Busting the Merchant of War

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

The Polish government eventually suspended Cenrex's license to do business and initiated charges against Dembrowski. The Latvian government tried to prosecute his partner Dibrancs, but was unable to make a case. Meanwhile, despite Hogendoorn's meticulous work, Kassar skated again.

In fact, according to Doug Farah, such name-and-shame campaigns have become something of a sad joke, one that he says he's witnessed firsthand. In December 2000, when he was The Washington Post's West Africa bureau chief, Farah scored an interview with homicidal Liberian strongman Charles Taylor, just two days after the first UN report detailing his arms-for-diamonds trade was published. Farah was ushered into what passed for the press office in Taylor's presidential palace, where he took a nap on a ratty couch until summoned. Emerging from the only working elevator, he saw a swaggering Taylor, bedecked in a safari outfit and performing for his cabinet, which cheered his every word. But after the interview, as Farah spoke privately with his bodyguards and ministers, he could tell they were terrified.

"That report really shook them, because [the UN] knew everything about their operation," Farah recalls. "I knew a lot of people in his circle, and they were deeply disturbed by it. They were like, 'Oh my God, who told them all this?' . . . And then nothing happened. Six months later, the next report came out, and eventually they realized that nothing was going to happen to them. All the UN could say was, 'Charles Taylor's a bad guy'—and he thought, 'Yeah, but I'm not going to jail. The embargo is still being broken.' Naming and shaming loses its power if no subsequent action would be taken. So they went on with their lives. You have this vast repository of information, they describe in great detail how diamonds were packaged and shipped to people to allow weapons to go in—they even name the pilots and the corrupt officials. And that's it."


Tune in: Talking with writer Chris Thompson

According to Alex Yearsley, his organization Global Witness has had enough of toothless name-and-shame strategies. He and his colleagues decided to abandon their public-information campaign and draw up a hit list of arms dealers to investigate secretly, feeding the information to prosecutors in the United States and Europe. "The reality is, there's plenty of legislation," Yearsley said. "It just needs to be enforced, and law enforcement agencies need either a kick up the ass, or they need to be shown that it's in their long-term interest to go after them. . . . A lot of organizations have problems dealing with law enforcement, because they think, 'Ugh, we might have to give testimony.' I think, 'Why are you in this business if aren't prepared to do that?' They're too squishy. . . . These people are going to get away with it otherwise."

Yearsley and his colleague Paolo Fusi have pieced together information on companies controlled by or associated with Kassar. While scouring business almanacs from the third world, they recently discovered a Panamanian investment firm known as Mifadil, which lists Kassar as its president. Yearsley claims to have forwarded the information to American law enforcement officials, in hopes that if they move to seize Kassar's international assets, they can add Mifadil to the list. In addition, they're investigating the assets of other Mifadil officers, including a lawyer and trustee of a Swiss investment and foreign-exchange trading company. Fusi recently summarized the information in a report he submitted to Italian prosecutors. "The relationships between [the Swiss company] and the illegal weapons trade cannot be a coincidence . . . . " the report concluded. Finally, Fusi and Yearsley have been examining Forum Filatelico, a Spanish rare-stamp-dealing company whose managers were arrested last year on charges of money laundering and operating a million-dollar pyramid scheme that bilked hundreds of thousands of investors.

But according to E.J. Hogendoorn, there's a downside to such active collusion with police and intelligence agencies. Although many nongovernmental groups have cooperated with prosecutors before, their investigations could collapse if they're too closely identified with governments. "At Human Rights Watch, I did a lot of work in Bosnia for a while," he said. "And everyone—everyone—assumed I was CIA. If it ever came out that I was working with intelligence agencies, it would have destroyed the credibility of Human Rights Watch." Yearsley retorts that this is a risk he'll have to take.

Whatever their differences, Yearsley, Hogendoorn, Farah, and their peers are certainly relieved at the prospect of Kassar being hauled into an American court. For years, they've parachuted into civil wars around Africa and Europe, or lurked around dreary Baltic ports, digging through manifests and trying to convince governments to take men like Kassar seriously. Now, they finally have one wriggling on the hook.

"It's fair to say the vast majority of arms brokers who might do legal and illegal deals, that they are still operating pretty freely," Misol says. "But at least the climate of risk is greater than in the past. . . . The fact that Monzer al-Kassar was arrested is significant. Other arms brokers will look at his case—and worry."

Marbella isn't the grand playground of the rich it used to be—too many English tourists have yobbed the place down a notch or two. But in Kassar's Puerto Banu neighborhood in the hills, you still see Ferraris on every block. Last year, while working up a story on Kassar's legal problems with the new Iraqi government, NBC reporter Aram Roston managed to convince the old Syrian to let him have lunch at his villa. A Chilean assistant picked Roston up from his hotel and drove him to the compound, through the gates and past the mastiffs. Despite Kassar's reputed line of work, there were no weapons or bodyguards in sight—just a few servants and a grand piano at the foot of a glorious, almost gauche marble staircase.

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