Japanese ‘Yakuza Boss’ Charged With Attempting to Sell Nuclear Materials from Myanmar

Bianca Echa

Japanese ‘Yakuza Boss’ Charged With Attempting to Sell Nuclear Materials from Myanmar

Takeshi Ebisawa, a 60-year-old Japanese man—believed by U.S. officials to be a leader within the organized crime syndicate Yakuza—has been charged with conspiring to traffic nuclear substances from Myanmar to other countries with the expectation that Iran would eventually use them for its weapons program.

Federal prosecutors said that Ebisawaand three co-conspirators had allegedly been selling uranium and weapons-grade plutonium since early 2020, eventually exchanging them for military-grade weapons, court documents unsealed in Manhattan Wednesday show. The documents also state that Ebisawa and his co-conspirators provided samples of the nuclear material trafficked from Myanmar to Thailand to an undercover agent of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration—who was then posing as a narcotics and weapons trafficker who claimed to have access to an Iranian general.

“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 Administrator Anne Milgram of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), according to a statement Wednesday.

Ebisawa and his Thai co-defendant Somphop Singhasiri, 61, were previously arrested and charged with international narcotics trafficking and firearms offenses in April 2022, and they are the two defendants named in a superseding indictment. Ebisawa has since been held in Manhattan awaiting trial.

Who is Takeshi Ebisawa?

Not much has been made public about Ebisawa’s life, but the prosecutors describe him in court documents as a “leader of the Yakuza organized crime syndicate,” a transnational Japanese criminal network operating globally. Japanese local media, however, state that his ties to domestic organized crime have not been established—though he had been reportedly living between Thailand and Japan.

“Ebisawa’s criminal activities have included large-scale narcotics and weapons trafficking, and his international criminal network extends through Asia, Europe, and the United States, among other places,” the indictment read.

The DEA has been investigating Ebisawa since around 2019, the U.S. Attorney’s Office previously said. He was arrested with Singhasiri and one other Thai national in New York on April 4, 2022 on accusations of trafficking heroin and methamphetamine as well as brokering deals to acquire high-powered weapons like surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) for armed groups in Myanmar and Sri Lanka.

What’s in the new indictment?

According to the new indictment, Ebisawa, in a series of phone and electronic communications, told the undercover DEA agent and a confidential source in 2020 that he had “access to a large quantity of nuclear materials that he wished to sell” and that he was seeking a buyer for uranium. He sent them photographs of pebbly substances with Geiger counters. In response to the repeated enquiries, the undercover agent, as part of the investigation, agreed to broker a potential sale to another DEA source posing as an Iranian general. 

In August 2020, Ebisawa reminded the undercover agent of his access to uranium, and asked if they might “buy… direct from us.” The agent replied that the Iranian general was “very interested” and then asked, “How enriched is it? Above 5 percent? They don’t need it for energy, Iranian government need[s] it for nuclear weapons.” Ebisawa replied: “I think so and I hope so.”

In September 2020, Ebisawa offered to sell 50 metric tons of uranium and thorium—a radioactive material—for $6.85 million. In a subsequent offer, he told the undercover agent he could supply plutonium that would be even “better” and more “powerful” than uranium for Iran’s use. 

As the undercover agent and Ebisawa talked about nuclear materials purchases, they also talked about high-powered firearms. In May 2021, per the documents put forward in the indictment, Ebisawa asked the agent if they could purchase weapons like SAMs and AK-47 rifles on behalf of a leader of an armed group in Myanmar. It was then that the DEA agent was introduced to three of Ebisawa’s conspirators—who were unidentified and aren’t defendants in this case, but were also working on the weapons deal.

In June 2021, Ebisawa circulated a note with the DEA agent and his associate which referred to “yellowcake,” a type of uranium concentrate powder. Negotiations continued, and in February 2022, the agent asked two of Ebisawa’s co-conspirators about a potential exchange of uranium for weapons from Iran, to which the conspirators said they had the “same idea.” They also added that they had samples of uranium and thorium to show the undercover agent.

A week later, Ebisawa and his co-conspirators showed the samples in a hotel room in Phuket. After more negotiations, the samples were taken to an office in Bangkok. In May 2022, Thai authorities raided the office and retrieved the samples.

Ebisawa faces seven counts for multiple charges, including conspiracy to commit international trafficking of nuclear materials. His court-appointed lawyer, Evan L. Lipton, declined commenting to the New York Times on the trafficking charges, but said that the trial will reveal that Ebisawa is “not a leader of any sophisticated criminal syndicate.”

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