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Source: Washington Post

Feb 22, 2024

U.S. charges yakuza leader with trying to sell nuclear material to Iran

By Andrew Jeong

A Japanese yakuza boss sought to sell nuclear material to an undercover U.S. law enforcement agent who was posing as an associate of an Iranian general, U.S. prosecutors said Wednesday. It was part of a broader criminal scheme that involved distributing illegal drugs in New York, according to authorities.

Prosecutors said in an indictment that Takeshi Ebisawa, 60, wanted to sell uranium and plutonium — raw material that can be used to build nuclear bombs — on behalf of the leader of an insurgent group in Myanmar, a country also known as Burma. Starting in early 2020, Ebisawa contacted the undercover U.S. agent to sell the nuclear raw material for cash, while also trying to obtain military weapons on behalf of the insurgent leader.

During negotiations, Ebisawa asked for $6.85 million at one point for the nuclear material and sought to procure weapons such as surface-to-air missiles, M60 machine guns and AK-47 rifles, according to prosecutors.

In 2021, Ebisawa traveled to Copenhagen and met with an undercover U.S. official and two undercover Danish police officers posing as the U.S. official’s associates, to examine the military weapons purportedly on offer, according to U.S. authorities. In February 2022, Ebisawa’s associates, who were not identified, met with the undercover U.S. agent in a hotel room in Phuket, Thailand, to show samples of the nuclear material. Thai authorities later confiscated the nuclear material and handed it over to U.S. officials.

U.S. officials said they subsequently confirmed that the materials that were in Ebisawa’s possession were radioactive and included weapons-grade plutonium.

As part of the broader transaction, Ebisawa and Somphop Singhasiri, a co-defendant and a Thai national, also sought to sell “hundreds of kilograms of methamphetamine and heroin” to an undercover law enforcement officer, with the understanding that those drugs would be distributed to users in New York, according to a previous criminal complaint filed against Ebisawa in January 2022.

Together, Ebisawa and Somphop face eight criminal counts that could result in life sentences. The two were arrested in Manhattan in April 2022.

“It is impossible to overstate the seriousness of this conduct,” Damian Williams, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, said in a news release.

Lawyers for Ebisawa and Somphop could not be immediately reached.

By Andrew Jeong

Andrew Jeong is a reporter for The Washington Post in its Seoul hub. Twitter

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