles in such a vast quantity into the US all the more puzzling.

It was always going to be a dicey deal that carried the risk of a life sentence, which might make even the most experienced arms dealer think twice. But perhaps the promise of riches blinded Wu and Chen from such concerns.

The two men began negotiating to sell the 200 missiles to the undercover FBI agent on September 2, 2004. Over the course of the next year, the parties would make contact at least 17 times to negotiate price, payment and delivery of the missiles, according to court documents. The price for the missiles, including launcher and operational hardware, was US$18.3 million. Wu and Chen would each take a 5 per cent commission on the sale.

The undercover agent was told that the missiles would transit through Cambodia and that he would have to wire payment on the deal to a bank in Hong Kong. A US$2 million bribe was going to be paid to the daughter of Cambodia's president in return for that country pretending to order and receive shipment of the missiles, even though their ultimate destination would be the US. The shipment was to enter the US via Long Beach port, California. Long Beach is the second busiest port in the US, and East Asian trade accounts for 90 per cent of the goods arriving at its docks.

Robert Karniol, Asia-Pacific editor of Jane's Defence Weekly doubts if such a 'serious volume' of missiles would ever have successfully made it through the tight security checks at that port.

There are more odd elements to the case. Cambodia doesn't have a president, although it does have a prime minister, who has three daughters. Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen has angrily denied allegations of his country's involvement in the deal. 'I don't know whether any weapons came from China but I can say Cambodia is a clean country,' he said, a week after Wu pleaded guilty. 'Cambodia could be a point of transit for drug trafficking but not weapons - that is an exaggeration.'

Not exactly. On April 4, Cambodia's counter-terrorism police arrested three Cambodian citizens, two of them Cham Muslims, for smuggling weapons. The men were attempting to sell two Armbrust anti-tank rocket launchers, which are also shoulder-fired weapons.

Still, Cambodia has made efforts to control the proliferation of illegal arms onto the black market. In 2004, it destroyed 233 shoulder-fired missiles that were imported from the former Soviet Union in the 1980s. (During that period, from 1979-89, Cambodia was occupied and ruled by Vietnam.) The US government paid Cambodia US$1,000 for each of the 233 missiles it destroyed.

Mr Karniol believes the US 'was taken for a ride', given that some of the missiles were not operational and merely scrap. Nevertheless, the US praised Cambodia for the example it set for other Southeast Asian nations. Cambodia's government discovered a further 36 missiles last year, which have subsequently been destroyed.

'In the past there was transit of weapons from Cambodia to Sri Lanka, to the Karen opposition in Burma, and to some islands in the Philippines,' Hun Sen admitted. 'But while Cambodia is at peace, we are destroying weapons. There is no reason that weapons could have reached the US.'

The plot would twist some more as Wu and Chen would later switch the transit country for the missiles from Cambodia to Paraguay. The prosecution case has outlined in documents that the missiles were sourced from a state-owned Chinese manufacturer and that the deal involved a 'General Wang'. The missiles were never delivered because Wu and Chen were arrested last August. Wu was also charged with trafficking methamphetamine, millions of fake US$100 bills from North Korea, counterfeit cigarettes and ecstasy tablets.

The Smoking Dragon operation focused on widespread smuggling activities in weapons and drugs and money laundering. Eighty-seven people were charged last year in relation to the investigation.

The illicit trade in weapons remains a widespread problem internationally. However, it's magnified in parts of Asia because poor and unsophisticated information gathering and surveillance capabilities of local law enforcement agencies are unable to track the movement and trade of illegal weapons.

It makes the buying of weapons for terrorist organisations that much easier. 'Terrorist groups both in Southeast Asia and outside Southeast Asia have purchased surface-to-air missiles from Southeast Asian countries,' says Rohan Gunaratna, head of the political violence and terrorism centre at Singapore's Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies. 'There's availability for these kinds of weapons in old stocks as well as new consignments.'

In Asia, the weapons deals are sometimes co-ordinated from Singapore and Hong Kong. In September 2002, an American-Indian man and two Pakistani men were arrested by an undercover US agent after they agreed to a deal in Hong Kong, selling heroin and hashis in exchange for cash and four American Stinger missiles.

Much of the missile trafficking until recently has been in old stock, but the QW-2 is a newer model, suggesting that the technology is catching up with rising demand.

The illegal arms trade has prompted the FBI and other western law enforcement agencies such as the Australian Federal Police (AFP) to increase their presence in the region. The national security of the US and Australia depends heavily on how well other nations - especially Asian countries in Australia's case - tackle transnational crimes such as terrorism, drug trafficking and identity fraud.

'Crime these days has no borders and unless we can work together and share information between countries we will not win the fight against transnational crime,' AFP Commissioner Mick Keelty said earlier this year.

The expansion of FBI and AFP offices across Asia has reaped rewards. There was the capture of Riduan Isamuddin, alias Hambali, the alleged operations chief of the terrorist network Jemaah Islamiah (JI). Hambali was accused of being the architect of the 2002 Bali bombings but had eluded an international man hunt and spent six months hiding out in Cambodia. He was arrested in Thailand in 2003.

Last month, AFP surveillance experts worked with Indonesian police to successfully track down Azahari bin Husin, a senior bomb maker for JI. He was killed during his arrest.

The AFP has announced that it's opening an office in Bangladesh, and in March signed agreements to work with police in Cambodia and Vietnam to patrol terrorist activities, drug smuggling and child trafficking.

In an Ian Fleming novel the admirable efforts of western intelligence and law enforcement agencies would always win the day over the bad guys, but life doesn't always imitate art.