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 2002, E.J. Hogendoorn, a Washington, D.C.-based contract investigator who worked with Human Rights Watch and specialized in arms dealers, joined a UN team to investigate arms smuggling into Somalia. One of his main targets was Monzer al-Kassar.


By the time Hogendoorn began investigating Kassar, the arms dealer had become something of a legend. Born in Syria in 1945, Kassar speaks three languages and holds passports from at least five countries; his 1996 Interpol dossier lists aliases including Nesdet Karabag, Paul Dalzeil, and Terry Longley. His criminal history dates back to at least the early 1970s, when he was arrested for hashish trafficking in Holland and Great Britain. According to a 2002 Frontline documentary, Kassar hit the big time around 1977, when he began to establish links with both the Mafia and radical Palestinian terror groups. In 1985, a French court convicted him in absentia for operating a criminal terrorist organization and sentenced him to eight years in prison. But according to a paper written by Dutch arms-trafficking expert Antonius Tijhuis, Kassar was able to get the sentence nullified after brokering a deal to free French hostages in Lebanon.

By then, Kassar was dealing with Oliver North and the Iran-Contra enterprise; according to the report on the scandal by independent counsel Lawrence Walsh, Kassar sold North's operation $500,000 worth of Polish weapons destined for the Contras. At the same time, he allegedly provided weapons to Abu Abbas and the Palestine Liberation Front, which used them to hijack the Achille Lauro luxury ship and murder New Jersey resident Leon Klinghoffer. In 1992, Spanish authorities arrested Kassar in connection with the Achille Lauro incident, and Kassar was tried on charges of piracy and murder. But something strange kept happening to the witnesses: One fell out of a window to his death; Colombian drug dealers kidnapped the children of another witness; and a third witness refused to travel to Spain and testify. In 1995, Kassar was acquitted and returned home.

Kassar became so infamous, it was inevitable that his name would come up after each new terrorist incident somewhere in the world. Rumors linked him to the 1988 Lockerbie airline bombing, as well as the 1992 bombing of the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires (the latter because of Kassar's decidedly shady relationship with the family of then-president Carlos Menem). But when E.J. Hogendoorn set out to investigate Kassar's Somalia smuggling operation, the story he uncovered didn't need embellishment. While reviewing media reports about Somalia, he ran across an odd Polish television broadcast about an export official facing charges of providing false documentation. The word "Somalia" got his attention.

"I ran across a reference to this case, which mentioned Monzer al-Kassar," Hogendoorn said. "Realizing that oftentimes journalists on deadline aren't able to publish everything, I followed up. Through UN channels, I was able to contact the Polish government, and they said I was welcome to talk to the prosecutor."

Hogendoorn flew to Gdansk, where he interviewed the prosecutor and members of the Polish intelligence agency. Just six months after the UN declared its embargo in January 1992, they told him, Kassar was already working to undermine it. Back in the 1980s, he had made friends with Jerzy Dembrowski, a Polish commercial attaché based in Beirut; now, his old friend was the director of the arms trading company Cenrex. They had already hit pay dirt with a scheme to bust the Bosnian arms embargo, in which they used documents claiming that the weapons were bound for the Democratic Republic of Yemen, then redirected them in the Mediterranean. This time, however, a port official realized that the Democratic Republic of Yemen no longer existed, since Yemen had been reunified after the Cold War.

So Kassar and Dembrowski had to work up another plan. Fortunately, the new government of Latvia needed guns to supply its fledgling army, and the two men were only too happy to seize the opportunity. When the Polish government donated a large cache of arms to Latvia, Dembrowski cut a deal with Janis Dibrancs, the chief of procurement for the Latvian armed forces. Dibrancs signed a document that cleared the freighter M.V. Nadia, loaded with guns, to leave a Polish port en route to Liepaja, Latvia. Workers unloaded a small cache of weapons, but the vast majority—1,000 PPS submachine guns, 160 PRG-2 rocket launchers, 10,000 mortar bombs, and more than three million rounds of ammunition—stayed on the boat, which sailed to a spot off the coast of Somalia. A fishing vessel pulled up alongside, unloaded the munitions, and disappeared.

It was, in its way, a work of art. A bullet was manufactured in Poland, shipped to Latvia, rerouted to the Red Sea, and chambered into a clip in Mogadishu—and Kassar never came near it. He never even left Spain. "He never actually took possession of the weapons," says Hogendoorn, who chronicled the chain of events in a 2003 UN report. "He's just the middleman. He may be living in Spain, but the business he conducts is in another country. Often that's done deliberately, to avoid criminal liability. . . . These guys, they're effective because they know how to exploit the loopholes in the international system." One year later, American soldiers would be killed in a running battle with the Somali militia controlled by Farah Aideed. In his house in Marbella, Kassar keeps a photograph of himself holding hands with Farah Aideed's son Hassan.


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