Busting the Merchant of War

The Bush administration finally nails a notorious supplier to terrorists—after he spent 30 years hiding in plain sight

On February 6, two representatives from the infamous Colombian left-wing paramilitary and drug-trafficking group FARC arrived at a palatial Renaissance estate in Marbella, Spain. While their compadres squatted in the jungle, the two soaked up the Mediterranean opulence of the place, noticing the pool shaped like a four-leaf clover and the mastiffs that patrolled the grounds each night. Their host, a 62-year-old Syrian named Monzer al-Kassar, a/k/a the "Prince of Marbella," has been known to entertain visitors with lamb and dolmas beneath murals of turbaned African servants. But they hadn't come for the cuisine. They were there to talk about killing Americans.

For 30 years, Monzer al-Kassar has been linked to some of history's most notorious international arms deals and terrorist atrocities. He has been accused of aiding in the attempted assassination of an Israeli spy; supplying the weapons used in the 1985 hijacking of the Achille Lauro luxury liner; and seeding the Somali and Bosnian civil wars with countless AK-47s and rocket-propelled grenades. Swiss and Spanish officials have repeatedly tried to prosecute him for murder and money laundering, and a small group of private investigators, in conjunction with the United Nations and such groups as Human Rights Watch, have worked to expose his international network of offshore companies, crooked port officials, and Eastern European arms manufacturers. Each time, Kassar beat the rap and returned to his hacienda on the Spanish coast.

This time, he had another deal in the works. Kassar and his associate, Tareq Mousa al-Ghazi, sat down with the FARC representatives, and the four men talked money and guns. The FARC has earned a reputation for shooting at planes fumigating their coca crops, murdering and kidnapping American nationals, and bombing a Bogotá restaurant patronized by Americans as payback for the government's campaign to shut down their cocaine trade. Now, the FARC officials said, they needed fresh supplies: 7,900 assault rifles; fifty Dragunov sniper rifles; two million rounds of ammunition; 120 rocket- propelled grenade launchers.


Tune in: Talking with writer Chris Thompson

Kassar allegedly promised that "his fight was also with the United States," and got on the phone to secure a few price quotes from contacts in Romania and Yugoslavia. For the cost of up to $8 million, Kassar said, he'd even throw in a small army of mercenaries and train the FARC in how to build improvised explosive devices.

But what Kassar didn't realize was that the men he was talking to weren't from the FARC at all. They were confidential informants, secretly working for the Manhattan U.S. Attorney's office and New York officials with the Drug Enforcement Administration.

Spokespeople with the U.S. Attorney's office refused to comment for this story, but according to the indictment they prepared, the feds spent a year inventing a nonexistent conspiracy to arm Colombian rebels, establishing their informants' radical bona fides with Kassar, and setting up New York bank accounts with which to lure him in. For the next four months, they allegedly convinced Kassar to set in motion an elaborate multinational scheme to defraud port officials around the world and deliver high-powered weapons into the hands of a paramilitary force bent on murdering as many Americans as they could.

The day after their meeting, the phony FARC agents gave Kassar bogus "end-user certificates," which Kassar could supposedly use to get his weapons out of their original ports in Eastern Europe. In return, Kassar offered to sell tons of C-4 explosives that could be used in roadside bombs. On March 27, the supposed FARC agents returned to the Marbella palace, where Kassar upped the ante, offering to sell them 15 surface-to-air missile systems for use against American helicopters. When the meeting was over, another Kassar employee drove the "FARC" men to an Internet café, where they electronically transferred $100,000 from DEA-controlled bank accounts in New York to a Spanish bank as a down payment.

For the next few weeks, the U.S. Attorney's proxies continued to build on the ruse. They met the captain of the boat that would ship the weapons. They discussed flight plans for explosive experts to travel to Colombia and train guerrillas to use the C-4. They obtained the numbers of new bank accounts in Spain and Lebanon. Kassar allegedly offered to give his customers a tour to inspect the weapons in Bulgaria and Romania. On June 7, U.S. Attorney Michael Garcia and his associate Boyd Johnson sprang the trap. Spanish national police arrested Kassar at the Madrid Barajas international airport, and Romanian border police nabbed two of his associates in Bucharest. Nearly two months later, Kassar remains in a Spanish cell, awaiting extradition to New York.

At a press conference in New York the day after the arrest, Garcia acknowledged that the whole thing had been a setup from the start. "It is important to note that for Kassar and his co-defendants, the arms deal was absolutely real," he said. "They demonstrated both their willingness to support a terrorist organization as well as their capacity for doing so. They knew the weapons they agreed to sell were destined for a terrorist organization. They knew the arms were going to be used to kill Americans. And because of the great work of DEA and its law enforcement partners around the world, yesterday Kassar and his co-defendants met face to face with law enforcement and will be brought to justice."

Next Page »