Frontline World

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

State Department Analyst

Gunrunning, Cold War Stockpiles, and Conflict Diamonds



Photo of Jean Bernard Lasnaud Photo of Victor Anatoliyevich Bout Photo of Leonid Minin Photo of Monzer Al Kassar Photo of Sarkis Soghanalian
Jean Bernard Lasnaud Victor Anatoliyevich Bout Leonid Minin Monzer Al Kassar Sarkis Soghanalian

Read about a prison interview with Jean Bernard Lasnaud in which he implicates Argentine ex-president Carlos Menem. By the Center for Investigative Reporting. READ MORE

Just days after the publication of this Web-exclusive report on May 23, 2002, Jean Bernard Lasnaud was arrested in Switzerland in response to an Interpol request. READ MORE

Introduction by Lowell Bergman

Since the end of the Second World War, tens of millions of people have been killed by conventional weapons, mostly small arms such as rifles, machine guns and rocket-propelled grenade launchers. Sales of advanced weaponry -- fighter jets and high-tech electronics, sophisticated long-range artillery and warships, and "weapons of mass destruction" -- tend to receive the most press coverage. But these costly, sophisticated weapons have not proved as deadly as ordinary guns and grenades that are easy to buy, easy to ship and easy to use.

Low-tech, handheld weapons and explosives do the vast majority of the killing today. There are more than 550 million small arms currently in circulation, many of them fueling bloody civil strife in countries from Sri Lanka to Sierra Leone.

In most cases, the countries involved in these conflicts have been the subject of international embargoes imposed by the United Nations and other organizations. In some cases, major powers want to supply the side they favor in the conflict but do not want their "fingerprints" to be discovered on weapons of war.

Against this backdrop of embargoes and clandestine international politics, a specialized group of arms dealers emerged during the Cold War. Their role was to ensure that responsibility for the death and destruction could not be traced directly to the supplier. Usually they did their business in places amenable to the trade. These included countries, like Switzerland, where arms trafficking was traditionally considered "just another business." In countries like the United States, where arms trafficking is strictly controlled, these dealers had to maintain the approval of the government. The latter situation is detailed in an exclusive interview with Sarkis Soghanalian regarding his early years as an arms trafficker operating out of Miami International Airport in the United States.

The arms business gets murky when deals on the table are not sanctioned publicly by governments. Like any clandestine business, it means the first thing a dealer must do is establish the ability both to supply the goods and produce the money. But the dealer also has to provide the proper paperwork, especially the critical "end-user certificate." Only then can the buying and selling of lethal machines, along with the ammunition and spare parts they devour, become a real deal. Endless negotiations, fraud and violent crime are also characteristic of this and most other businesses that border on or are criminal.

The richest and longest-lived practitioners of this treacherous business simply "fronted" for a particular government or alliance or even "ruling family." In the 1950s and 60s, the late legendary Sam Cummings, a CIA veteran, supplied anyone who had U.S. government approval with weapons from stockpiles in the United States and the United Kingdom. And, of course, there were the "middlemen" who stood in for the oil rich, such as Adnan Kashoggi, who in the 1970s and 80s often fronted for the interests of the Saudi royal family. Both men would become so notorious, but invulnerable, they talked openly on television and in the press.

But it is not only individuals who operate in the international arms market. In some instances, countries that were subject to embargoes also got into the clandestine weapons business. Israel, apartheid-era South Africa and Taiwan are examples of countries compelled to develop their own arms industries and commerce as a result of international trade bans against them.

During the first 25 years of its existence, Israel was often denied weapons and ammunition by U.S. and European governments, as well as most nations in Asia and, of course, the Middle East. As a result, it built its own arsenal and related industries that are to this day active internationally. Israeli arms and trainers have turned up in China, Guatemala, Ecuador and Central Africa. Israel Defense Industries has a long history of both procurement and development of military technology and its sale overseas. The man once known as the richest Israeli, the late Shaul Eisenberg, is an example of the "legitimate" arms entrepreneur using the trade in weapons and weapons technology to create a multi-faceted business empire.

However, it is the role of the clandestine middleman that distinguishes the careers of the people profiled on this Web site. They are specialists. They know the laws and the rules of the game -- from the necessity of obtaining an end-user certificate to making sure that the weapons work and that the money is there. Often, they are the key players who provide the deniability that the government supplying the weapons seeks. They allow government spokespersons, such as the Ukrainian official interviewed by FRONTLINE/World, to say, when asked about a delivery of weapons, "We got certificates. ... What should we do else?"

Media exposure and prosecution can sometimes, it appears, "reform" these arms merchants. Monzer Al Kassar, for example, was once the target of Spanish prosecutors and the press. A high-profile but ultimately unsuccessful criminal case against him, combined with newspaper and television reports linking him to virtually every war or terrorist attack in the 1980s and 90s, he says, "made [me] give up the business."

Lowell Bergman is an award-winning investigative reporter and correspondent/producer for FRONTLINE and The New York Times, and for 14 years was a producer for CBS's "60 Minutes."

Reporting for this Web feature was in large part the work of current and past students of the Graduate School of Journalism at UC Berkeley and the "Breaking News" Seminar that Bergman conducts as adjunct professor.

This Web feature was reported and produced jointly with The Center for Investigative Reporting.


South Florida's Elusive Arms Dealer

Jean Bernard Lasnaud is an international arms dealer who brokers sales of tanks, rocket launchers and even Scud missiles from his luxury condo in a gated South Florida community. With the proper end-user certificate, one can order a fighter plane or a field hospital from Lasnaud's Web site. Despite nearly three years of arrest requests from Argentinean jurists, U.S. authorities have allowed him to live peacefully in South Florida. Then suddenly, in the spring of 2002, Jean-Bernard Lasnaud disappeared. READ MORE


The Embargo Buster: Fueling Bloody Civil Wars

Bout is an air transport specialist overseeing a complex network of more than 50 planes and dozens of airline, cargo-charter and freight-forwarding companies employing some 300 people. U.N. experts who have investigated his operations say he is the biggest known arms dealer to embargoed African war zones, where air transport is key. Allegations surfaced in February that he armed the Taliban as early as 1995. The press is now calling him the world's biggest arms dealer. READ MORE


From Ukraine, a New Kind of Arms Trafficker

Leonid Minin represents a new post-Cold War generation of arms traffickers -- highly sophisticated East European criminals with complex global enterprises. For the so-called "Russian Mafia" -- organized criminals from the 15 nations and many more ethnic groups that once made up the U.S.S.R. -- ample Red Army stockpiles of small arms are simply another natural resource to steal, sell and export. A known leader of the "Odessa Mafia," an organized criminal group based in Odessa, Ukraine, Minin organizes his business operations, both criminal and legitimate, on a large and international scale.

Minin is thought to have entered the illegal arms trade largely to gain favor with President Charles Taylor of Liberia, where he had other business interests. Minin became famous when he was caught by Italian police with 1,500 documents detailing his worldwide business activities, including arms. The case against Minin is the first of its kind and could set a precedent. It features an Italian court prosecuting Minin, an Israeli citizen, for selling Ukrainian arms to Liberia and Sierra Leone, through a broker in Russia and banks in Turkish Cyprus, Switzerland and the United States. It could give U.N. arms embargoes more prosecutorial bite around the world. READ MORE


The Prince of Marbella: Arms To All Sides

The arms-dealing career of Monzer Al Kassar was forged in the Cold War, yet he was driven more by profit than by politics or ideology. Al Kassar built his career on deals brokered between Eastern European suppliers wanting to sell arms for hard currency and Western government agencies and Middle Eastern groups, like the Palestine Liberation Organization, who wanted to buy them. Law-enforcement and intelligence officials who have tracked Al Kassar say that he has used his connections to create a vast criminal empire. But many believe the power of Al Kassar's relationships with governments around the world makes him largely untouchable. In his own defense, he denies any connection to criminal or terrorist activities. "The world cannot accept I am an independent arms dealer," Al Kassar told FRONTLINE/World. READ MORE


The Cold War's Largest Arms Merchant

With more than 40 years of experience and billions of dollars in brokered deals, Sarkis Soghanalian stands out among the major players in the international arms trade. Speaking publicly, even enthusiastically, this Lebanese citizen insists that all his deals - whether they were with Saddam Hussein's Iraq or rebels in Central America - were done with the approval of the U.S. government. For two decades Soghanalian was based in the United States. Many of his deals were in violation of U.S. endorsed embargos, and though he did not avoid arrest and occasional prosecution, it was only after the Persian Gulf war that he was jailed. At that time and more recently he has made "accomodations" with U.S. law enforcement that led to his early release. His forte has become trading vital intelligence information for his freedom. Soghanalian represents a powerful but complex cautionary tale about the danger inherent in the international traffic in weapons, and the way in which this activity can backfire on the arms deal and the United States. READ MORE