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Sierra Leone - Gunrunners


Synopsis of "Gunrunners"

Web-exclusive report on key players in the small arms trade

Source of Black Market Weapons

U.N. Investigator

Former State Department Analyst

Gunrunning, Cold War Stockpiles, and Conflict Diamonds




Nabek, Syria, 1945.

Arabic, English, Spanish.

Syrian, Argentine, Brazilian, Algerian and British; Spanish permanent residency.

Argentina, Austria, Bosnia, Brazil, Bulgaria, Chad, Croatia, Guatemala, Iran, Lebanon, Nicaragua, Panama, Poland, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Syria, the United States and Yemen.

Large-scale trafficking in cocaine, hashish and stolen cars. Widely investigated for arming various Palestinian terrorist groups and involvement in terrorist attacks in the 1980s. Offered French anti-ship cruise missile technology to Iran in 1997. Was offered the opportunity to broker the sale of $1.11 billion worth of submarines by the Argentine Defense Ministry. Falsely accused of many things (such as the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland) by conspiracy theorists in books and on the Internet.

Has had dealings or involvement with Oliver North and Gen. Richard Secord (Iran-Contra); the International Bank for Credit and Commerce (BCCI); former Argentine President Carlos Menem; Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC) and its leader, Ahmad Jibril; Abu Abbas, leader of another PLO extremist splinter group, the Palestinian Liberation Front (PLF), who orchestrated the Achille Lauro hijacking; the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-Special Command (PFLP-SC) headed by Georges Habash; the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP) headed by Naif Hawatmeh; and Abu Nidal, leader of the Fatah Revolutionary Council, a.k.a. Black September or Arab Revolutionary Brigades.

Travels freely and lives comfortably in his hilltop mansion in Marbella, Spain, on the Costa del Sol. Known to have huge real estate and construction holdings; has gold mines and other interests in Argentina. Says he has not sold weapons for 12 years.

First arrested in Yabroud, Syria, for stealing cars.
Arrested in Copenhagen for trafficking in hashish.
1974: Sentenced to 18 months in prison for selling hashish in the United Kingdom.
1977: According to a Swiss judicial investigation, his criminal career began to develop quickly at this point, as he established links with mafia groups, the PFLP-GC (extreme anti-Israel PLO wing) and the PLO, which helped him traffic arms, drugs and stolen cars, arm various terrorist movements, and get rich.
1984: Expelled from United Kingdom for drug and arms trafficking.
In France, sentenced to eight years in absentia for operating a "criminal terrorist organization."
mid-80s: In Germany, fined $150,000 for possessing illegal passports.
1992: Swiss bank accounts frozen at Spain's request. Investigations begun for money laundering, lack of vigilance in financial operations, false documents and false foreign certificates. Arrested in Spain on charges of piracy and providing weapons for the hijacking of the Achille Lauro cruise ship by PLF terrorists, in which American Leon Klinghoffer was murdered.
1993: Released after serving nine months, on $15.5 million bail.
1995: Acquitted of all charges in Achille Lauro case.
2000: Indicted in Argentina for obtaining documents under false pretenses in the course of his 1992 acquisition of an Argentine passport with the help of high-level Menem administration officials.


Gallery of International Arms Dealers Monzar Al Kassar - The Prince of Marbella: Arms To All Sides
By Matthew Brunwasser

Photo of Kassar by his poolThis case study details the expert machinations of Monzer Al Kassar in breaking the U.N. arms embargo on Yugoslavia. Distancing himself from his activities through intermediaries, he appears fully confident of avoiding any legal liability.

The case illustrates how Al Kassar and his associates tried to obscure the money trail of an illegal arms sale through various bank transfers, and it clearly establishes Al Kassar's role as the broker arranging the sale of Polish arms to Croatia and Bosnia during the wartime arms embargo on Yugoslavia. The information presented here is drawn from the report of a Swiss judicial investigation into Al Kassar's financial activities.


On June 5, 1990, Monzer Al Kassar and his wife opened an account, number 1964, at the Audi Bank in Switzerland. Al Kassar and his wife used their real names and both signed the documents, highly unusual for a bank account that would later be used in an illegal arms deal. The initial purpose of the account is unknown. The bank records from this account and others would later become evidence used by a Swiss prosecutor to freeze Al Kassar's proceeds from the illegal sale of Polish arms to Croatia and Bosnia.

Photo of Kassar on cell phoneSubsequent events provided the necessary ingredients for an embargo-breaking arms deal: a war, an attempt by the international community to stop it, and a broker able to work around it. Croatia and Slovenia declared themselves independent from Yugoslavia in June 1991. A bloody civil war ensued. The United Nations Security Council voted on September 25, 1991, to impose an arms embargo on Yugoslavia, whose constituent republics were not yet recognized by the international community as independent countries. Bosnia declared its independence in March 1992, which was followed by an even more bloody and complicated civil war.

Like many other states, the Swiss Federal Council adopted the arms ban -- U.N. Security Council Resolution number 713 -- on December 18, 1991, making the embargo Swiss law (RS 514.545). This later formed the basis for Swiss legal proceedings against Al Kassar. U.N. embargoes mean nothing unless they are adopted by the legislatures of individual U.N. member states and enforced by their respective legal systems.

Shortly thereafter, a Croatian couple, Snejana and Zeljko Mikulic, holders of an account at Die Erste Bank in Vienna, ordered $2,649,000 in bank transfers to the account of Bassam Abu Sharif, one of Yasser Arafat's closest advisors, at Arab Bank in Geneva. A Die Erste Bank document states that the transfers were for a shipment of sugar, powdered milk and tea to Croatia.Diagram of $ transactions

A few days later, Sharif began a series of transfers, ultimately totaling $2.3 million, to account number 1964 at Audi Bank, the account belonging to Monzer Al Kassar.

In turn, Al Kassar transferred $2,549,135 to the Luxembourg bank account of Cenrex, the Polish state arms company.

ce="Verdana, Arial, Helvetica, sans-serif" size="2"> On March 10, 1992, a Honduras-registered ship, the Nadia, docked at Ceuta, Spain (a Spanish territory in Morocco) for supplies. When port officials examined the cargo documents, they found the papers in order. The 27 containers of arms and ammunition were being sent by Cenrex in Poland to the defense ministry of Yemen. After the ship was allowed to proceed, it headed not to Yemen but to Rijeka, Croatia, where it unloaded.

International Efforts to Prosecute Al Kassar Founder

In 1992, Spain arrested Al Kassar on charges of piracy and providing the arms to the Abu Abbas-led PLF terrorists who hijacked the Achille Lauro cruise ship and murdered American Leon Klinghoffer. Western intelligence agencies concluded that Al Kassar flew Abbas to safety aboard one of his private planes after the hijackers surrendered. One prosecution witness, Ahmed Al Assadi, while spending time in Vercelli prison for participating in the hijacking, changed his story and refused to go to Spain to identify Al Kassar as the person who supplied the hijackers' weapons. After Al Kassar's arrest, another accuser, Ismail Jalid, fell to his death from a fifth-story window in Marbella, Spain, in what the coroner called "an alcoholic coma." During the 1995 trial, in a highly publicized standoff with police, a third witness's children were kidnapped by Colombian drug traffickers shortly before he testified. The witness blamed Al Kassar, who denied involvement and stated, "I have nothing to do with the kidnapping and I hope that it is over as soon as possible. Children are sacred for Arabs. No one, not even your worst enemy, deserves this." Al Kassar was later acquitted of all charges.

While building the case, Spain requested that Switzerland seize Al Kassar's bank accounts. Swiss officials then opened their own preliminary inquiry into money laundering, lack of vigilance in financial operations, and fraudulent documents and foreign certificates. Following this inquiry, Swiss authorities began to investigate Al Kassar's arms sales using Swiss banks.

Photo of Kassar's indoor poolQuestioned on December 9, 1993, by Swiss prosecutors, Al Kassar explained that he was a diplomatic representative of Yemen in Poland and therefore could not answer questions about government-to-government affairs. A search of Al Kassar's Spanish address revealed documents confirming his relationship to the Croatian Zeljko Mikulic and containing the codes used for the ship's contents: "Tea" meant TT pistols (Tula-Tokarev pistols, developed in the U.S.S.R. in the 1930s and subsequently manufactured by other Eastern Bloc countries), and "tea bags" meant bullets.

Bassam Abu Sharif was questioned by Swiss officials while passing through Geneva in 1994. He claimed that he had only met Al Kassar once in 1979 and twice thereafter. He explained that he had been asked by the Yemeni government to use his bank account to transfer money for an arms sale organized by the Yemeni ministry of defense to buy arms for Bosnia and Croatia. He said that he learned only later that Al Kassar had organized the sale.

A Determined Swiss Prosecutor Freezes Al Kassar's Millions

Geneva Cantonal prosecutor Laurent Kasper-Answermet upheld his 1992 freeze on $6 million belonging to Al Kassar, arguing that his financial investigation found the funds to have come from criminal activities. The financial side of an arms deal leaves a paper trail, whereas arms hidden in shipping containers, guerilla armies and corrupt government officials leave none. In 1998, a Geneva appeals court upheld the seizure but released $3.7 million not directly linked to the arms deal.

Photo of Kassar sitting on couch"If Yemen does a deal with Bosnia and Croatia, how can I control it?" asked Al Kassar, dismissing accusations that he is an embargo-busting arms dealer. Under existing legal controls, his question is reasonable.

The case is the first of its kind in Switzerland and is expected to set a precedent. The arms did not touch Swiss territory and did not involve Swiss citizens or the country in any way other than through its banking system. Switzerland is not directly affected by the small-arms trade but has an interest in maintaining the respectability of its banking system. Such cases, as well as that of Leonid Minin ,an Israeli citizen arrested in Italy for selling Ukrainian weapons to Liberia and Sierra Leone, are pushing existing legislation in new directions in an attempt to discourage the illegal arms trade.

Al Kassar has lost successive court appeals and has one final chance to have his $2.3 million returned in an appeal to a Swiss federal court.

Matthew Brunwasser is a freelance journalist based in Bulgaria. He worked as field producer on FRONTLINE/World's "Gunrunners" story.

The Cold War's Largest Arms Merchant

Links relevant to this article:

Monzer Al Kassar and the Iran-Contra Affair
In Chapter 8 of the Final Report of the Independent Counsel for Iran/Contra Matters, the authors allege that Monzer Al Kassar made $500,000 selling arms to supply the Contras.

Al Kassar in Argentina
This Middle East Intelligence Bulletin report describes the investigation into Al Kassar's involvement in the Buenos Aires bombings of the Israeli Embassy and the Jewish Cultural Center, unsolved 10 years later. The report also describes Al Kassar's possible connection to President Carlos Menem and the shipment of arms to Croatia.

Al Kassar and President Menem
This article from Argentina's La Nacion describes the political price Carlos Menem paid for his alleged involvement with Al Kassar and the 6000-ton shipment of Argentine arms to Ecuador and Croatia. (La Nacion, April 15, 2001)

Al Kassar Fights Back
The Independent (U.K.) documents the public falling-out between Al Kassar and his former business partner, U.K. investment firm Imperial Consolidated Group. Al Kassar says the firm wanted him to sell arms to Osama bin Laden back in January 2001. The firm denies his accusation. (Independent, January 21, 2001)

Al Kassar's Estranged Business Partner
Offshore Business News and Research offers a portrait of Imperial Consolidated's questionable offshore business. A glance at the links under the heading "Regulatory Problems" shows that their deal with Al Kassar was only part of their portfolio.

U.S. Senate Investigation Into the Bank for Credit and Commerce International
This 1992 Senate committee report recommended further investigation into BCCI's "relationships with convicted Iraqi arms dealer Sarkis Soghanalian, Syrian drug trafficker, terrorist and arms trafficker Monzer Al Kassar, and other major arms dealers." This decade-old investigation sheds some light on the history and interconnectedness of illegal arms dealers.