An international arms trafficker who sold surface-to-air missile systems designed to shoot down civilian aircraft to customers in Libya, the United Arab Emirates and elsewhere was sentenced Monday to 30 years behind bars in a federal case that originated in Los Angeles.
Rami Najm Asad-Ghanem, 53, who was commonly known as Rami Ghanem pleaded guilty to six federal counts on the eve of a criminal trial in which he was convicted of conspiracy to acquire, transfer and use missiles designed to shoot down aircraft.
The scope of Ghanem’s arms dealing was “breathtaking and frightening,” U.S. District Judge S. James Otero said from the bench, adding that law enforcement in the case deserve thanks and credit for keeping U.S. citizens safe.
During the November trial, prosecutors presented evidence that showed Ghanem — a naturalized United States citizen who was living in Egypt at the time of the offenses — conspired to use Russian-made Igla and Strela surface-to-air missile systems by brokering the services of mercenary missile operators to a militant faction in Libya in 2015.
Among other actions, Ghanem negotiated the salaries and terms of service of the mercenary missile operators, coordinated their payment, facilitated their travel to Libya, and offered clients a $50,000 bonus if they were successful in shooting a civilian aircraft out of the sky, Assistant U.S. Attorney Melissa Mills said.
Ghanem declined an opportunity to address the court prior to sentencing.
His attorney, H. Dean Steward, argued that Ghanem was not an arms broker, but instead merely assisted various governments throughout the world with “logistical” matters, including the sales of radar equipment, trucks and “boatloads of bottled water.”
Days before standing trial on the conspiracy count in downtown Los Angeles, Ghanem pleaded guilty to six other federal crimes arising from a variety of arms-trafficking activities, including the unlicensed export of weapons and ammunition, smuggling, money laundering and unlicensed arms brokering.
Evidence showed that the night before he was arrested, Ghanem told an undercover operative that “war makes me happy.”
Mills said the defendant operated within the “dark underbelly of international arms trafficking” and was motivated purely by greed.
“He was willfully blind to the death and destruction his weapons caused,” she said.
The investigation into Ghanem started in mid-2014, when a Los Angeles-based supplier of military supplies alerted the U.S. government that it had been solicited to provide equipment to the arms dealer, federal prosecutors said.
Homeland Security Investigations then launched an undercover operation in which Ghanem expressed an interest in purchasing helicopters and fighter jets on behalf of Iranian clients, and Ghanem said he had relationships with Hezbollah in Iraq, prosecutors said.
Over the course of several months in 2015, Ghanem discussed his interest in purchasing numerous weapons, and in August 2015 placed an order for $220,000 worth of sniper rifles, pistols, silencers, laser sights, ammunition, night-vision goggles and other items that were to be shipped to Libya. After making two down-payments, Ghanem was arrested on Dec. 8, 2015, in Athens. He was extradited to the United States in April 2016 to face prosecution in the case and has remained in custody without bond since his arrest.