It began in 2007 with the sale of stolen cell phones and PlayStation2 systems to a fencing operation in Detroit, one with alleged links to the terrorist organization Hezbollah.
Over two years, the ring bought more than 20,000 stolen phones, hundreds of video consoles and Nike shoes. The group's appetite grew. It began to order laptops and military gear destined for Beirut. It even paid for stolen BMWs to be shipped overseas.
And for nearly two years, an undercover agent in Philadelphia kept selling the ring whatever it wanted, patiently laying the trap.
On Saturday, the FBI said, it lured its big fish to Philadelphia, an alleged arms dealer for Hezbollah, and arrested him during a sting, charging him with trying to buy Stinger missiles and machine guns for "the Resistance" in Lebanon.
Federal authorities in Philadelphia today unveiled the two-year undercover terrorism investigation, charging five men--three with dual residency in Slovakia and Lebanon, one from Lebanon and one from Centerville, Ga.--with participating in a ring that shipped stolen goods to ports in Beirut, Casablanca, Dubai and Hong Kong.
Only one man was charged with a crime related to terrorism - and the U.S. government alleges that he planned to use the Stinger missiles and machine guns against enemies in the Middle East, not the United States.
Dani Nemr Tarraf, a 39-year-old resident with residences in Trnava, Slovakia and Lebanon, was arrested Saturday in Philadelphia, after he allegedly arrived to inspect missiles and the guns he planned to ship to Syria.
A federal magistrate ordered Tarraf held without bond until a hearing Dec. 7. His lawyer, Marc Neff, said he had not yet met his client and declined to comment.
Eight other defendants--five of them from Dearborn, Mich.--were charged in Philadelphia in a separate but related indictment alleging that they bought stolen cell phones, counterfeit shoes, laptop computers and PlayStation2s and fenced them around the world. The other three resided in New York City, Canada and Hong Kong.
The eight were charged with conspiracy to traffic in counterfeit and stolen goods. No information was immediately available about their nationalities, and it was not clear how many of the eight were arrested today .
The case was lauded yesterday by a wide range of law enforcement officials involved in the case--from the Assistant Attorney General for National Security to the Special-Agents-in-Charge of the FBI, IRS and Immigration Customs Enforcement (ICE) to the Superintendent of the New Jersey State Police.
But the praise came in a decidedly low-profile manner. The arrests were announced by press release, not by press conference.
As with other federal officials, U.S. Attorney Michael L. Levy spoke only in a prepared statement. "These cases show the breadth of the criminal activity engaged by those who oppose us," he said.
A 10-page affidavit in the terrorism investigation filed by FBI agent Samuel Smemo Jr., a supervisor on the Joint Terrorism Task Force, summarizes the undercover investigation - at least for the period from January 2007 to Saturday.
The affidavit doesn't disclose how the undercover agent in Phladelphia met the group of Dearborn, Michigan area men who allegedly rang the stolen goods ring. It simply says that the agent began selling them stolen cell phones and video games in January 2007.
Soon, the FBI said, the agent was selling as many as 1,000 cell phones a month, usually during transactions in Philadelphia and in Delaware County.
Within months, the FBI says the agent was asked to begin supplying military gear.
The agent traveled with Detroit buyers to Slovakia in May 2008, where he met Tarraf. The agent allegedly recorded a meeting in which Tarraf asked him to begin supply more sophisticated equipment, including night vision and thermal imaging devices. In a later emails, he allegedly ordered 1,000 military compasses and 500 military radios.
In March of this year, Tarraf asked the undercover FBI agent in Philadelphia if he "could acquire missiles or rockets that were capable of shooting down airplanes or helicopters," according to the FBI affidavit.
During a meeting in Philadelphia in June, Tarraf allegedly asked for missiles that could "take down an F-16," the FBI said. Tarraf also allegedly asked for 250 Colt M4 Carbine machine guns.
A month later in Philadelphia, Tarraf allegedly made a $20,000 down payment for the missiles and 10,000 machine guns, instructing the undercover FBI agent to ship them to the port of Latakia in Syria.
Tarraf is charged with conspiracy to acquire missile system designed to destroy aircraft, transport stolen property, conspiracy to possess machine guns and conspiracy to commit passport fraud.
Three others were charged with conspiracy to transport stolen property - Tarraf's brother, Douri Nemr Tarraf of Trnava, Slovakia; Hassan Mohamad Koemeiha of Lebanon, and Hussein Ali Asfour of Centerville, Ga. Asfour was arrested today in Georgia, officials said. Douri Tarraf and Koemeiha have been arrested.
A fifth man, Ali Fadel Yahfoufi, a citizen of Lebanon, was charged with Tarraf with conspiracy to commit passport fraud. He has not yet been arrested.