South Sudan Coup Smugglers Foiled


A federal criminal complaint was unsealed Monday charging two men with conspiring to purchase and illegally export millions of dollars’ worth of fully automatic rifles, grenade launchers, Stinger missile systems, hand grenades, sniper rifles, ammunition, and other export-controlled items from the United States to South Sudan, in violation of the Arms Export Control Act (AECA) and the Export Control Reform Act (ECRA).

One of the defendants Peter Biar Ajak, explained to the undercover agents that he was planning for  “basically a coup ... with both internal and external fronts” against the current South Sudanese government, which he described as corrupt, illegitimate, and beholden to foreign interest groups.
He said he wanted to “knock it over and rebuild a new country,” and that he would be installed as the new “Prime Minister” and “head of the government.” He added his new government would be recognized by the United States and he “[has] the backing of the State Department, implicitly.”

Mr. Ajak a prominent figure in the South Sudanese diaspora, has been living in Maryland as an asylee and is a non-resident felow at the Harvard Kennedy School's Belfer Center.  

In July 2018, in response to the conflict between South Sudan’s Transitional Government of National Unity and opposition forces, the United Nations Security Council imposed an arms embargo on South Sudan. The Security Council has renewed the arms embargo every year since 2018, most recently in May 2023.

Under U.S. law, specifically the AECA and ECRA, it is unlawful to export weapons and ammunition to South Sudan absent authorization in the form of a license from the U.S. Department of State or the Department of Commerce. It is the policy of the United States to deny licenses and approvals to export to South Sudan defense articles.

Between at least February 2023 and February 2024, Abraham Chol Keech and Mr. Ajak sought to illegally purchase weapons and related export-controlled items from undercover law enforcement agents and smuggle those weapons and items from the United States to South Sudan through a third country.

The defendants knew that South Sudan was subject to an arms embargo and that exporting weapons and ammunition from the United States to South Sudan without a license from the U.S. government was illegal and would violate U.S. law.

For example, the defendants openly discussed the illegality of the transaction, expressed the need to be discreet, and agreed to pay a risk fee for the weapons because of the illegal nature of the arms sale. In addition, to facilitate the smuggling scheme, the defendants discussed disguising the weapons as humanitarian aid and paying bribes.

As part of the scheme, the defendants further sought to conceal from financial institutions and others the source and purpose of the funds used to purchase and smuggle the illicit arms.

For example, the defendants agreed to an arms contract for nearly $4 million worth of weapons and related items and requested a “fake contract” in the same amount in “consulting services” and items, such as “communications equipment,” related to “human rights, humanitarian, and civil engagement inside South Sudan refugee camps.” The defendants then caused funds to be transferred through an intermediary company identified in the fake contract to complete the purchase. 

If convicted, the defendants face up to 20 years in prison for conspiring to violate the AECA, up to 20 years in prison for conspiring to violate the ECRA, and up to 10 years in prison for smuggling goods from the United States. 


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