‘Merchant of Death’: Black-Market Arms Dealer Sentenced to 30 Years in Prison After Tip in L.A. Leads to Arrest

An international arms trafficker described by a federal prosecutor as a “merchant of death” has been sentenced to 30 years in prison after a tip in Los Angeles led to his arrest, the U.S. Department of Justice said Tuesday.

Rami Najm Asad-Ghanem, who commonly went by Rami Ghanem, lived in Egypt while working as a black-market arms trafficker with ties to Hezbollah, designated by the U.S. as a terrorist organization.

Ghanem, 53, was found guilty in November 2018 of conspiring to use and to transfer missile systems designed to destroy aircraft.

He had already pleaded guilty to six other federal crimes the day before the trial started, including unlicensed export of weapons and ammunition, smuggling, money laundering and unlicensed arms brokering.

“Mr. Ghanem was literally a merchant of death who was ready, willing and able to sell weapons, including surface-to-air missiles, to any paying customer, with zero concern for the death and destruction these weapons might cause,” said U.S. Attorney Nick Hanna, in a news release from the DOJ.

Among Ghanem’s clientele for such missile systems were customers in Libya, the United Arab Emirates, Iraq and leaders of Hezbollah, according to federal authorities.

Evidence presented during his trial showed that he brokered the services of mercenary missile operators to a militant faction in Libya in 2015, conspiring to make use of Russian-made Igla and Strela surface-to-air missile systems, according to the DOJ.

He would negotiate the missile operators’ salaries and terms of service — facilitating their travel to Libya, coordinating their payment and offering them “a $50,000 bonus if they were successful in their mission of shooting down airplanes flown by the internationally recognized government of Libya,” the DOJ states in a news release.

Videos of sworn depositions — showing the testimonies of two missile operators and a fellow arms broker who worked with Ghanem — were shown to the jury during his trial. Authorities said numerous documents also revealed his role in the arms-dealing scheme.

Federal prosecutors noted that Ghanem largely dealt arms to organizations considered political adversaries of the U.S.

Hanna said his crimes not only endangered civilians internationally but particularly, “America’s national security interests.”

The investigation into Ghanem’s crimes began in mid-2014, when a Los Angeles-based company said it had been asked to provide military equipment to him, according to federal authorities.

U.S. Department of Homeland Security investigators in L.A. then began investigating him and an undercover sting soon followed.

An undercover Homeland Security agent “developed a relationship with Ghanem,” meeting with him multiple times in Greece, authorities said. Ghanem was seeking weaponry including sniper rifles and night-vision optics.

During their meetings, prosecutors said, Ghanem told the undercover agent he was interested in buying helicopters and fighter jets on behalf of clients in Iran and said he had relationships with Hezbollah in Iraq. He confirmed the transactions were being done illegally.

In August 2015, Ghanem placed an order that was to be shipped to Libya and included laser sights, sniper rifles, silencers, pistols, ammunition and night-vision goggles among other items — all worth an estimated $220,000, according to federal prosecutors.

Authorities said he made two down payments on the order before being arrested in Athens, Greece on Dec. 8, 2015, and was then extradited to the U.S. in April 2016 to face prosecution.

He has since been held without bond.

Evidence of other “large-scale arms brokering activities, including millions of rounds of ammunition, anti-tank missiles, and the scheme to transfer and use anti-aircraft missiles” was found on multiple electronic devices seized from his possession following his arrest, the DOJ states in the news release.

During his sentencing hearing, the department said, prosecutors provided evidence of Ghanem’s agreement to sell to a militant faction in Libya $250 million worth of weapons and ammunition.

Other evidence presented before the court showed Ghanem’s involvement in trafficking of counterfeit currency, black-market diamonds and looted antiquities. Prosecutors also showed a contract he made with the Egyptian Ministry of Defense dealing with hundreds of rocket-propelled grenade launchers as well as attempts to buy and sell combat jets and helicopter gunships.

He was sentenced Monday by U.S. District Judge S. James Otero, who described his crimes as “breathtaking and, in many ways, frightening,” according to the DOJ.

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