Busting the Merchant of War

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

In other words, the arrest of Kassar was a significant—not to mention brilliantly conceived and executed—victory in the Bush administration's "War on Terror." For some reason, however, the government didn't go to the same lengths to publicize the arrest (nor did American media outlets trumpet it in their turn) the way it has the takedowns of homegrown would-be terror suspects who, with the prodding of government informants, allegedly fantasized about bringing down the Chicago Sears tower, or assaulting Fort Dix, or lighting gas mains like fuses in order to blow up the John F. Kennedy International Airport.

Perhaps that had something to do with what Garcia made clear in his remarks: that the U.S. government has been well aware of Kassar's work on behalf of terrorists around the world since the 1970s. Kassar was allegedly up to his neck in the Iran-Contra scandal, the BCCI scandal, the murder of Achille Lauro passenger Leon Klinghoffer, and the supply of weapons that were in all likelihood used against American soldiers in the 1993 Black Hawk Down incident in Somalia. Yet no American court had ever leveled formal charges against him, and he'd spent decades hiding in plain sight. "Most arms dealers of his caliber aren't skulking in some shithole in Marseille," says David Isenberg, a senior analyst with the British American Security Information Council. Isenberg has been tracking illicit arms dealers for almost 20 years. "He's been on radar screens. With enough money, you can buy all the respect you need."

It was only when Kassar appeared to have a connection to Iraq that he went from blithely tolerated merchant of destruction to public enemy No. 1. Last July, the Iraqi Central Criminal Court placed Kassar on its "41 Most Wanted" list, accusing him of being a close friend of Sabawi Ibrahim ali Hassan al-Tikriti, one of the most feared members of Saddam Hussein's intelligence network. In a rare interview with NBC investigative reporter Aram Roston last year, Kassar admitted knowing one of Tikriti's sons, but denied helping the insurgency.


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Kassar had gotten rich putting assault rifles into the hands of 10-year-old Somali boys, had spent decades selling vast quantities of drugs, and was an accessory to the murder of Americans in at least two separate instances—but the U.S. government only created an elaborate trap to capture him after he meddled in the president's adventure in Iraq.

Because of its extraordinary novelty, Kassar's arrest highlights the extent to which he and his colleagues have been able to smuggle weapons around the globe since the end of the Cold War. According to Doug Farah, a former Washington Post reporter and author of a new book on notorious arms dealer Viktor Bout, arms dealers who once enjoyed the sponsorship of superpowers have gone freelance, selling weapons to tin-pot warlords all over the world. But since no one in the international community anticipated the rise of such an industry, few nations have written laws to stop them, and they can slip through the gaps in national jurisdictions.

"Al-Kassar and Bout are, I would say, survivors," Farah said. "They figured out very quickly that in the new world order, they were able to carry on business with no restraint. No government would either protect them or go after them. There were no controls on their movements any longer. . . . What's stunning about al-Kassar and all of them is, much of what they do is not illegal. You may think it's immoral to arm groups in Sierra Leone, but in fact there aren't many legal impediments to doing that. . . . If you deal only in Africa or remote areas and leave the Americans and the Russians out of it, you're pretty much home free. It's very low on the list of international priorities. We just don't seem to care."

In the face of such indifference, a small handful of researchers, working with the United Nations and groups like Amnesty International, have spent a decade privately investigating arms dealers like Kassar and Bout. They fly to ports like Monrovia and copy the manifests of planes flying into Liberia. They scour almanacs of new corporations, looking for shell companies. They interview disgruntled former employees and business rivals, and package their reports in "name and shame" campaigns, hoping to expose the details of their operations and at least embarrass national governments into making the business of illicit arms brokering a little harder. But progress has been painfully slow. Lately, as these researchers file their reports and collect their press clippings, some have begun to wonder if they're doing anything meaningful at all.

Such was the mood, at least, until Kassar was arrested out of the blue. Alex Yearsley, a campaigner for the London-based group Global Witness, had been quietly putting together a dossier on Kassar's financial assets, hoping to interest a hungry prosecutor someday. "When I heard about the arrest, I jumped through the roof," he recalls. "And was rather shocked, actually, because we thought he was very well protected. Every single court case had failed. It may have failed on technicalities, but he appeared to be very useful for a number of individuals and agencies, in terms of Iran-Contra and everything." Whatever the hard geopolitical reason may be for Kassar's capture, Yearsley said he'll take what he can get. For the first time in a long time, he and his colleagues have allowed themselves a bit of hope.

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