On Sept. 10, 2019, an Oakland man put 10 rifle scopes into his car outside a San Mateo County gun store. The goods were later packed into a shipping container bound for Oman.
But unbeknownst to Fares Abdo Al Eyani, the FBI was watching him as part of what would lead to a case alleging that he and his wife illegally tried to ship items for military use—including scopes, night vision goggles, ammunition and guns—out of the country.
Next week, Al Eyani and his wife, Saba Mohsen Dhaifallah—both of whom live in Oakland but are originally from Yemen—are set to change their pleas in connection with that case. The two were indicted in 2020.
The case offers a window into smuggling operations at the Port of Oakland and the difficulties law enforcement agencies face in their efforts to stop the trafficking of everything from Giant African snails discovered on a ship from Samoa to ammunition bound for Mongolia.
“The sheer size and complexity of port facilities, along with the volume of freight handled, can make them difficult to secure,” reads a recent Interpol report on smuggling via ports. In 2022 alone, the Port of Oakland handled 2.3 million containers, according to their data.
But defense attorneys say that in this case, what happened was more about not knowing the law around shipping rather than something nefarious.
The attorney for Al Eyani said his client isn’t an arms smuggler, but was simply trying to make some money by sending hard-to-find items back to the Middle East.
“Sportsmen love night vision goggles,” Brian Getz, who represents Al Eyani, said. “Every single thing purchased was over-the-counter legal. Just not legal to ship overseas.”
Eric Safire, who represents Dhaifallah, said that his client was clueless as to the illegal nature of the planned shipments.
“Government investigators did a good job," Safire said. "They thought something nefarious was afoot. They soon learned that my client is a good citizen and wonderful mother.”
FBI Special Agent Julie D. Delgado, who is assigned to investigate counterterrorism violations and crimes linked to that activity, said the duo violated a federal law governing a list of military-grade items, from guns to night vision goggles.
People who want to ship items deemed sensitive abroad are required to apply for a license and are barred from shipping to specific countries, such as Russia, due to arms embargoes.
In 2019, the couple paid just over $12,000 for night vision scopes and goggles, according to the complaint. Those purchases were made both online and in person.
At one gun store in San Mateo County, Al Eyani made an uncommon bulk order of night vision scopes and tried to pay with a credit card that was not in his name. When denied, he went to an ATM and returned with $5,460 in cash, the complaint said.
When Al Eyani went to pick up the items, he signed a form that expressly stated he must get federal authorization to export the items.
In order to conceal them, four disassembled firearms were wrapped in tin foil and stowed with car parts in several vehicles that went into containers bound for Oman. They also stowed 40 goggles, rifle scopes and other goods.
In November 2019, Customs and Border Protection agents found the containers at the port of Oakland.
Court documents were vague about who the material was intended for, or if there was a plan to send them from Oman to a third country.
The Taliban has used night vision goggles and other items manufactured by American Technology Network, the South San Francisco company from which the couple purchased some of the items they attempted to ship, according to a 2019 United Nations report.
While the complaint did not implicate American Technology Network, Naum Morgovsky, the stepfather of the company's CEO, pleaded guilty in 2018 for scheming to illegally export components of night vision goggles into Russia in violation of federal law.
Jonah Owen Lamb can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org