Yakuza member charged by U.S. authorities with trafficking nuclear material for illicit arms deal

Picture source: U.S. Magistrate Judge

22nd February 2024 – (New York) U.S. authorities announced on Wednesday that they had filed charges against a member of the Japanese yakuza criminal organisation for handling nuclear material obtained from Myanmar and attempting to sell it to finance an illegal arms transaction. The indictment, revealed in a Manhattan court, stated that yakuza leader Takeshi Ebisawa, along with co-defendant Somphop Singhasiri, had previously faced charges in April 2022 related to drug trafficking and firearms offences and were both in custody.

Assistant Attorney General Matthew Olsen of the Justice Department’s National Security Division stated, “The defendant is accused of conspiring to sell weapons-grade nuclear material and dangerous narcotics from Burma (Myanmar), and of purchasing military weaponry on behalf of an armed insurgent group. The potential consequences of these actions are deeply troubling, and the Justice Department will hold accountable those who traffic in such materials, posing a threat to U.S. national security and international stability.”

The indictment alleges that the arms deal involved the acquisition of surface-to-air missiles. Prosecutors claim that Ebisawa “boldly” transported uranium and weapons-grade plutonium, along with drugs, from Myanmar. Starting in 2020, Ebisawa reportedly boasted to an undercover officer about having access to significant quantities of nuclear materials that he intended to sell, even providing photographs of the materials accompanied by Geiger counters measuring radiation.

A sting operation involving undercover agents was conducted, with Thai authorities assisting US investigators in seizing two powdery yellow substances referred to by the defendant as “yellowcake.” The Justice Department stated, “The laboratory confirmed that the plutonium found in the nuclear samples is weapons-grade, meaning that if produced in sufficient quantities, it would be suitable for use in a nuclear weapon.”

One of Ebisawa’s co-conspirators claimed to possess “over 2,000kg of Thorium-232 and more than 100kg of uranium in the compound U3O8,” referring to a uranium concentrate powder commonly known as yellowcake.

The indictment further alleges that Ebisawa proposed using the proceeds from the sale of nuclear material to purchase weapons on behalf of an unnamed ethnic insurgent group in Myanmar.

If convicted, Ebisawa could face a mandatory minimum prison sentence of 25 years for attempting to acquire surface-to-air missiles, along with a maximum sentence of 20 years for international trafficking of nuclear materials.

Prosecutors describe Ebisawa as a “leader of the Yakuza organized crime syndicate, a highly organized, transnational Japanese criminal network that operates worldwide. The syndicate’s criminal activities have included large-scale narcotics and weapons trafficking.”