Busting the Merchant of War

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

Roston was escorted to a grand salon in the back, where he sipped coffee by the pool and waited. Soon, Kassar walked out in an elegant dark blue suit and salmon open-necked suit. He wore expensive shoes with no socks, but he pulled off the look with a cosmopolitan, old-world ease. Over the next two days, the two men talked about Kassar's life, the accusations that dogged him wherever he went, and his politics, an old school Arab nationalism that seems so out of place in a world of fatwas and jihad.

"At first, he was very—I wouldn't say stiff," Roston said. "He was more cautious, of course. As everyone is in an interview. But he's very good with people, there's no doubt about it. I think a lot of arms dealers have to present a mystique about themselves, and he did the same thing. He laughs about himself, says he's just a retired businessman."

As they talked, Kassar fed scraps of food to his white poodle beneath the table. He seemed particularly sensitive about the Iraqi government's accusations. "His gist on the Iraq stuff was he'd be proud to be part of the insurgency, but he wasn't," Roston recalled. "Whenever I said, 'There's financial help you could be giving,' he'd say, 'Give me the money and I'd launder it!'" When he spoke of Abu Abbas, his old friend and the mastermind of the Achille Lauro hijacking, Kassar called him a hero of the Arab people. Nonetheless, he maintained that he'd never been more than a small arms dealer, working as a commercial representative for the old Democratic Republic of Yemen. When asked about the allegations that he'd worked for Oliver North, Kassar sniffed, "I'm not that cheap."


Tune in: Talking with writer Chris Thompson

"The impression he gives is [of] a gentleman," Roston said. "He's a very good speaker—he had a very elegant accent. He sounds almost semi-Scottish." But perhaps the most striking impression that Kassar made with Roston was his sense of having been left behind by history: "He kept trying to put himself in the context of the Arab nationalist struggle. That's where he wanted to be. . . . Maybe he's an anachronism—because he's a product of the Cold War. He's certainly no fan of Osama bin Laden."

As they spoke, neither man knew that, on the other side of the Atlantic, federal agents were even then plotting to destroy Kassar's life, or that 12 months later, he would be sitting in a Madrid prison cell, awaiting extradition to New York. Kassar seemed content to play out the last role of his life, that of a hustler who'd done well for himself, a businessman settling down to enjoy retirement, but who could still get you anything for a price. As they walked through his shabby-chic villa, past the stained marble and the garish silk flowers, Kassar couldn't stop bragging about the number of bedrooms, or the square footage of the lot. He turned to Roston and grinned.

"You wanna buy it?" he asked.

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