Terror suspect Hemant Kumar Lakhani did not hate America and ‘had no international political knowledge', according to a man who has known him for 30 years.

Mr Lakhani, 68, of Wykeham Road, Hendon, faces criminal charges in New York after being caught in an FBI sting trying to smuggle a disabled Igla surface-to-air missile into America last week, allegedly to sell to al-Qaeda terroists.

But although CB Patel, editor of the Asian Voice and Gujarat Samachar newspapers, described Lakhani as a ‘desperate' man owing to a series of bankruptcies in 1999, 1992 and 1982, he said he was far from political.

"Lakhani was a family man," he said. "I can't see a man of his temperament hobnobbing with international terrorists. He was no schemer — businessmen like him know how to negotiate but not launch international plots of terrorism. He was a happy-go-lucky man, always smiling.

"At one stage in his life he was a big player — he had the pretty wife, big house, nice car and good business; it's enough to command respect in the community," said Mr Patel.

"I'm no psychologist but we all go through crises and come out differently. His businesses fell twice — one was in the garment trade and the other import/export. Other suppliers came on to the market and he lost out and went bankrupt.

"This might have made him desperate for success. In our community, once you're down, there's so much shame and embarrassment that you want to come back as fast as possible. He was the wrong man in the wrong place at the wrong time."

According to the FBI, Mr Lakhani traveled to Moscow on July 12 to buy the missile. He met two officers of Russia's Federal Security Service posing undercover as suppliers. They displayed what appeared to be an actual missile, but officials had substituted a replica.

Three days later, Mr Lakhani asked the Russians for 50 more missiles to be sent to the United States by August 30. Mr Lakhani also said he was interested in buying several tons of plastic explosive.

He agreed to travel to New Jersey to verify shipment of the first missile and to make arrangements for the 50-missile deal. The initial payment for that deal was supposed to be US$500,000.

"It was a rude shock to see his face on TV — I thought it was a joke," said Mr Patel. "You don't expect a mosquito to attack a tiger.

"I remember him as a staunch Hindu in the 1980s when we used to meet frequently — he was a vegetarian and teetotal. I consider the allegations about him hating Americans totally false. It's like falling in love — you tell lies to get someone on side and to curry favour with them."

Mr Lakhani was born in a middle class Bombay suburb and was known to many as 'Babu Bhai', a common term of endearment.

He moved to London in 1974, has a son who lives in New York, and worked as a basmati rice importer and then as a clothes supplier. Both he and his wife Kusum, 66, have British citizenship.

His wife Kusum had the higher public profile — until now. She helped found the Sangam Association of Asian Women in Burnt Oak Broadway. Both Mr and Mrs Lakhani met Princess Diana at the centre's opening and Mrs Lakhani remains on the centre's executive committee as health promotion administrator.

"He was much less in the public eye than his wife, who is beautiful, modest and well-disposed. His role in the local community was mainly in support of her. She was high-profile; you don't receive Lady Diana if you're low profile," said Mr Patel.

Back in the quiet street close to Hendon Central Tube station where the Lakhanis lived, the couple's green BMW still stands in the driveway and the front door is fastened with a police padlock.

One neighbour, who did not want to be named, said there was widespread disbelief when their quiet, polite neighbour turned up on the evening news.

"I grew up in apartheid South Africa and I'm very aware — I'm just the sort of person who would see if anything was going on and I didn't see anything," she said.