Dateline   |  August 01, 2010

‘The Prince,’ a notorious international outlaw

According to authorities, Monzer Al Kassar is one of the most notorious international outlaws of the past 25 years, accused of crimes that threatened Americans, and the world. He was as slippery as they come, until he slipped up. NBC’s Chris Hansen reports.

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>>> was so rich, some people called him the prince, but few would mistake him for royalty. the man you're about to meet authorities say is actually one of the most notorious international outlaws in the past 25 years. accused of crimes that threatened americans and the world, he was as slippery as they come until he slipped up. here's chris hanson .

>> reporter: by all appearances, he's led a charmed life .

>> he had to get a haircut.

>> reporter: living in this mansion on spain's mediterranean coast , he's always said his riches were legitimate. but according to u.s. law enforcement authorities, syrian born al kazar is a world class villain who has continually escaped justice for more than two decades.

>> he could easily be the necessi character in a james bond movie .

>> reporter: mike retired in 2008 for the drug enforcement administration . he said he is suspected of working with drug traffickers , terrorists and rogues around the world. his name has also cropped up in a litany of international scandal. iran contra in the u.s., arms embargo cases in somalia and bosn bosnia, a terrorist attack in argentina. tonight the inside story of how american law enforcement set an international trap to finally bring to justice someone they describe as a major force for evil.

>> without guys like him, these other very powerful global threats would have a very tough time carrying out their operations.

>> reporter: operations, braun says, like the 1985 hijacking of a mediterranean cruise ship .

>> somewhere in the mediterranean tonight 400 people on board a luxury liner faced an uncertain destiny.

>> reporter: on board, leon and marilyn celebrating their 36th wedding anniversary . a bittersweet time with marilyn in remission from cancer and leon recovering from a stroke.

>> they loved to celebrate milestones and live life to the fullest, even with their illnesses.

>> reporter: daughters ilsa and lisa stayed behind in new york. after hearing the reports, they were anxious but hopeful, until they got a call from a u.s. official.

>> my brother-in-law had taken the call notifying us that there was one passenger who was killed on the boat. and that was our father.

>> reporter: in a now infamous act, the palestinian hijackers shot the wheelchair-bound leon clinghoffer and threw him overboard.

>> what did this do to your mother?

>> well, she had an unbelievable resolve to see some kind of justice done here. to have somebody be accountable for what occurred.

>> reporter: for the most part the hijackers were held accountable, tried in italy and sent to prison. the man who gave them their marching orders, abu abbass evaded capture. there was another suspect behind the scenes who authorities believe was escaping justice entirely. a man they said funded the plot and armed the terrorists, and that man was weapons dealer monzer al kasar . seven years after the attack, spanish authorities decided they could make a case against him and charged him with piracy and murder for the hijacking. in 1995 during the trial, al kasar gave this rare interview for a british production company and it has never been broadcast before.

>> from the first day of my arrest i know myself i am innocent of these charges.

>> reporter: even so, he didn't exactly deny a relationship with the relationship of the attack, abu abbas .

>> i know him and as far as i'm concerned, he's a freedom fighter .

>> reporter: no one has been on al kasar 's trail longer than veteran dea agent jim soiles.

>> he doesn't just know abu abu abbas . they are partners throughout this time period .

>> reporter: this photo shows a playful and much younger al kasar with abbas on a private jet . they first ran across al kasar in a heroin trafficking investigation in 1985 and has been after him ever since.

>> anybody with dea that's ever read and knows about the situation, they said no, we need to go after this guy. we need to pursue this until we get him.

>> reporter: in the case, they obtained evidence proving al kasar and the ring leader , abbas , were old friends.

>> we have pictures of abbas attending his wedding. there he is right there.

>> reporter: more importantly, soiles says, just prior to the hijacking, al kasar sent up a joint bank account with abbas who was using this false iraqi identity under which he also got this credit card .

>> this is the actual card?

>> that's the actual card.

>> reporter: soiles says he used the credit card backed by al kasar to fund the hijacking and he says al kasar also provided weapons.

>> we were able to show that in fact al kasar was involved in flying the weapons in his private jet from wausau, poland, where he turned the weapons over to abbas and his people.

>> reporter: soiles was called to spain to testify, but as the case headed for trial, once again fate seemed to be on al kasar 's side.

>> one witness fell to death from a 4-story window.

>> yes.

>> one had his kids kidnapped.

>> right.

>> coincidence?

>> personally i don't think it was. the spanish suspected he had something to do with all that. there was no proof.

>> reporter: still despite the air of intimidation, soiles did his best to present the court with the evidence he'd uncovered. al kasar claimed that evidence was fake or stolen.

>> he has presented stolen properties, evidence of stolen like diaries, they are stolen. we have asked the judge to arrest mr. james soiles.

>> how does it make you feel to hear this man say that you should be jailed?

>> it's comical.

>> reporter: but the spanish court ended up excluding the dea 's evidence over questions involving how it was obtained. and the court dismissed a key witness , a former al kasar associate, as unreliable. in march, 1995 , al kasar was acquitted of involvement in the case.

>> in that spanish trial, do you think al kasar got away with murder?

>> yes, sir, i do. absolutel absolutely.

>> reporter: the acquittal came as one more blow to the family of leon klinghoffer , the man murdered.

>> it just seemed pretty hopeless, it was depressing. i felt very sad about it.

>> at that point did you ever think he would be held accountable?

>> no.

>> reporter: it looked like al kasar truly was untouchable.