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US charges Yakuza gang leader with attempting to sell plutonium to Iran

The defendants allegedly offered “uranium and weapons-grade plutonium fully expecting that Iran would use it for nuclear weapons,” said Anne Milgram, DEA administrator.

Stock illustration of a scientist holding aglowing toxic substance. Credit: S.Pytel/Shutterstock.
Stock illustration of a scientist holding aglowing toxic substance. Credit: S.Pytel/Shutterstock.

The U.S. Justice Department announced charges against a Japanese Yakuza gang leader who acquired weapons-grade plutonium that he intended to sell to Iran.

Takeshi Ebisawa, 60, a Japanese national, smuggled uranium and weapons-grade plutonium from Burma to Thailand for sale to a man posing as an Iranian general. The latter was actually an undercover source for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, per the indictment, which was unsealed on Wednesday. 

“As alleged, the defendants in this case trafficked in drugs, weapons and nuclear material—going so far as to offer uranium and weapons-grade plutonium fully expecting that Iran would use it for nuclear weapons,” said Anne Milgram, administrator of the DEA. “This is an extraordinary example of the depravity of drug traffickers, who operate with total disregard for human life.”

Yakuza is an umbrella term for Japan’s major organized crime syndicates, similar to the American mafia. Former U.S. president Barack Obama sanctioned the Yakuza and several other criminal organizations, which he said “have reached such scope and gravity that they threaten the stability of international political and economic systems,” in 2011.

Ebisawa procured the nuclear materials from a Burmese rebel group and intended to sell them in exchange for money and weapons, including surface-to-air missiles, according to the indictment.

An undercover agent told Ebisawa that Tehran needed the uranium for a “nuclear weapon,” the indictment alleges.

“Ebisawa responded ‘Yes, I know.’ On the same call, Ebisawa added that he could supply ‘plutonium’ that would be even ‘better’ and more ‘powerful’ than uranium for Iran’s use. Ebisawa noted that he did not have a ‘license’ to deal in these materials,” and the DEA agent “acknowledged that ‘this is gonna be a very quiet and secret illegal transaction.’ Ebisawa agreed, ‘Yes, so that is why we need to talk fast about that,’” per the indictment.

Ebisawa eventually supplied samples of the nuclear materials to the fake Iranian general. A U.S. nuclear forensic lab found that the plutonium that Ebisawa provided was “weapons-grade,” meaning that it was sufficiently pure for use in a nuclear weapon if enough of it could be acquired.

The lab also identified uranium and thorium in the nuclear samples.

It’s not clear where or how the Yakuza leader and his Burmese rebel co-conspirators acquired the plutonium, which can only be created in a nuclear reactor. 

In 2010, a documentary reported that Burma had a nuclear weapons program, and a U.N. report that year accused North Korea of exporting nuclear technology to Burma, Iran and Syria. The Nuclear Threat Initiative, a think tank that tracks nuclear proliferation, does not assess that Burma has a nuclear weapons program, despite previous accusations.

Iran has enriched uranium to 84% purity, which is just shy of the weapons-grade 90% threshold. Tehran denies that it is pursuing a nuclear weapon, but the U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency says there is no civilian use for the levels of enrichment that Iran is undertaking.

Wednesday’s Justice Department charging documents do not indicate that Ebisawa was ever actually in contact with any real Iranian officials. He was arrested in New York.

Ebisawa and a co-conspirator will be arraigned in federal court in the Southern District of New York on Thursday. He has been indicted on eight felony counts, including international trafficking of nuclear materials and conspiracy to acquire, transfer and possess surface-to-air missiles, and faces multiple potential life sentences. 

He has pleaded not guilty and is being held in a federal jail in Brooklyn.

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