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

Former State Department Analyst

Gunrunning, Cold War Stockpiles, and Conflict Diamonds




1929 or 1930 in Syria, in a region that is now part of Turkey; raised in Lebanon.

An ethnic Armenian, Lebanese citizen, has lived for more than 20 years in the United States as a permanent resident; last reported in Los Angeles. Has or has had offices in Paris, Athens, Amman (Jordan) and Miami. Weighs about 300 pounds. Walks with a limp and suffers from heart disease.

Has armed Saddam Hussein of Iraq (about $1.6 billion), Gen. Anastasio Somoza and the Contras in Nicaragua, Gen. Leopoldo Galtieri (Argentine junta leader), Mobutu Sese Seko (former dictator of Zaire, now Congo), Christian Fallange Militias in Lebanon, and many others. As owner of the air transport company Pan Aviation, he leased a plane to Ferdinand Marcos for his planned return to the Philippines during the unsuccessful 1987 military coup; sold an American C-130 cargo plane to Libyan leader Col. Muammar Qaddafi; and rented planes to the CIA, allegedly for Contra operations involving drug trafficking. In the 1980s, he sold the Iraqi army $280 million worth of uniforms, in partnership with former U.S. Vice President Spiro Agnew, former Attorney General John Mitchell and Nixon's former chief of staff, Jack Brennan. When the U.S. manufacturer was found to be too expensive, Mitchell had former President Nixon write a letter, successfully urging Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu to manufacture the uniforms.

The CIA, the FBI, the State Department and the Defense Intelligence Agency. Helped break a counterfeit $100-bill printing operation in Lebanon and tried, unsuccessfully, to negotiate the release of U.S. hostage Terry Anderson in Lebanon.

In 1999, air-dropped 10,000 Kalashnikov rifles to Colombia's FARC (Fuerzos Armandas Revolucionarias de Colombia) guerillas -- leftist insurgents aligned with cocaine traffickers. (The United States recently sent $1 billion in aid to help the Colombian government defeat them.) Soghanalian says the deal was meant for Peru. It later emerged that the CIA had approved the deal and that it was organized by the disgraced former Peruvian intelligence chief Vladimiro Montesinos, who was on the CIA payroll for years and is now in jail on arms and drug-trafficking charges.

1977: Bilked $1.1 million from British competitor Boca Investments by reneging on a transfer of machine guns to Mauritania.: Was convicted in 1982 of wire fraud in connection with the case; sentenced to five years' probation and forced to pay restitution.
1986: Arrested for possession of five unregistered machine guns and two unregistered rocket launchers in 1984 at Miami International Airport. Also charged with possession of a firearm by a convicted felon. A federal judge dismissed all charges in 1988.
1991: Convicted on six counts of conspiring to export arms to Iraq without the required federal licenses, a violation of the U.S. Arms Control Export Act. The case, which included two former officials of Hughes Helicopter Corp., involved the sale of 103 combat helicopters and two rocket launchers in 1983 during the Iran-Iraq War. In 1992 he was sentenced to six years in prison and a $20,000 fine. The U.S. attorney had asked for maximum of 24 years and a $240,000 fine.
1993: A federal judge reduced the conviction for sales to Iraq from six and a half years to two years; prosecutor would not explain. Soghanalian's attorney later said it concerned intelligence Soghanalian gave to U.S. law-enforcement officials to break up a $100-bill counterfeiting operation in the Bekaa valley in Lebanon.
2001: Sentenced to time served (10 months) of a possible five-year sentence for wire fraud involving stolen cashier's checks. Released on recommendation from U.S. attorney's office in exchange for "substantial assistance to law enforcement" in an unspecified investigation.


Gallery of International Arms Dealers Sarkis Soghanalian - The Embargo Buster: Fueling Bloody Civil Wars
Photo of Sarkis Soghanalian In an interview with FRONTLINE/World co-producer William Kistner in March 2001, Sarkis Soghanalian, one of the world's most accomplished arms salesmen, gave his unapologetic and seasoned views on the international arms trade and U.S. policy. A veteran of many Cold War arms deals, Soghanalian has seen wars, rebel movements and ideological conflicts become U.S. priorities and then fade into history. He speaks frankly about his role in helping the United States pursue its interests. He is confident that every deal has been undertaken with the approval of the U.S. government.


What brought you into this business?

I'm from Lebanon, and my family came to Lebanon from what is now called Turkey in 1939 or 1940, but at the time it was Syria. And the education was not at a very high level. But we had to find work. I went to work with the French army. I skipped school in 1944 and worked with a tank division. So I grew up with it, adapted to it from childhood and kept going.

It's been in your blood since you were young.

Being an Armenian, you are raised fighting to survive. Since we survived the Turkish massacres, a genocide like that of the Jews and others, we were the first generation with such a background. So you can say it was in my blood and in my dreams. As a young man you like nothing more than weapons. Women were secondary, as at that age we didn't know anything about that.

Tell me how things have changed since the Cold War. First of all, explain how you got involved with weapons in Lebanon at the time of the crisis there and take me through how things have changed since then.

In 1973, when I got the first batch of the weapons, we were all pro-Western and pro-American. I was appointed to obtain all the American weapons we could. The Lebanese army was equipped only with American weapons, but they eventually ended up with a [nongovernment] militia. Before that, I had been getting most of the weapons from the Eastern Bloc [Communist/pro Soviet Union], Bulgaria, Poland, Hungary and those countries.

How difficult was it to get weapons from the Eastern Bloc?

No problem. They have a political channel you first go through. At the time, the Russians [Soviet Union] had a lot of say because they were the father of the whole Eastern Bloc, and the Russians didn't want to get involved in it. They didn't want to have their hands caught in the cookie jar. So they recommended that I go through Bulgaria. And I started there but then went through other countries.

Sarkis Soghanalian on two cell phonesDescribe the kinds of guns you were getting at that time.

Oh, well, there was no limit to the type of the weapons that I could get, but what we could use was most important. It was mainly infantry weapons, rifles and machine guns and things like that and a large quantity of ammunition. Then we came to company weapons like mortars and heavy machine guns and things like that. We could get whatever we wanted. Because the relationship was built and the trust was there. They [Eastern Bloc countries] knew me and my background, that I was working closely with the U.S. government, and therefore they didn't have any fear. And they wanted to keep the relationship open at that time because they benefited. The dollars were coming as cash from Lebanese banks and they wanted the foreign currency. It was a big opportunity for them also. ... They were not there on the market to help me or you or anybody. They were there to help themselves to get their hands on cash. For them, there were only two markets open to them: one was the Lebanese illegal arm trade. The second one was the Libyan channel, which Libya used to help other nations, terrorists, individuals and so on.


You went from selling arms transferred from Eastern Bloc [Communist] countries to Lebanon, and then to Iraq and other Middle Eastern countries?

Well, before I went to Iraq there were other places I was asked to assess, like Mauritania, the Polisario forces that they were fighting there. Nicaragua, Ecuador, Argentina. And then finally Iraq. We used to help the countries whose way of thinking was pro-Western. At that time it [Iraq] was pro-American, of course. Europeans didn't have an interest in them, so we had to keep those nations alive for their struggle.

How closely did you work with the American government on this?

I don't like to explore of the possibilities of what department of this or that, but very, very close, very close.

So when you were arranging sales of weapons to Argentina during the Falklands War [the United States opposed Argentina and supported Britain during Falklands War], how did the Americans react to that?

The Americans knew what I was doing, every minute, every hour. If I drank a glass of water, they were aware of it and what kind of water it was. I don't try to prevent the Americans from knowing what I am doing. You go to a country. You have your way of contact, you have your meetings, you explain why you are there. You consider yourself one of them, and they are one of you. This is how we operated. And when the answer is negative, of course, you go somewhere else for a different cause. ...


How do you know, if you're selling to someone one day, it might not be all different a week later?

If you're a professional, you get a feeling for the side you are helping; you develop your feelings and then they can tell you how far you can go. An arms deal is a long-term thing; it's not like last night and tomorrow morning. There are months and months when you've got to be patient. You have to get into that emotion and see how you can maneuver it.

How does it work? Can you take me through the mechanics? How do you establish a deal that you can have confidence in when you're dealing with so many different actors and interests?

It's a difficult task. You have to spend some time educating the person in your ways. I'm not a government and I do not go there and say I represent such-and-such government. I represent myself, like a mercenary. If you die, you die; you know there are no two ways about it. But you have to be very careful that you do not abuse the customer's trust in you. If you do, your deal is gone and you are not welcome and the whole thing is gone. Because you are not one of them. You are just coming in. They have to trust your reputation. Because in the arms business, there's only two ways of doing business: either through a middleman or government-to-government. The reason they choose us is because they think it's safer and because they don't have to go through all the bureaucratic paperwork. All we do is, we comply with the rules, we comply with the system of arms sales through a proper channel. If you comply with the system, you go ahead. I never go to a country if I'm not accepted by its government. I don't want to be chased around from one hotel to the other. If I am invited, I will go and see what their problem is. When you come back, you brief the governments concerned.

Have you ever been personally threatened or felt that your family was at risk?

Well, it's not a family business. I have a son, and he has never been involved. He doesn't even want to know about it. And I don't even talk to him about my business because you have to safeguard your family and keep them away from the danger. ...

When you say it could be very dangerous what do you mean?

Leaking out the information and things like that, because this business runs on individuals and individuals alone. Not by several employees. Amateurs like to talk a lot. They like to talk to the opponent to impress him and say a little bit more than [they should].

So the business is built on trust?

Mainly on trust, yes, and secrecy. ...You listen with your mouth and you talk with your ears. But then you don't blame anyone who said something wrong.

Have you ever sold weapons where the U.S. government hasn't known about it?

No, no, no, I haven't.

Why not?

When you owe your loyalty to somebody, you are like a team. You have to let your teammate know about what's going on. Lately, I made a shipment to Peru and I didn't see where it ended up. They said it ended up in Colombia and this and that. When we deliver weapons, we require many documents, especially the first time I'm doing business with a country. And, of course, the U.S. government is advised even before we sign a contract with the client. ...

Why do you consider them your teammates?

... Most of my trade has been with the U.S. blessing. Without it, you could not succeed. You would be all alone in the field. But now it's a new administration with new people. The old teammates are not there. They get old, they retire and things like that, but we still have some friends. Not as many as before, but documents are there and they speak for you.


You mentioned the Peruvian deal, when 10,000 AK-47s you sold to the Peruvian government ended up with FARC leftist guerillas in Colombia. I'm curious what you think went wrong. You checked it out. What happened?

We checked it out. I went there. In the business, this kind of thing always goes through the intelligence channel. I met the chief of the intelligence and I was convinced that it was a genuine and plain deal. But after you deliver the goods, you don't have any control. Technically, they should not make a further shipment without letting you know. That's ethical. But it turned out that Fujimori's government was not the way that it should be. It turned out to be corrupt and doing business for its own interest. ...

I was told it got into the wrong hands. I don't know whose hands they were, Colombians or Ecuadorians or drug dealers, we don't know. They didn't give me a chance to go and investigate and find out what went wrong. All we know was that there was a coup and Montesinos [the Peruvian intelligence chief] was under arrest. He fled the country. And another one went to Japan, and there are all the rumors that you see in the newspapers. ...

They [the Peruvians] bought 50,000 AK-47s, and they have another huge list that I negotiated with Montesinos. He was considered the strongest man in the country, and unfortunately they couldn't last. They couldn't operate. We told them, no more air shipments, bring a ship to pick it up. It wasn't much more difficult to transport by ship because it was more than 40 or 50 tons.

Where did the guns come from?

The guns came from East Germany to Jordan, became surplus and were sold as surplus at a surplus price. You see, they look at us like we were selling contraband weapons. If you sell contraband weapons, the target is the black market. The black market price is exaggerated, inflated. But when you see equipment sold below its value from government to government, you know there's no contraband involved in it. That's the way we look at it. That's what we did with Peru. ...

So how much did those rifles cost?

The price was $55 a rifle, and then with packing and handling it was another $10. Plus transportation was $10. It was a Mickey Mouse thing: $75 a rifle. You don't go from Jordan all the way to Peru to sell a contraband $75 rifle. ...

What happened?

I asked for certain documents which they brought to me, which said that the goods were unloaded at the airport and were received by the Peruvian military and the paperwork says it was to their satisfaction. And then we made the second delivery. I don't see where we made a mistake. ...

An end-user certificate is separate, and the end-user certificate was there. We checked with their military. Their military said, yes, it's our shipment, and beside that, the United States intervened, and they made a double-check on it. Because Jordan and [the] United States have a really close relationship. It's not worth it to jeopardize that relationship for a lousy 10,000 rifles. ...

So you think the United States was fooled?

I don't know. I don't want to sit here and defend an employee that has not done his job properly. We got the okay. We went ahead.


You explained a little bit about how you arrange arms deals legally. How difficult is it to do an illegal arms deal?

Each transaction has its own benefit. Sometimes you want to do something even if it's not legal, and you must consider: where are the costs and what are the benefits? Is this transaction worth it? ... When there was an embargo on Iraq, we kept supplying weapons to Iraq. In order to save U.S. face, we didn't do any operations from the United States. We thought we'd do it through Europe, and there was a special purpose since this involvement was not subject to discussion. We satisfied Saddam's interest because it was in our interest. But when Kuwait happened, we all pulled back. If I keep helping you, and you take advantage of my help, and the purpose is something not in my interest, I will change my colors right away. This is what happened in 1991, when the United States got involved against Saddam. Two months earlier, everything was a sweet and nice relationship. ... Yesterday's friend became today's enemy. ...

My job was to support the Iraqi forces so that they could fight against our [United States' and Sarkis'] common enemy, which at the time was [the Iranian Ayatollah] Khomeini.

He had hostages. He was financing terrorist movements all over the world, Hezbollah and all those guys. So we had to fight them. But it didn't mean we would keep helping Saddam if he did something against our interest or Western interests. That's what happened. Too bad for him.

Was it surprising?

It surprised me in that we [the United States] had a very, very strong and loyal friend like King Hussein of Jordan. This problem [Iraq's invasion of Kuwait] could have been solved by him amicably. But we [the United States] ignored this friend. We went in through the back door, and look at the situation there today. We are unwelcome, we lost a country which we put through a lot of suffering, and he won. Where are we today? The same guy [Saddam Hussein] is still there. And we don't know how to handle it. We don't know what they have, what they don't have. This man is going to stay there until the last day of his life, and we're not going to win him over politically. It's a mess. I get concerned only when there's a threat against American life.

When somebody like Saddam turns against you after you have supplied him with weapons, how does that make you feel?

It makes me feel bad. We didn't give him those weapons to fight U.S. forces. The weapons were given to him to fight the common enemy at that time. Which he did. There was no need to have direct confrontation with him and endanger American troops. We can and should get rid of him and bring a new government to power. So many people died in vain. Saddam is no different from before. You see we are educated people. America is not China. America is not Africa, where we go and bust into peoples' homes and kill them. We know the value of life and civilization. It's not our cup of tea to go there. I'm not talking only about Saddam. We got there, we should have gotten rid of him, but we did not. What have we accomplished?


Photo of Sarkis Soghanalian You were convicted in 1991 for conspiracy on a weapons deal to Iraq. And now this recent conviction for wire fraud. Do you feel betrayed by the U.S. government?

Let me give you an example of the first charge they brought. I was charged on conspiracy with Hughes helicopter executives. ... Fine, so I'm conspiring with them. And yet, when the two others went in front of another judge, they got acquitted. So what am I conspiring to do if they went home free? I was convicted. Of course, that stays on your record saying you're a felon. I was convicted for six and a half years. But I did not serve six and a half years. When they needed me, the U.S. government that is, they immediately came and got me out. When I came over here last time to visit my family for Christmas, they said I had a $3 million [fraud] in this and that. That wasn't the case. The case was [the] Peruvian deal. They didn't come and tell me, "you shipped weapons to Peru and this and that." And the $3 million charge was dropped. Why was it dropped? Because I was helping the secret service. ... I'm chasing people doing wrong on behalf of the U.S. government. And chasing them around and with the knowledge of the U.S. government. But what am I doing wrong?

The U.S. government relies on your knowledge.


For what?

Based on the experience they have with me, that I can produce the intelligence information they need, which is in their own interest and not to my interest.

So why would they charge you?

They try to get you when your back is turned. Somebody doesn't like the color of your eyes. ... I went to court, I plead guilty to wire fraud. I plead guilty to wire fraud with the involvement of a person that I really don't know. I wouldn't know him if I saw him on the street. So they say you have to testify against him. I didn't know the guy. ...

Do you still consider the U.S. government your friend?

Yes, the government is my friend, but there are some individuals in that government who are not my friend.


Explain your role in the Iran-Contra affair.

I was asked officially to go and help them [Iran] and do the same thing that we were doing for Iraq. I refused. I said I can't. Iran is like riding two horses in a horse race. You can't do that. Either you are with this person or country, or you are with the other country. They wanted me to supply weapons to Iran in order to get money for them to buy weapons to fight the Sandinistas [in Nicaragua]. It could be done but I didn't do it. I don't do this kind of stuff.

Who asked you?

There is no need to mention names. But I was asked.

By a government?

By government officials, not by the president. ...


In your opinion, why do dealers engage in contraband weapons?

Well it is [a somewhat] profitable business. But selling contraband weapons in Africa is not a large-volume, long-term business. It's a one-shot deal. If you have built yourself a good reputation, you don't want to get involved in this kind of business. I'd rather do my job and keep my reputation rather than go and mess myself up because I can make money. It's nice to have money but it's not everything, believe me. Once you have it, you don't know what to do with it and you create problem for yourself.

So why do they do it?

It's their first time and they're weak people. All the weapons that went into Lebanon during the civil war, everything was sold out from Lebanon and into Yugoslavia as contraband. ...

Do you know how many arms manufacturers or dealers have been killed during this last 20 years? Very valuable people. Why? Sometimes they are eager to make extra money. And because it's a profession in which you can't make everybody happy. You only make one side happy, like walking on a double-edged knife. One person can easily come and hurt you.

The United Nations has imposed sanctions in some areas of Africa, West Africa, Sierra Leone. It seems that they are regularly violated, and there are still a lot of arms coming in and out.


Can you stop guns from coming in?

If you want to, there is a possibility, yes.


Enforce the control of weapons shipments. If you catch a nation making illegal shipment, all you have to do is go to the United Nations and impose sanctions on them for so much money, and they will stop doing it. They won't do it because every weapon has a stamp. You can track it down. ... For example, Iranians are buying from China. If you impose sanction on them, then Chinese will obey it. You will see that China will be the most dangerous supplier of weapons to the free world.

More so than Russia or the Eastern Bloc?

Russia doesn't have very modern weapons, other than surplus old-fashioned weapons. But the Chinese have good technology now because they steal it from everywhere. And they will be the biggest danger to countries like the United States and its allies. They have very, very modern weapons. ...

So who are the operators now supplying weapons to Africa?

... The operators are ex-military officers and agents. They don't take it by ship, and they don't take it by trucks because there's no roads. They parachute it. And there are now many, many transporters available in the Eastern Bloc countries, mainly in Ukraine. ...

If you want to stop that, all you have to do is apply the same rules and regulations that you have on all other European aircraft, pollution systems, crews, navigational equipment and all that. Automatically, you would be grounding all these aircraft everywhere. They wouldn't be able to fly. Because they do not comply with IATA [International Air Transport Association] regulations. If they complied with IATA regulations, Russian aircraft would cost five times today's value. ... No one is concerned about it. ... They could do it within two hours. All you would have to do is call the insurance company ... and they would pull the insurance away immediately. No one would give you the rights to fly under European air traffic control. When you want to fly somewhere, you call Euro control and they give you a route, timing, altitude, a radio frequency. When you don't have that you're blind. You're finished. They can do that very easily. ...


And what about AK-47s? There are something like 70 million.

They are all over the world, and they are the most popular weapon. It's just like if learning to fly, you buy a Cessna first. It's the same with Russian equipment. Once they start to know how to fly they will change it. ... It's a toy rifle, you know, but unfortunately it's most combat-proven rifle. ... It's cheap and the ammunition is cheap.

So how do you compete with the AK-47 market?

You don't. As they say, don't fight them, join them. ... I'd rather give that weapon to them as a gift and make legal sales, so it puts me in a position in which if they want to buy something bigger, I can make my profit and compensate for the previous delivery. [The AK-47] is not a weapon with which you can dream to become a millionaire. ... It's a cheap weapon. ... Go to Lebanon and you can you buy it everywhere. Go to Yemen, the world's biggest stock is in Yemen ... maybe 10 to 12 million rifles.

What's going to happen to those guns [AK-47s in Yemen]?

Someone will get their hands on them and start a war. Populations are growing, and the demand is increasing. ... Imagine, the AK-47 today is in Saudi Arabia, where it's not supposed to be because it's not a pro-Russian country. And every house has at least two AK-47s. Kuwait the same way, also Qatar. They're going everywhere. Today, a rifle is a common item among Arabs; they all like to own one. When a son is born, the father goes and buys a rifle for when he becomes a man. It's a symbolic thing.


How you can be sure that the guns will stay where they are supposed to?

Some people don't care. Some people do care, people like me, they don't make the sale, and I have stopped many sales. Like in Peru, for example, I stopped it, and in Lebanon we stopped it. In many places. But for the ones that are still friendly, we have a way of knowing. We rely a lot on the U.S. Embassy advisors, because they have good information and they know darn well if the weapon is going to stay in the country or not. That is important in our business, to at least be sure that the weapons are going to stay there. But you find that a weapon here and one weapon there is stolen. Even in America, they kill people in colleges, in high school. How can you control them?

Do you see any trends in controlling the small-arms trade?

I don't see anything new unless the government makes some changes in the system of controls. There's a million ways you can stop it. If you activate the weapon electronically, you can only fire the weapon assigned to you; it does not fire without your fingerprint, your thumb on that weapon.

But can the United States stop the international trade in weapons?

If they can't stop it at home, what influence could they have to stop weapons in Europe? ... Weapons moving outside the United States, arms trafficking, is not as damaging as it is here domestically. There is more damage here than in Europe. I never heard that kids have stolen pistols and made a massacre in a schoolyard in France...


You have been called "the merchant of death." How do you respond to that?

They can say whatever they want. They call the president of any country names. What happens? He resigns. He stays in power, he stays in. I'm not a complex person. I know deep in my heart I'm not doing anything wrong. Alfred Nobel was called "the merchant of death" when he first made gunpowder, and then they named it the Nobel Prize. You can't educate everyone. So that name doesn't bother me a bit.

What's your biggest accomplishment?

I helped a lot of countries keep their independence. ... I never lost a war. I helped Lebanon. They at least kept their republic. I squeezed Khomeini and helped my country's cause. There are other countries whose names I don't want to mention. I helped my country Armenia when they needed me. That's all I can say. ...


Links relevant to this article:

A Colombia Arms Deal and the Perils of Blowback
This Washington Post opinion and commentary piece details the dangers of "blowback," the unforeseen results of the U.S. government's cooperation with people such as Soghanalian. It describes Soghanalian's work with the United States in the past, and how he also armed leftist rebels in Colombia -- the same rebels the Bush administration has budgeted $700 million to defeat. (Washington Post, March 3, 2002)

Sarkis Soghanalian, Arms Dealer to Iraq
The transcript of a 1991 60 Minutes program on Soghanalian was entered into the Congressional Record with this preface: "The revelations and allegations made by Mr. Soghanalian are, and must be, extremely disturbing to every American. They are disturbing to Mr. Soghanalian. He gives a first-hand description of official and unofficial American involvement in the enormous buildup of arms to Saddam Hussein."

Arms Dealer Implicates Peru Spy Chief in Smuggling Ring
The Los Angeles Times profiles Soghanalian and describes his account of a deal gone bad, in which he shipped 10,000 AK-47s to Peru. Those guns ended up with FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) guerillas in Colombia. Soghanalian says he was duped by the Peruvian spy chief Vladimiro Montesinos. (Los Angeles Times, November 1, 2000)

Arms Sold to Peru End Up in Colombia
The New York Times
supports Soghanalian's claims that the sale was approved by the CIA. It attributes the approval to lack of follow-up and to close relations between the CIA and Montesinos. (The New York Times, November 6, 2000)