Derechos | Equipo Nizkor
The decades-long battle to catch an international arms broker.
Palacio de Mifadil, one of several homes owned by the wealthy Syrian arms merchant Monzer al-Kassar, is a white marble mansion overlooking the resort town of Marbella, on the southern coast of Spain. Surrounded by lush grounds and patrolled by three mastiffs, it has a twelve-car garage and a swimming pool shaped like a four-leaf clover. One sunny morning in 2007, two Guatemalans, named Carlos and Luis, arrived at the front gate. One of Kassar's associates ushered the men between curving marble staircases into the grand salon. Kassar was expecting them. He had agreed to sell them several million dollars' worth of weapons for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia--the South American narco-insurgent organization known as the FARC, which the U.S. State Department considers a terrorist group.
Since moving to Spain, some thirty years earlier, Kassar had become one of the world's most prolific arms dealers. Although he owned an import-export company that conducted legitimate business, he had also developed a reputation as a trafficker willing to funnel munitions to rogue states and armed groups in defiance of international sanctions and embargoes. He has been accused of many transgressions: fuelling conflicts in the Balkans and Somalia, procuring components of Chinese anti-ship cruise missiles for Iran, supplying the Iraqi Army on the eve of the U.S. invasion in 2003, and using a private jet to spirit a billion dollars out of Iraq and into Lebanon for Saddam Hussein. A 2003 United Nations report branded him an "international embargo buster." In 2006, when Iraq's new government released its list of most-wanted criminals, Kassar was No. 26. (He was "one of the main sources of financial and logistics support" for the insurgency, an Iraqi official said.) Authorities claimed that Kassar had been involved in smuggling drugs, financing terrorist groups, and ordering the assassination of various rivals and witnesses against him. Expelled from England, and convicted in absentia on terrorism charges in France, for supplying explosives that were used in a 1982 attack on a restaurant in the Jewish Quarter in Paris, he had been a wanted man for thirty years.
Kassar liked to playfully deny the charges against him, saying that he had never dealt drugs ("I don't even smoke cigarettes!"), and claiming that he had long since retired from the arms trade. But, along with Persian carpets and silk flowers, the grand salon was decorated with framed photographs that showed him posing with Saddam Hussein's son Uday, and with his longtime friend Abu Abbas, the former head of the Palestine Liberation Front, who was responsible for hijacking the Italian cruise ship the Achille Lauro, in 1985. "How do I know who's good and who's bad?" Kassar would say of his associates. "The bad people for you may be the good people for me."
Kassar lived in Marbella with his wife, Raghdaa, and their four children. Ostentatiously well mannered and stylishly dressed, he projected a roguish cosmopolitanism: he spoke half a dozen languages, had half a dozen passports, and maintained a fleet of Mercedes sedans, along with a private jet that he piloted himself. If his house guests were smokers, he offered them specially rolled Cuban cigars with a band that read "M. al-Kassar" and bore a tiny photo of his son. He often visited the casino in nearby Puerto Banús to play blackjack, always paying for his chips with the same dog-eared check, which was returned to him once he had collected his winnings. He showed it off to friends, as an indication of his skill as a gambler.
"I would see him in a local bar or disco, and it was obvious that he didn't have a care in the world," Sam Wyman, a former C.I.A. official who was stationed in the Middle East and Spain, told me. Over the years, Kassar had developed powerful links with various governments and their intelligence services, whose agents often intersect with the underworld. The result was a degree of impunity. "He was a protected person, in some respects, by virtue of his relationships," Wyman said. These connections, coupled with strong legal counsel, had allowed Kassar to avoid significant jail time. In the Arab world, he was known as the Peacock. In Europe, the press called him the Prince of Marbella.
"Bienvenidos!" Kassar said as he entered the salon. A handsome man in his early sixties, with a strong nose, hooded eyes, and close-cropped gray hair, he was dressed in a tailored blue suit, and wore an Hermès belt with a buckle in the shape of an "H." "What would you like to drink? Tell me." He asked about their trip, and called Carlos "little brother."
"We need to talk," Carlos said. He and Luis were interested not just in machine guns and rocket-propelled grenade launchers, he explained, but also in surface-to-air missiles, which could be used to shoot down American helicopters in Colombia. Kassar assured them that he would be able to get what they needed. "Just look at what's happening in Iraq," he said. "They're good for everything, for all those helicopters."
As Kassar's aging white poodle, Yogi, wandered into and out of the room, the men discussed the dangers of conducting business over the phone. Kassar instructed his guests to call him on a special line, saying, "I have the most secure phone in the world."
At one point, Carlos complained that the United States was interfering in the FARC's activities in Colombia.
"Uh-huh," Kassar murmured sympathetically. "All over the world," he said.
Kassar's statement was more apt than he realized. As he negotiated the deal, every word that he said was being recorded. He had become the subject of an international sting orchestrated by a secretive unit of the American Drug Enforcement Administration. Carlos and Luis worked for the United States.
One day in November, I drove to the headquarters of the D.E.A.'s Special Operations Division, in a generic office park outside Washington, D.C. I was there to meet Jim Soiles, a counternarcotics agent who had spent two decades pursuing Kassar. Tall and imposing, Soiles wore a three-piece suit, a tie with a clip, and a gold chain around his wrist. His hair was pulled back in a ponytail, and he had a neatly trimmed salt-and-pepper beard. Soiles grew up in Massachusetts, in a community that was "ravaged by drugs," he told me. After graduating from Northeastern University and working for several years as a police officer, he joined the D.E.A., and was sent to New York City in 1982.
With eighty-four offices in sixty-three countries, the D.E.A. has an unusually expansive network of agents and informants. Because there is often a nexus among narcotics and terrorism, arms dealing, and other international crimes, the agency's élite Special Operations Division sometimes undertakes multi-jurisdictional investigations that end up having nothing to do with drugs. "We start with the counternarcotics," Soiles explained. "As the story unfolds, it takes us into other areas."
In the early nineteen-eighties, New York was what Soiles calls a "gateway city." Heroin and hashish were smuggled from the Middle East to Western Europe and then New York, where they were distributed across the United States. As a young agent, Soiles interrogated smugglers who had been arrested, and many alluded to a Syrian named Monzer al-Kassar. "Everybody we snatched would mention his name," Soiles recalled. Kassar was the biggest drug trafficker in Europe, they said. There were numerous spellings of the name--Manzer, Mansour, Kazar, Alkassar--but it came up again and again, eventually featuring in more than seventy-five D.E.A. investigations. One of Soiles's colleagues likened Kassar to Keyser Söze, the mysterious, semi-mythical villain in the 1995 film "The Usual Suspects."
Kassar was born in 1945 and grew up in the town of Nebek, outside Damascus. He has described himself as "a peasant, the son of a peasant," but his father was a diplomat, who served as Syria's Ambassador to Canada and India. Monzer studied law, but never practiced, and by 1970 his Interpol record had begun, with an arrest, for theft, in Trieste. "After the '67 war, there were a lot of very wealthy, very capable, usually well-educated Lebanese, Jordanians, and Syrians who went out to earn a lot of money any way they could," Sam Wyman told me. "The weapons industry and the drug industry were very lucrative. There was terrorism going on. There was almost a subculture."
According to the authorities, Monzer's mentor was his older brother Ghassan, who had entered the drug trade in the sixties. Ghassan was more serious-minded than Monzer. "Most of our sources said Ghassan was the better trafficker," Soiles told me. "Ghassan was a righteous criminal."
In the seventies, Lebanon's Bekaa Valley became a major source of hashish and heroin, and by the middle of the decade Kassar was in London, where he lived on Sloane Square and took part in a complex scheme. Drugs were smuggled out of Lebanon in refrigerated meat trucks, then sold to buy weapons, which were smuggled from Europe back into Lebanon. The racket was uncovered by British authorities, and Kassar served a sentence of less than two years in a U.K. prison. (Years later, he amused friends with the Cockney rhyming slang that he learned there.)
During the eighties, Kassar began to focus on the arms trade. Ghassan had established connections in the Bulgarian armaments industry, and Monzer spent time in Sofia. He quickly picked up Bulgarian, and entertained his local friends in a manner that was decadent by the standards of Communism, sneaking them into the only casino in town, which locals were not permitted to enter. He always brought along a large supply of pistachios, a favorite snack that was unavailable in Sofia at the time. "He liked to spend money," a longtime friend who met him there recalled, adding, "He liked to take risks." He and Ghassan occasionally argued about his spending.
Before long, Kassar had found another source of weapons in Poland, where he forged a relationship with a national arms manufacturer, Cenzin. He established himself as a commercial representative of the People's Democratic Republic of Yemen, and travelled to Warsaw on a Yemeni diplomatic passport. According to a former associate, he sometimes purchased a year's production in advance, becoming the de-facto exclusive agent for Cenzin. In obtaining arms from Eastern-bloc manufacturers, and channelling them to small states and armed groups, Kassar prefigured the strategy of the notorious Tajik arms broker Viktor Bout, who in the nineties began selling surplus weaponry from the Cold War.
Arms trafficking is a particularly elusive crime. International law is generally weak, and Interpol, which has no arresting power, is little more than a clearing house for warrants that individual nations may elect not to enforce. Moreover, a weapons shipment can represent a violation of international law but still be perfectly legal in many nations. "People like Kassar are not stupid," E. J. Hogendoorn, an International Crisis Group researcher who wrote a report on Kassar for the United Nations, told me. "They structure their deals so that they're not violating national law." In setting up transactions, Kassar often acted as what is known as a "third-party broker." From his home in Spain, he could negotiate between a supplier in a second country and a buyer in a third. The weapons could then be shipped directly from the second country to the third, while his commission was wired to a bank in a fourth. Kassar never set foot in the countries where the crime transpired--and in Spain he had committed no crime.
By the early nineteen-eighties, when Kassar settled in Marbella, the town had become a Riviera for the Arab élite. Wealthy Arabs from Lebanon and the Gulf States were constructing extravagant villas there; many of King Ibn al-Saud's children built houses in the area. Prince Salman erected a mosque in Marbella, and arrived for Friday prayers in a Rolls-Royce with a gold grille and door handles. Adnan Khashoggi, the wealthy Saudi arms dealer, docked his massive yacht, Nabila, in the harbor, and was known for his elaborate parties and his private DC-8--a life style that he claimed cost him a quarter of a million dollars a day.
Marbella had also begun to attract a criminal element. "There were Arabs, there were Dutch, there were Brits," Soiles told me. Loosely policed, and a short boat ride from Africa, the town became a smuggler's haven. In Soiles's view, the Spanish authorities simply "weren't ready for that type of criminality."
Khashoggi, who was an occasional rival of Kassar's, once defended lavish living as an imperative of the arms trade, observing, "Flowers and light attract nightingales and butterflies." From the moment that Kassar moved to Marbella, he cultivated a flamboyant image. He purchased the mansion, and hired a staff of forty to maintain it. In 1981, he married Raghdaa Habbal, the beautiful seventeen-year-old daughter of a prominent Syrian family in Beirut. (He jokingly referred to his wife as "my oldest daughter.") They had three daughters and a son, and divided their time among Marbella, Syria, and Vienna, where Alkastronic, Kassar's import-export company, was based. Alkastronic specialized in arms from Eastern Europe and, ostensibly, observed international laws on the sale and procurement of such weapons.
Devoted to his family and surrounded by friends and business associates, Kassar became known for his hospitality, and seemed always to be presiding over a barbecue or a party; although there was a chef on staff, he liked to prepare the food himself. A 1985 profile in Paris Match featured a photo spread of Kassar posing with his young family by the clover-shaped swimming pool, flanked by an entourage of uniformed servants standing at attention. The article described the mansion as something "from 'A Thousand and One Nights,' " and noted that "in a few years, this Syrian merchant became one of the most powerful businessmen in the world." Kassar baptized the house Palacio de Mifadil, a conflation of Spanish and Arabic that translates, roughly, as the Palace of My Virtue. Two rusty mortar shells decorated the front entrance.
Monzer is a very dangerous man, much as I like him," a British mercenary and arms broker named David Tomkins told me recently. "I've met Colombian cartel bosses, and they would never put the caution in me that he did." Tomkins was a safecracker and a thief who, in the seventies, became a soldier of fortune; he served a prison sentence in the United States for a failed plot in which the Cali drug cartel hired him to murder Pablo Escobar. He told me that he met Kassar in 1984, through a mutual acquaintance, an arms dealer from Northern Ireland named Frank Conlon. For the next decade, Tomkins did various jobs for Kassar--what he calls "bits and pieces."
In 1989, Tomkins says, Kassar asked him to set up a phony arms company in an office in Amsterdam, and contact a potential buyer with a list of items for sale. The buyers worked for Israeli intelligence. Kassar predicted that they would be interested in only one of the products on the list: ammunition for a type of Russian tank that the Israeli-backed Lebanese Christians had recently captured from Syria. Kassar didn't tell Tomkins about the operation's ultimate purpose, relaying only the next step: rent an office, make this phone call. But it gradually emerged that Kassar planned to lure two Mossad agents to the Amsterdam office, where they would be ambushed by hit men from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. (Kassar had long-standing ties with several Palestinian terror groups; a U.S. congressional report once referred to him as "the Banker of the PLO.")
Before the Israelis arrived, Tomkins was approached by his old friend Frank Conlon in Marbella. "He turned out to be a snitch," Tomkins recalls. Conlon told Tomkins that he had been arrested, and then later interrogated in Belgium, and had informed the authorities about the Amsterdam plot. Conlon suggested that they allow the operation to proceed, so that Kassar and the assassins could be arrested.
"I've eaten food off this guy's table," Tomkins says that he replied. "I've never put anyone in jail, and I'm not going to start now. I'll give you twenty-four hours to get out of Spain."
Without mentioning Conlon's betrayal, Tomkins told Kassar to abort the operation. Later, at Palacio de Mifadil, Kassar led Tomkins to a windowless room beneath the palace, where the two men sat by an underground swimming pool. Tomkins noticed that the pool's tiled floor was decorated with the image of a shark. Kassar questioned Tomkins about why the operation had gone awry, and said that he would find out exactly what had transpired from his contacts in Spanish intelligence. Shortly thereafter, Kassar called Tomkins and told him to go to Budapest. Tomkins checked into the Hilton there, and waited. Soon, Kassar and one of his aides knocked on the door.
"He came in and gave me a big hug," Tomkins says. "Then he looked at his mate and said, 'You see? He's not afraid of me.' I said, 'Why should I be? I've never done you any harm.' And he said, 'I know you haven't.' " Kassar paused, then said, "I want you to kill Frank Conlon."
Tomkins refused, explaining that, as a rule, he didn't kill British people. He and Kassar continued to work together; Kassar supplied weapons that Tomkins air-dropped to Chechnyan rebels in the nineteen-nineties. But Frank Conlon eventually went into hiding. "He never came back," Tomkins said. When asked about this incident, Sara Martinez, one of Kassar's Spanish attorneys, said that she knew nothing about it.
Kassar has been accused of similar plots. Bob Baer, a former C.I.A. officer who spent years working in the Middle East, says that, during the eighties, Kassar attempted to have a Syrian dissident in Paris assassinated. According to the D.E.A., Kassar tried twice to kill Elias Awad, a Lebanese member of the Palestine Liberation Front. Awad was Kassar's "drug competitor," Soiles says. The first attempt left Awad paralyzed, and the second sent a rocket through his living-room window. A Justice Department affidavit maintains that Kassar ordered the murder because "Awad was interfering with his relationship with Yasir Arafat."
While Kassar had close ties with radical groups, he bore little resemblance to the ascetic jihadis associated with terrorism today. He was primarily a mercenary figure--political, perhaps, but driven more by deal-making and the desire to maintain his relationships than by any zealous ideology. He was Muslim, but hardly devout, and his tastes were both Western and secular. His family celebrated Christmas and Easter, and his children learned English before they learned Arabic; he sent them to Western-style schools abroad.
Kassar was sufficiently flexible, in fact, that during the Iran-Contra affair he supplied covert weapons to the United States. Tom Clines, a weapons specialist formerly with the C.I.A., visited Marbella and negotiated the deal. Between 1985 and 1986, Kassar was paid a million and a half dollars through a Swiss bank account controlled by Oliver North and his co-conspirators, and in return he obtained more than a hundred tons of assault rifles and ammunition from Cenzin, in Poland. Asked about Kassar in the 1988 congressional hearings, John Poindexter, the national-security adviser for the Reagan Administration, said, "When you're buying arms . . . you often have to deal with people you might not want to go to dinner with." Clines was much more generous. "He was a very gracious host," he told me recently. "The next morning, he came and made me breakfast, which I liked." Kassar has denied any role in Iran-Contra, saying, "I've never met or heard of this man North in my life. I can't even pronounce his name. Anyway, I wouldn't do business with the Americans. I don't accept money from my enemies."
Rumors always trailed Kassar, not least because he had evaded charges for so many years while the authorities tried, and failed, to accumulate enough evidence to prosecute him. One persistent, though erroneous, claim was that, in 1988, he helped plant the bomb that blew up Pan Am Flight 103. (In 2001, a former Libyan intelligence officer, Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al-Megrahi, was convicted by Scotland for his role in orchestrating the bombing. He was released last year for medical reasons.) Kassar cited the accumulated allegations against him as a reason to doubt each new charge. "They have accused me of nearly everything besides the Hiroshima bombing," he told one interviewer. He blamed the conjectures on "envious people," and denied any involvement with terrorism. He rejected the word "trafficker," and insisted that his business was entirely legitimate. On one occasion, he claimed that his "sector" within the arms trade was "guns for hunting animals." When the London Observer sent a correspondent to Palacio de Mifadil in 1987, Kassar invited him in and, with a sweep of his hand, asked, "Would a drug dealer and terrorist live openly like this?"
Alexander Yearsley, an arms researcher who investigated Kassar for the watchdog group Global Witness, says of him, "Monzer was vain enough to want the limelight." In Yearsley's view, Kassar's willingness to talk with the press amounted to a winking acknowledgment of the global impact of his weapons shipments. "Can you imagine how boring it would be to be causing regime change and for no one to know about it?" Yearsley says.
Arms dealers are an indispensable, if unsavory, instrument of geopolitics, and Kassar went to great lengths to make himself useful. Many governments, including that of the United States, make clandestine purchases from international arms brokers, because using guns from their own country might betray their involvement in covert operations. "The Kassars' ability to provide governments with access to arms and equipment through irregular channels allows them to do business with high-level government officials who wish to deal 'off the record' with terrorists or other politically sensitive groups," a 1992 investigation by the U.S. House of Representatives concluded. "Governments who receive such services apparently 'look the other way' with respect to the brothers' trafficking activities." (Ghassan remained close to Monzer and active in the arms business until his death, last year, of natural causes.)
"Kassar kept walking in, sort of waving a flag, saying, 'I'm a secret agent, I can provide a lot of information to the U.S. government,' " Vincent Cannistraro, a former C.I.A. official, told me. "He wasn't looking for money--he was looking for cover." The agency did not take him up on his offers, Cannistraro maintains, but other governments did occasionally enlist Kassar. It has been widely reported that, in the eighties, he assisted the French in securing the release of several hostages held in Lebanon. Some also suggested that he aided in the 1994 capture, by French intelligence, of Ilich Ramírez Sánchez, the Venezuelan terrorist known as Carlos the Jackal. Kassar denied any role in that operation, telling a reporter, "I would not have sold him for all the money in the world."
In 1992, Kassar was arrested in Madrid. A Spanish magistrate announced that he had been implicated in the Palestine Liberation Front's 1985 hijacking of the Achille Lauro, which led to the murder of a wheelchair-bound American, Leon Klinghoffer. One of the plot's conspirators, who was being held in an Italian prison, had told investigators that the AK-47 assault rifles and hand grenades used in the attack had been supplied by an elegantly dressed man named "Kazer." The authorities showed him a photograph, and he identified Kassar.
Jim Soiles had been transferred to Paris by the D.E.A. in 1988. Through a confidential informant in Poland, he obtained a series of documents indicating that Kassar had opened a bank account for Abu Abbas, the mastermind of the hijacking. Soiles offered his evidence to the Spanish prosecutors, and said that he could testify. Kassar was held in prison for more than a year while the government assembled its case against him. (After posting a bond of fifteen and a half million dollars, he was released.) Meanwhile, several former employees and associates of Kassar agreed to testify that he had personally flown to Poland to procure weapons for the attack.
The trial, which began in December, 1994, in Madrid, was a debacle for law enforcement. Witnesses in Austria and Italy refused to travel to Spain to testify. Soiles took the stand for close to a week. But the documentary evidence was thrown out after Kassar's attorneys convinced the court that the confidential informant who supplied the papers had no legal right to remove them from Kassar's residence in Warsaw. One of the lawyers objected that Soiles was attributing a fantastical array of crimes to Kassar. "If he's guilty of only half the things he's been accused of, then he's still the biggest criminal in all of Europe," Soiles replied.
Kassar mocked the prosecution, arguing, in effect, that someone of his wealth and public profile would never stoop to an operational role in such an attack. "I am not sick or dumb enough to risk my plane, which is worth five million dollars, to go to Poland to pick up four Kalashnikovs," he testified. He accused the Spanish magistrate who had initiated the suit of trying to extort a hundred million dollars from him, in exchange for dropping the case.
But the most remarkable feature of the proceedings was the string of misfortunes that began to strike the witnesses for the prosecution. One of the chief witnesses against Kassar, a former household employee named Ismail Jalid, was found dead shortly before the trial, having fallen from a fifth-story window in Marbella. His death was initially ruled a suicide, then reclassified as a homicide. Kassar denied any involvement in the murder, and no link to him has ever been proved.
The two children of a second witness were kidnapped on their way home from school, in Madrid. The witness, a former associate named Mustafa Nasimi, accused Kassar of orchestrating the kidnapping, a charge that Kassar angrily denied.
A third witness, a former aide named Abu Merced, claimed that Kassar had warned him not to testify. Merced changed his testimony so frequently that the judges deemed him unreliable.
In March, 1995, Kassar was acquitted on all counts. He called the proceedings "a blackmail and a farce," and said, "The most important thing is that I have proven my innocence."
Mustafa Nasimi's children were returned to him after several days, and the local police ultimately concluded that the kidnappers, who worked for a Colombian drug cartel, had no connection to Kassar. One morning three years later, in Madrid, Nasimi was leaving his house when a gunman approached and shot him in the head. No link between the murder and Kassar has been established.
After Kassar's trial, Jim Soiles was eventually posted to Athens, but he continued to collect files on Kassar. As the years went by, however, he began to give up hope of catching him. Then, in the summer of 2003, he got a call from the Justice Department. The ringleader of the Achille Lauro operation, Abu Abbas, had been captured in a raid by American forces in Iraq, and officials were exploring what charges might be brought against him. Abbas died in U.S. custody some months later. (After conducting an autopsy, the military concluded that he had died of heart disease.) But, seizing on renewed interest in the Achille Lauro incident, the D.E.A. argued that Kassar was an even worthier target for prosecution. Since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, new statutes had enhanced the power of "extraterritorial jurisdiction," enabling American authorities to investigate and try suspects for crimes committed outside the United States. Soiles agreed to work with federal prosecutors and the D.E.A.'s Special Operations Division, known as S.O.D., to put together a case drawing on that extraterritorial law-enforcement authority. "This ain't for the weak of heart," Soiles warned his colleagues. "This is for the long haul. And it's going to cost."
For the next two years, Soiles and a team of agents from the S.O.D. pored over old case files, studying Kassar's operation. But gathering sufficient evidence of his involvement in various crimes was difficult, and pursuing Kassar for the Achille Lauro charges might be barred, because it would amount to double jeopardy. By early 2006, Soiles and his colleagues had decided that they needed to attempt something radical. Rather than try Kassar for a crime he'd committed in the past, they would use the strong conspiracy laws in the United States to prosecute him for something that he intended to do in the future. They would infiltrate Kassar's organization and set him up in a sting. Many European countries have "agent provocateur" laws to guard against entrapment, but in an American court it would be difficult for a trafficker with Kassar's history to protest that he was in no way predisposed to clandestine weapons deals. In a nod to the three decades that the agency had spent investigating Kassar, Soiles's team called the plan Operation Legacy.
The D.E.A. has confidential sources in countries around the world. Some are former criminals who were arrested at one time or another, then sent back into the underworld on the agency's payroll. "In terms of actual contacts and informants on the ground, there are many regions where D.E.A. has a better network than C.I.A.," Jonathan Winer, a former State Department official who was responsible for international law enforcement in the Clinton Administration, told me. During the course of his career, Soiles had amassed dozens of trusted informants. In 2006, he turned to a portly sixty-nine-year-old Palestinian named Samir. (At the D.E.A.'s request, I am omitting the last names of confidential sources.)
A former member of the militant group Black September, Samir was originally arrested by Soiles in 1984 for smuggling heroin into New York. He was held at the Metropolitan Correctional Center, in lower Manhattan, where he refused to coöperate. Soiles decided to pay him a visit. He brought his lunch, sat down in front of Samir, and ate it. Samir said nothing. When Soiles finished, he got up and left, but a few days later he came back, and again a few days after that, and every time he brought his lunch. "Being of Greek descent, I had some understanding of his culture," Soiles told me with a smile. "I knew the kinds of foods that he probably would like. So I go there and I bring the little shish kebab, and I'd have the nice warm bread, I'd have the cheese. And I always brought enough for two people." For a month, Samir said nothing, and, each time, Soiles ceremoniously threw the extra food into the trash.
Finally, one day, Samir said, "What do you want?" The two have been working together ever since.
The plan was for Samir to travel to southern Lebanon and meet an associate of Kassar's named Tareq al-Ghazi. Samir would pretend that he was representing an arms buyer, and ingratiate himself with Ghazi before asking for an introduction to Kassar. It took Samir ten months, but in December of 2006 he telephoned Soiles and said, "I'm going to meet him."
Before the meeting, Samir needed an end-user certificate. Arms manufacturers require these documents, which often consist of a single sheet of paper, to establish that a buyer is legally entitled to purchase weapons. In practice, corrupt officials in countries around the world issue certificates for a fee, and they are often not thoroughly inspected. According to the U.N., when Kassar wanted to send arms into war-torn Croatia, in 1992, he presented a Polish supplier with a certificate issued by the People's Democratic Republic of Yemen, even though, two years earlier, North and South Yemen had reunited, and the People's Democratic Republic had ceased to exist. The supplier provided the weapons anyway.
Even when the documents are legitimate, arms manufacturers seldom try to ascertain whether their products end up in the country that issued the certificate. "Everything in the business is ninety-nine-per-cent straight, until the moment of delivery," David Tomkins told me. Soiles and his colleagues hoped to catch Kassar using an end-user certificate from one country to smuggle arms into another, a tactic known as "diversion."
A young S.O.D. agent named John Archer approached the government of Nicaragua and, without divulging any details of the operation, asked if it could provide an end-user certificate listing rifles, rocket-propelled grenade launchers, and other weapons. Then, on December 28, 2006, Samir went to the Diplomat Suite Hotel, in Beirut, where Ghazi introduced him to Kassar, saying, "Samir is one of the freedom fighters. He was with us in the Palestinian resistance."
Kassar greeted Samir warmly. Samir was wearing a microphone as he explained that he represented a buyer who was interested in purchasing weapons and had insisted on doing business with Kassar. "He told me Monzer," Samir said. "He wants Monzer."
Kassar was flattered but guarded about Samir's unnamed buyer. "How do you know him?" he asked. "And since when?"
"I know him very well," Samir reassured him. Kassar suggested that they meet again, in Marbella.
The S.O.D. team decided that their fictitious buyers should represent the FARC, which finances its arms transactions through the sale of drugs and is engaged in a protracted war with the government of Colombia and with Special Forces teams from the United States. The challenge was to find a couple of informants who could convincingly play the part. "It's almost like being a casting director," one of the agents told me. "You're putting your movie together and you're thinking, This is what the ending has to be. How are we going to get there?" The choice was especially tricky in this instance, because the S.O.D. wanted the informants to secretly videotape the negotiations. They needed people who had the nerve to walk into the home of a dangerous criminal, the acting ability to play criminals themselves, the presence of mind to improvise should the situation go awry, and a sufficient grasp of the American legal system to assure that the whole charade would be explicable to a jury.
They turned to two Guatemalan informants whom the agency had used before, Carlos and Luis. The agency pays its informants handsomely for their work, a point that is particularly troubling to Kassar's supporters. Carlos would receive a hundred and seventy thousand dollars for the operation against Kassar. ("In Spain, we call them mercenarios," Kassar's Spanish lawyer, Sara Martinez, told me.) A gruff gallows humor can develop between agent and informant after years of working together. When Carlos agreed to the undercover sting against Kassar, his handler joked that he should practice jumping off a building, to see if he could survive the fall.
In January of 2007, the agents assembled Carlos, Luis, and Samir in an Athens hotel room. Because Samir had initiated the operation, he could veto the agents' choices. He approved Carlos and Luis but insisted that they buy new shoes, observing that "if they show up with a nice suit but old shoes" Kassar would see through them immediately.
The three men ran lines, plotting the elements of a prosecutable conspiracy, with the agents coaching them to remember key pieces of dialogue: they must say that the weapons were meant to kill Americans; they must indicate that they intended to pay for the arms with drug money. "We flow-charted it," John Archer recalls.
The following month, Kassar welcomed the three informants to Marbella. The initial meeting was not recorded, since the agents were concerned that the men might be searched. As it happened, they weren't. According to subsequent testimony, Samir introduced Carlos and Luis, who said that they worked for the FARC. Their end-user certificate from Nicaragua was a ruse, they explained; the weapons would go to Colombia. Carlos drew a map, showing the route that the shipment should take, from Europe to Suriname, then overland to Colombia. Kassar planned to obtain the arms from manufacturers in Bulgaria and Romania. As long as he presented them with the certificate from Nicaragua, all the parties to the deal would have plausible deniability.
Kassar asked if the FARC was receiving any financial help from the Americans. Carlos told him that, on the contrary, the weapons would be used against the United States. Kassar agreed to the transaction. So far, the meeting had gone off perfectly. Then Kassar asked Carlos how much he had paid for the end-user certificate. Carlos paused. He did not know the going rate for this sort of bribe.
"Several million dollars," he said, finally.
Kassar scoffed, saying that with that kind of money he "could have bought a whole country." It was a significant blunder, but Carlos recovered, explaining that this was the price he had paid for multiple certificates, not just one. After a moment, Kassar seemed to relax, and suggested that if in the future Carlos needed to buy more certificates he could get them for "a much better price."
The men went to a bar to smoke hookahs. Kassar put his arm around Carlos. "He told me he liked me," Carlos later testified. "He said he could provide me with a thousand men to help fight against the United States."
At a second meeting, the following month, Carlos hid a small video camera inside his bag and captured Kassar extolling the merits of anti-aircraft weapons in the Palacio's grand salon. When Carlos mentioned that he wanted to buy C-4 explosives, Kassar told him that it would be cheaper and safer to follow the example of insurgents in Iraq, and manufacture the explosives locally in Colombia. "We can send experts to make it over there," he volunteered. Kassar had an aide drive Carlos and Luis to an Internet café in Marbella, so that they could wire a down payment of a hundred thousand euros to an account that he maintained under someone else's name. (He didn't want them to use a computer in his house, to avoid having the transaction traced back to him.) The D.E.A. authorized a money transfer from an undercover account.
On May 2nd, Carlos and Luis met Kassar at a café, where he introduced them to a Greek ship's captain, Christos Paissis. "We've been working together for twenty-five years," Kassar said. "He's completely trustworthy." While the men drank Perrier and discussed the clandestine logistics of sending the weapons to Suriname aboard a smuggling ship called the Anastasia, the camera in Carlos's bag recorded their conversation.
By that time, the agents had enough evidence to prosecute Kassar in the United States. But after the disastrous Achille Lauro trial, Soiles was reluctant to arrest him in Spain. "That was his power base," he said. It was decided that Carlos would attempt to lure Kassar to Greece or Romania. In June, he informed Kassar that one of the leaders of the FARC would be travelling to Bucharest, where the organization had three and a half million dollars in drug proceeds which could serve as a partial payment for the weapons. But Kassar became uneasy, and claimed that he couldn't obtain a visa for his Argentine passport. He suggested sending one of his employees instead. As the hours dragged on, he grew increasingly frustrated that Carlos and Luis had not provided the balance of the payment for the deal. "I can't do anything without the money," he told Carlos. Eventually, Soiles's team decided that they would have to execute the "takedown"--the final phase of the operation--in Spain.
The D.E.A. had no jurisdiction to make an arrest, however. Normally, if law-enforcement officers know that a fugitive will be in a foreign country they file a "provisional arrest warrant" with Interpol and hope that local authorities will honor the warrant and make the arrest. But Kassar's connections in the Spanish government ran so deep that the D.E.A. notified very few Spanish officials that it was conducting its months-long sting. The agency was reluctant even to file an arrest warrant with Interpol, fearing that one of Kassar's contacts might tip him off.
On June 4th, Carlos proposed to Kassar that he meet the FARC leader in Madrid. Sensing that something was wrong, Kassar telephoned one of his intelligence contacts, a Spanish counterterrorism official named José Villarejo. Kassar had already informed Villarejo of the impending deal, though he said that the arms were bound for Nicaragua. He explained that the buyer urgently wanted to meet him in Madrid. "I don't want some trap or something," he said, according to a transcript of the call, which Villarejo recorded. "Is it dangerous to go to Madrid?"
Villarejo knew nothing of the American operation, but he cautioned his friend, "Whenever there's any urgency to do something, that always means there's a trap."
Still, in a momentary lapse of caution, Kassar drove to the Málaga airport and boarded a flight to Madrid.
"We didn't do anything until the plane was wheels-up," Archer, the S.O.D. agent, told me. As soon as the agents had word that Kassar was in the air, they filed a provisional arrest warrant with Interpol and staked out the airport in Madrid. They had briefed a local fugitive-apprehension team that morning, telling them that a major suspect would be passing through the airport. With less than an hour before the plane landed, they informed the team that the target was Monzer al-Kassar, and Archer and other D.E.A. agents, who were dressed in civilian clothes, took up positions in the arrivals area. As passengers filed off the plane, the agents caught sight of Kassar and two aides, and as he made his way to the baggage claim the team conferred by cell phone with Spanish officers, who were monitoring his movements on the airport's surveillance system. When Kassar leaned down to retrieve his luggage, the Spanish police arrested him.
The following day, the D.E.A. team went to Marbella to execute a search warrant on Palacio de Mifadil. Under Spanish law, a criminal suspect is entitled to be present while the authorities search his residence. Kassar offered everyone drinks.
In June, 2008, Monzer al-Kassar was flown, in shackles, from Spain to Westchester Airport, on a chartered jet. Jim Soiles and John Archer were on the plane. Kassar had fought extradition for a year, staged a hunger strike, and claimed that his capture was an act of "political vengeance" by President George W. Bush.
In a special hearing in Madrid, Villarejo testified that Kassar had assisted Spain in intelligence investigations. Villarejo would not say what, precisely, Kassar had done, but he acknowledged that Spanish intelligence had a code name for the Syrian--Luis--and that on several occasions he had travelled outside Spain with Kassar on intelligence business. A second official, Enrique Castaño, whose work was so sensitive that he testified from behind a screen, said that Kassar had supplied Spain with information "concerning the activities of terrorist organizations."
"Thanks to my contacts and influence, we have been able to resolve kidnappings in the Arab world and avoid terrorist attacks in and out of Spain," Kassar told El Mundo when the extradition was finalized. "I fear I have been sold very cheaply." (When asked about Kassar, a representative of the Spanish government had no comment.)
Kassar's trial, in a federal court in lower Manhattan, was an illustration of American national-security law at its most far-reaching. Kassar had never set foot in the United States, and, apart from wire transfers that the D.E.A. sent from New York, no element of the crime had unfolded on American soil. In addition, four of the five charges against Kassar were conspiracy charges: conspiracy to kill Americans, conspiracy to kill officers and employees of the United States, conspiracy to supply material support to terrorists, and conspiracy to acquire and use anti-aircraft missiles. (The fifth charge was money laundering.) It was the first case in which federal prosecutors employed a powerful 2004 statute holding that anyone who conspires to sell surface-to-air missiles must receive a twenty-five-year sentence.
When asked how he pleaded to the charges, Kassar shouted, "Not guilty!" He blew kisses to supporters watching the trial and referred to the judge, Jed Rakoff, as "My Lord." He hired Ira Sorkin, a well-known criminal-defense attorney, who went on to represent Bernard Madoff. "There is no case here," Sorkin protested. "This was a sting operation against an individual in Spain, created out of whole cloth by the D.E.A."
The lawyers for the prosecution presented an extraordinary reconstruction of the operation. They showed video clips of Kassar in his living room, talking about shooting down helicopters. They played audio recordings of calls that Carlos made to the secure phone. They presented catalogues that Kassar had shown to the informants, with vivid graphics of the weapons that he intended to sell. "You will see and you will hear what happened in these meetings, and you will watch the FARC weapons deal unfold, in real time," Brendan McGuire, an assistant U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, told the jury. "These recordings will take you into the heart of this weapons deal designed to kill Americans." John Archer testified about searching Palacio de Mifadil after Kassar's arrest and finding the Nicaraguan end-user certificate and the map that Carlos had drawn showing the smuggling route. Each juror received a three-ring binder that contained nearly a thousand pages of transcripts and translations.
Sorkin countered this barrage by arguing that Kassar had been stringing Carlos and Luis along with the intention of reporting them to his law-enforcement contacts in Spain. According to Sorkin, the jurors were witnessing not a sting but a double sting. When Kassar had been fighting extradition in Spain, however, he maintained that he had believed all along that the shipment was legitimate, and bound for Nicaragua.
During the extradition hearing in Spain, Sorkin had intimated, in his questioning of the two Spanish intelligence officials, that Kassar had also assisted the C.I.A. During the trial, Sorkin wanted to introduce evidence that would demonstrate Kassar's coöperation with U.S. authorities, but the Department of Justice objected that the evidence contained classified material. The court ultimately ruled that the evidence was irrelevant. In conversations with me, several of Kassar's friends and associates suggested that he had indeed assisted the C.I.A. over the years. (The agency will neither confirm nor deny such suggestions.) When I asked Soiles about the matter, he said, "Did he have a relationship? We don't know. And we couldn't comment on that."
Samir and Carlos both testified in the trial. Sorkin emphasized that the first visit to Marbella, when Kassar allegedly promised to supply Carlos with a thousand men, was also the one meeting during which no recording equipment was used. "Do you sometimes find it difficult, when you play these parts for the D.E.A., to determine when you are telling the truth and when you are telling a lie?" he asked Carlos.
Luis had planned to appear as well. But, after Kassar's arrest in Spain, he had returned to Guatemala; one day, early in 2008, while he was attending a rooster fight, two men approached and shot him dead. No connection to Kassar has been established.
Because Kassar was charged with conspiracy to kill Americans, it was important to the prosecutors and to the D.E.A. that he come across as an ideological enemy of the United States. "Monzer al-Kassar commands a global munitions empire, arming and funding insurgents and terrorists . . . particularly those who wish to harm Americans," Karen Tandy, then the D.E.A. administrator, said after his capture. "He operates in the shadows, the silent partner behind the business of death and terror."
To combat the image of his client as a terrorist bent on hurting America, Sorkin called Kassar's twenty-four-year-old daughter, Haiffa, to the stand. "All my teachers were American," she said. "All my friends are American."
When she was asked whether she had ever heard her father discuss the FARC, she responded, "I don't even know what FARC is."
"Do you even know what business he is in?" McGuire asked.
"No," she said. "No, I didn't know anything."
The jury deliberated for six hours, over two days. According to an account published by one of the jurors, they chose to exclude the testimony of Carlos and Luis and to focus, instead, entirely on the recordings. When they filed back into the courtroom, Kassar's lips were moving, as he mouthed a silent prayer. Judge Rakoff asked for the verdict, and the foreman said that the jury had found Kassar guilty on all counts. Haiffa let out a sob.
Last February, Judge Rakoff sentenced Kassar to thirty years in prison. "Mr. al-Kassar is a very sophisticated person," Rakoff said. "A man of many faces." He cited the "overwhelming nature of the proof in this case, vast amounts of which were videotaped," and suggested that it would have been "totally irrational" for the jury to arrive at anything other than a guilty verdict.
Kassar was permitted to make a few remarks. "In all religions . . . God demands justice," he said. He suggested, once again, that he had been an intelligence asset. The classified material that the jury was not allowed to see would have shown that he had "saved lots of human lives," he said, demonstrating that he harbored no "animosity against America." After proclaiming his innocence one final time, Kassar concluded on a defiant note, saying, "Justice sometimes goes slow, but sure."
The prosecutors had agreed to bring their case against Kassar without mentioning the Achille Lauro incident, lest it prejudice the jury. But, each day of the trial, two middle-aged women entered the courtroom and sat quietly, watching the proceedings. They were Ilsa and Lisa Klinghoffer, the daughters of Leon Klinghoffer. For years, they had followed the story of the ruthless Syrian who had been implicated in their father's death, and who still lived openly in Spain.
"Even when he was caught, right up to the sentencing, he had this swagger," Lisa Klinghoffer told me. "Like he was untouchable."
Sara Martinez insisted recently that, while Kassar had done things that "were not correct," he has been a legitimate businessman for the past fifteen years. She said that throughout the sting Kassar believed that the buyers represented Nicaragua. This appears to contradict the double-sting argument that Ira Sorkin raised at trial--an interpretation of events that Kassar's current lawyer, Roger Stavis, reiterated last week. Stavis maintains that Kassar travelled to Madrid not to complete the FARC deal but to "see that the informants were arrested." He called Kassar's capture "a serious miscarriage of justice."
Everyone I spoke to who has worked with Kassar over the years expressed surprise that someone so cautious could be caught on tape agreeing to sell weapons to the FARC. One possible explanation is that, compared with the last decades of the twentieth century--when conflicts in Africa, Europe, and the Middle East generated steady revenue--these are difficult times for weapons traffickers. When Samir first approached Tareq al-Ghazi in Lebanon, Ghazi told him that Kassar had been struggling to maintain his profit margins.
A diminished demand for black-market weapons may be driving other arms traffickers to assume risks that they would never have taken in the past. A year after the capture of Kassar, the S.O.D. team arrested Viktor Bout, the Tajik arms dealer, in Bangkok--using the same sting. (Bout asserts his innocence, and, to date, the Thai government has refused to extradite him.)
Tom Clines, the former C.I.A. officer who negotiated the Iran-Contra deal, believes that Kassar must have been in desperate need of cash to fall for such a trap. He expressed regret that U.S. authorities had imprisoned a man with such a wealth of underworld connections. "Don't cut the guy off at the fingers," he said. "Let him proceed, and work with him." Though the two men had met on only one occasion, Clines remembered Kassar fondly. "I hope the Syrians help him get back home," he said.
Not long ago, I spoke with Haiffa al-Kassar, who remains fiercely loyal to her father. "It's a movie," she said of the videotaped evidence at the trial. "He hasn't done anything." She expressed skepticism at the idea of convicting someone for a crime before he has had an opportunity to carry it out. "It's only in America that they believe in conspiracy," she told me. "We don't believe in it here in Spain."
Haiffa described her father as warm and playful. She was allowed to visit him on only a few occasions when she was in New York for the trial, but at seven o'clock on some evenings she would stand outside the lower-Manhattan jail where he was being held. Kassar's cell was on the ninth floor, and had a high window. He would switch the lights on and off, so that Haiffa knew which window to watch. Then he would jump up high enough to catch a glimpse of his daughter blowing him a kiss from the sidewalk below.
The palace in Marbella is empty now. The property is big and difficult to maintain, Haiffa explained, and it was too painful to remain there. The Kassar family has moved to a nearby villa. Haiffa's mother, Raghdaa, has been denied entry to the United States, so she could not attend the trial or visit Kassar in South Carolina, where he is serving his sentence at a medium-security federal prison. Kassar is healthy, friends say, and is appealing his conviction. He talks to his Mexican cellmate in Spanish, and has a job cleaning windows. He has been cooking for other inmates. Recently, he began teaching them languages as well.
"I still believe in justice, and I will never stop legally fighting till the last breath," Kassar wrote to me recently. "No one can hide from the truth forever."
In the years between the Achille Lauro trial and the beginning of Operation Legacy, Jim Soiles kept an old safe in his coat closet at home, stuffed with files about Monzer al-Kassar. From time to time, he would open the safe, flip through the files, and think that perhaps it was time to shred them. But something always stopped him.
"He was one of those guys who escaped," Soiles told me. "And there was a part of me that said maybe, someday, he'll come around again."
[Source: By Patrick Radden Keefe, The New Yorker, 08Feb10]
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