By Jared Chausow
By Katie Toth
By Elizabeth Flock
By Albert Samaha
By Anna Merlan
By Jon Campbell
By Jon Campbell
By Albert Samaha
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.
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."
In other words, the arrest of Kassar was a significantnot to mention brilliantly conceived and executedvictory 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.
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 instancesbut 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.
"There are always people who come up again and again, in every conflict," he said. "And he was one of those people, sitting on a pile of steaming shit. . . . The perception we get is that a blind eye is turned toward regional African conflicts that don't have such a grand dimension, and there's a culture of impunity. But the Monzer case shows that's not always true. And maybe one day we'll get Viktor!"
The end of the Cold War may have eased tensions between superpowers, but it opened whole new vistas for gunrunners. As civil wars erupted in the Balkans and the southern hemisphere, Eastern European arms manufacturers found a new customer base to replace their own governments' dwindling appetites. International arms brokers, who once worked under the watchful eye of their superpower sponsors, now started selling arms to warlords and rebels alike, often trading in natural resources such as diamonds and timber. Between 1997 and 2004, according to a recent Amnesty International report, developing countries in the southern hemisphere imported 4,685 artillery units, 6,658 armored vehicles, 1,291 helicopters, and 13,547 surface-to-air missiles, to say nothing of the hundreds of thousands of small arms and millions of land mines.
No one knew how to stop or even regulate the flood. There were no international treaties covering arms dealing, and a smart broker could spread guns all over Africa without committing a single crime. "What you're left with is a patchwork of national laws that may or may not exist," says Rachel Stohl, a senior analyst for the Center for Defense Information. "Less than 50 countries have any kind of national legislation that covers arms dealers, and almost none have extraterritoriality. It's very easy for an arms dealer to go to a country that has no laws."
Even the American government is not above hiring these pariah brokers when it's convenient. In 2003 and 2004, for example, the United States military hired planes from a company owned by Viktor Bout to ship military supplies to Kuwait and Iraq. According to Farah, the Russian arms dealer may have made up to $60 million for his trouble. At the time, Bout was well known as the principal supplier of small arms to Sierra Leone's Revolutionary United Front, whose child soldiers routinely amputated the limbs of villagers unlucky enough to fall into their hands.
The only body that seemed to have the authority to do anything was the United Nations, which began slapping arms embargoes on conflict zones such as Bosnia, Rwanda, and Somalia. But everyone knew that with no enforcement or even a monitoring system in place, such embargoes were next to useless. In the late 1990s, the United Nations put into place a system of periodically studying and publishing reports on how arms brokers and less scrupulous governments violate arms embargoes. The first major report, a case study of Angola written in 2000 by Canadian diplomat Bob Fowler, shocked everyone with its level of detailand made humans-rights investigators around the world realize just how precisely you could expose the operations of specific arms brokers.
The UN had placed an embargo against the UNITA rebel faction in Angola in 1993, but weapons flooded the country nonetheless. Traveling to the Angolan interior and interviewing high-level UNITA defectors, Fowler's group exposed the De Decker brothers, two South Africans who traded Eastern European mortar bombs, anti-aircraft weapons, and grenades for diamonds they would later sell in Antwerp (one of the De Decker brothers had learned how to price UNITA's diamonds through his work with the De Beers company). When the De Decker operation dried up, UNITA turned to Mobutu Sese Seko and his broker, a Belgian named Jacques "Kiki" Lemaire, until Mobutu was overthrown in 1997. After that, the rebels reportedly turned to officials in Burkina Faso, Congo-Brassaville, and Rwanda, who introduced them to Viktor Bout, among others. From interim transit ports all the way down to the make of the airplanes, Fowler provided details that no one had previously imagined possible.
"The Fowler reportthat's a watershed," says Eric Berman, the managing director of the Swiss organization Small Arms Survey, which tracks the spread of weapons around the world. "He named and shamed in a way that hadn't been done before." Even so, Berman added, the Fowler report triggered blowback from a certain permanent member of the UN Security Council, and many members of Fowler's investigative team were passed over for promotions later in their careers as a result. Berman refused to name the country, but merely said that too many French-speaking African nations were implicated. "Let's just say there wasn't much enthusiasm among the permanent member states for this kind of robust investigation," he demurs.
Still, the floodgates were open, and investigators rushed to start new "name and shame" campaigns, parachuting into conflict zones and digging up dirt on arms brokers and the countries that accommodated them. If they could expose these operations down to the last detail, they reasoned, these host nations just might come under enough pressure to pass a law here or there.
Most of the time, it was just a matter of international shoe leather. "Colleagues would take pictures of crates of ammunition," says Lisa Misol, who used to run the small-arms investigative branch for Human Rights Watch. "They take pictures of the planes they come off of; you interview people at the docks or the airport; you look at their flight plans and trace the shipment back to its country of origin. So it's not rocket science, but it's very time consuming, and involves a lot of luck."
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 majority1,000 PPS submachine guns, 160 PRG-2 rocket launchers, 10,000 mortar bombs, and more than three million rounds of ammunitionstayed 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 Mogadishuand 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.
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 inthey even name the pilots and the corrupt officials. And that's it."
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 everyoneeveryoneassumed 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 caseand worry."
Marbella isn't the grand playground of the rich it used to betoo 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 sightjust a few servants and a grand piano at the foot of a glorious, almost gauche marble staircase.
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 veryI 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."
"The impression he gives is [of] a gentleman," Roston said. "He's a very good speakerhe 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 anachronismbecause 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.