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'The Godfather of Terror'

Monzer Al Kassar in his mansion in Marbella, Spain (no date available)
Monzer Al Kassar in his mansion in Marbella, Spain (no date available)

In 1989, while researching a story about a money-laundering case in Switzerland, I paid a visit to a Swiss prosecutor. As our meeting was winding down, he asked if I had ever heard of a man named Monzer Al Kassar. I said I had, as his name had surfaced in a couple of cases that made U.S. news, including the Iran-Contra scandal, but I really did not know much about him.

“Well then you should read this,” the prosecutor said, as he handed me a new German book still wrapped in plastic. The title did not mince words:  “Der Pate des Terrors,” or, in English, “The Godfather of Terror.”

It was an unusual book in several regards. First, the author used a pseudonym, “Manfred Morstein.” The book jacket described the author as a “former police official and undercover agent” who spent years pulling together a dossier on Al Kassar. Secondly, the book contained what purported to be extensive excerpts from official investigation and intelligence files, detailing dates, times, passport numbers – all kinds of minutiae – and laying out the case that Monzer Al Kassar was a world-class villain allegedly involved in drug trafficking, illicit weapons dealing and terrorism.

It was not exactly the best read, but it certainly was intriguing and made me want to follow up. For the next decade, whenever a story would mention Al Kassar, I would add it to my file. Over the years, I collected scores of articles from Europe, the United States and South America.

There were reports that he armed Palestinian terror groups, violated U.N. arms embargoes in Somalia and Bosnia, and obtained fraudulent passports in Argentina.  Several stories referred to him as The Prince of Marbella, the Spanish coastal resort where he owned a white palace-like mansion.

In 1992, Time magazine reported that Al Kassar allegedly was behind the 1988 bombing of Pan Am 103, calling him “a Syrian drug dealer who was cooperating with the U.S.’s Drug Enforcement Administration in a sting operation.”

At the time, I called contacts at the DEA and other federal agencies; they dismissed the Time story as ludicrous, saying Al Kassar had no role whatsoever in the bombing over Lockerbie, Scotland. In fact, DEA sources said, if anything, Monzer Al Kassar was a DEA target.

Of all the allegations against Al Kassar during those years, the one that seemed to have the most traction was his involvement in the Achille Lauro case. That was the Italian cruise ship hijacked off Egypt in October 1985 by four men representing the Palestinian Liberation Front (PLF) who demanded the release of Palestinian prisoners held by Israel. 

But when the hijackers were rebuffed, in a now infamous act, they shot a Jewish-American passenger, Leon Klinghoffer, who was recovering from a stroke and in a wheelchair; they tossed his body overboard.

Early on, investigators suspected Al Kassar of funding the plot and supplying weapons to the terrorists, but he was not charged.

The four hijackers were. They had agreed to release the passengers in return for safe passage from Egypt to Tunisia. But as they flew to Tunisia, U.S. fighter jets intercepted their plane and forced it to land in Italy, where ultimately all four were convicted and sent to prison.

The PLF leader who gave them their marching orders, Abu Abbas, managed to evade capture.  He was later convicted in absentia in the Italian court.

In 1992, Al Kassar finally was charged in the case – not in Italy, but in Spain. Baltasar Garzon, the investigative magistrate who made a name prosecuting terrorists from the Basque separatist group ETA, decided there was enough evidence to indict the Marbella-based weapons dealer on charges of piracy and murder.

As the trial in Madrid approached, fate appeared to be on Al Kassar’s side. Two witnesses in the case met untimely ends: One fell to his death from a fourth-story window; another died in a car accident; a third had his children kidnapped. While some suspected it was more than just fate, no evidence ever emerged linking Al Kassar to the incidents.

At trial, Spanish prosecutors called in an unusual witness – an agent from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration named James Soiles. He testified about evidence he had obtained while investigating Al Kassar in unrelated matters elsewhere in Europe. The evidence – documents, photographs and bank records – apparently linked Al Kassar to Abu Abbas and the hijacking.

The case ended up collapsing. The Spanish judges dismissed the DEA’s evidence and the testimony of a critical witness, a former associate of Al Kassar.  Al Kassar was acquitted. As he exited the Madrid court, he trumpeted his victory with a “V” sign, climbed into his limousine and returned to his lavish life.

Around that time, I became aware of a television interview with Al Kassar that was conducted by a British production team, but was never broadcast. I tried to figure out a way to use it to develop a story in the United States, but never quite pulled it together.

In the years that followed, the oft-embattled Al Kassar successfully fended off other legal challenges, including allegations that, in violation of a United Nations embargo, he illegally sold weapons in Bosnia and Croatia.  A Swiss prosecutor had ordered the seizure of $6 million in proceeds from the deals that he had on deposit in Switzerland. In 2003, Al Kassar secured the release of all the funds.

A few years later, a colleague and friend of mine approached me about a new allegation against Al Kassar. Aram Roston told me that Iraqi authorities were accusing Al Kassar of aiding Sunni insurgents and had put the arms dealer on Iraq’s most wanted list.

Al Kassar invited Roston to Marbella for an interview, in which he emphatically denied the allegations, although he told Roston, who wrote up an account for the London Observer, it would be “an honor” to support the insurgency. 

Inside his mansion, Al Kassar displayed photos of Saddam Hussein’s son Uday (who was killed by U.S. forces in 2003), a Spanish intelligence official, a former Syrian defense minister and his old friend Abu Abbas. “You cannot call him a terrorist,” Al Kassar told Roston. “He’s a hero.”

I would imagine that neither Roston nor Al Kassar knew that, at the time of the interview, the DEA sting operation targeting Al Kassar was already underway.

Arrested after a DEA sting operation
The story broke in June 2007: Al Kassar had been arrested at the Madrid airport, where he had gone to meet men he allegedly believed were representatives of the Colombian militant group known as the FARC. 

U.S. prosecutors alleged that he had agreed to sell the FARC more than 12,000 weapons – including machine guns, rocket-propelled grenade launchers and surface-to-air missiles – “with the specific understanding that the FARC would use the armaments to kill Americans in Colombia.”

Finally, I thought, I might be able to develop a story about Al Kassar after all. 

While he was in Spanish government custody awaiting an extradition hearing, I sent a request to interview him. The request was denied. But then, I thought, “What about the old interview from 1995?” It had never seen the light of day and could prove useful now.

In June 2008, Al Kassar was extradited to New York. While the trial was underway, we reached out to the now-middle-aged daughters of Leon Klinghoffer, Lisa and Ilsa. They said they were attending the proceedings nearly every day. 

“We felt we could bear witness for my father,” said Ilsa in an interview, “so that he would have a presence in that courtroom; that everyone would know who we were and why we were there.”

Among those who knew why they were there was James Soiles, the DEA agent who had testified at the Achille Lauro trial in Spain. The New York trial was the first time he met the Klinghoffer sisters face-to-face. In an interview, Soiles said he always believed that Al Kassar had gotten away with murder in the Achille Lauro case; now he felt the weapons dealer was finally getting his due. 

Soiles told Dateline’sChris Hansen that he had been on Al Kassar’s trail since the mid-1980s, when his name surfaced in a heroin trafficking case in New York. In 1988, Soiles was posted to Paris, where he said he kept running across Al Kassar in a variety of investigations involving drugs and weapons trafficking between Europe and the Middle East.

Eventually, he said his investigations led him to the evidence he presented in Spain about Al Kassar’s ties to the PLF leader Abu Abbas. In a conference room at DEA headquarters, Soiles showed us some of that evidence, including photos of the two men together. In one, a playful Al Kassar smiled for the camera on board a private jet, holding his fingers up behind the more stern-faced Abbas. Another showed Abu Abbas at Al Kassar’s wedding.

Soiles pulled out a copy of an Iraqi passport. The photo on the passport was clearly of Abu Abbas, but the passport was under a different name. Soiles said Abbas’ alias also appeared on a joint bank account set up by Al Kassar just prior to the Achille Lauro hijacking and on a Bank of America credit card he showed us.

According to Soiles, Abbas used the credit card backed by Al Kassar to facilitate the hijacking, and Al Kassar also supplied weapons to the hijackers: “Al Kassar was involved in flying the weapons in his private jet, from Warsaw, Poland, to Tunis, where he turned the weapons over to Abu Abbas and his people,” Soiles said.

When I dusted off the tapes from the 1995 interview, I discovered that Al Kassar addressed Soiles’s allegations directly and took a personal swipe at the DEA agent. He claimed that the evidence Soiles brought to court was fraudulent or stolen: “He has presented stolen properties like diaries, passport for some people who, they are stolen.” The incensed defendant announced: “We have asked the judge to arrest Mr. James Soiles.”

“It's comical,” Soiles said after watching the clip in which Al Kassar called for his arrest.

More than once, Monzer Al Kassar has claimed that he had “no criminal record,” as he told reporter Aram Roston in 2006 and as his lawyers suggested at his New York trial in 2009.  

But in the 1995 interview, he did acknowledge at least one conviction for dealing hashish, which he explained away as a mistaken effort to try to help a Lebanese acquaintance whose son needed surgery. He said he helped arrange a deal for the man to sell 5 kilos “of dope” to raise money for the operation.

“We were arrested,” said Al Kassar, “I admitted my mistake. And I have paid for my mistake.”

Terrorism’s 'best ambassador'
That was far from his only brush with the law. According to a Spanish intelligence document, throughout the 1970s and 80s, Al Kassar was investigated for a range of crimes, from auto theft in Italy to terrorism in France.

In 1986, according to , he was found guilty in absentia in an intriguing case that received scant media coverage. Al Kassar was found to have supplied weapons to a Palestinian terrorist cell that allegedly was plotting to attack Israeli targets in Europe.

An official abstract of the proceedings includes passages that read like a spy novel. An operative from the PLF, the Palestinian group behind the Achille Lauro hijacking, manipulated a 20-year-old French woman, Marie Pool, into helping the terrorist cell, according to the record. The PLF operative introduced her to Al Kassar, who, using the code name Saber, picked Pool up from her home and drove her to the shopping district along the Champs Elysees. There, “he was walking several steps ahead of her, when an unknown person handed her a suitcase.” 

Later, back home, according to the official abstract, she received a call from Al Kassar, who gave her the code to the suitcase. When she opened it, “she discovered that it contained 5 pistols, two silencers and ammunition.”

One of the cell’s alleged plots, the document states, was to lure an Israeli arms dealer named Alroy to what ostensibly would be a business meeting – but the real objective was “to eliminate him physically.”

In sentencing Al Kassar to eight years in prison, French authorities said it was appropriate to impose the maximum penalty “because of the danger he poses,” and they declared that, with Al Kassar, terrorism had found “its best ambassador.”

The French never jailed Al Kassar, even though, according to James Soiles, they apparently had ample opportunity to do so. “He was there after he was tried, convicted in absentia, and sentenced,” Soiles said, “and he still managed to get in and out of France.” 

The DEA agent recalled tailing Al Kassar in Paris and apprising French authorities.  “He was in the Royal Monceau Hotel, and we told them. They went looking for him; he wasn’t there, supposedly. And we know he was there.” 

Soiles said he could only conjecture why French authorities were not more aggressive in the case: “I think he provided a service to the French government.” 

One theory back in the 1980s had him helping secure the release of French hostages held by a Palestinian group, though no evidence ever surfaced to confirm it. 

For years, there has been speculation that Al Kassar worked with Western intelligence agencies and, as a result, enjoyed a certain amount of protection.  Adding to the intrigue: Al Kassar held at least five passports, including two that accorded him diplomatic status from Yemen and Syria. 

Asked in 1995 whether he worked with intelligence agencies, Al Kassar replied: “In general, I have helped authorities. I'm not specifying authorities, British or French or Spanish.”  He added, “I did not ask for any return, or I did not ask for any reward.”

At his trial in New York, he also played the “helping authorities” card. In fact, his lawyer introduced videotaped testimony from Spanish police officials who confirmed that Al Kassar provided intelligence to the Spanish government for years. He even had a code name: Luis.

Responding to questions from Al Kassar’s lawyers, led by Ira Sorkin (who also represented convicted financier Bernard Madoff), Chief Inspector José Villarejo Pérez testified that Al Kassar supplied intelligence on al Qaeda and, in 1998, took the chief inspector to Somalia to help him gather information on Islamic militants there.

He also cited several instances in which Al Kassar’s information produced tangible results. For example, Villarejo Pérez testified, Al Kassar introduced him to Abu Abbas.

Sorkin: As a result of the introduction to Abu Abbas, was Spanish intelligence able to break up terrorist splinter cells in Europe?

Villarejo Pérez: Yes.

According to Villarejo Pérez, thanks to Al Kassar, in 2000, authorities also were able to arrest and convict a major drug dealer named Laureano Oubina.

Al Kassar’s cooperation continued up until 2007, the year he was arrested in the DEA sting operation.

Al Kassar’s trial
Villarejo Pérez testified that, around the end of 2006 or beginning of 2007, Al Kassar approached him about a possible weapons deal involving Nicaragua and Romania and wanted to know if such a deal could cause legal trouble for him in Spain. “I told him that if everything was proper and legal and the proper documentation and the money is sent through a bank transfer and all the parties were properly identified,” the chief inspector said, “I told him I didn’t see any problems in Spain.”

But the chief inspector also insisted that Al Kassar never mentioned the FARC or – as federal prosecutors alleged – that the weapons really were destined for Colombia, via Suriname, or might be used to target Americans.

Federal prosecutors Boyd Johnson and Brendan McGuire of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York argued that Al Kassar’s intentions were clear and reiterated over the course of the two-year undercover operation.

They presented evidence that Al Kassar had participated in multiple meetings in Beirut and at his home in Marbella. Several of the meetings were recorded. On the government’s tapes, Al Kassar can be heard talking about specially modified surface-to-air missiles. “This can be used for helicopters as well, for everything,” he explained to his prospective clients.

Al Kassar, prosecutors contended, was not motivated by money alone, but also by his enmity towards the United States. During one meeting, according to prosecutors, after an undercover informant named Carlos told Al Kassar that the weapons would be used against the U.S., “Al Kassar then said that he would help Carlos.”

John Archer, one of the DEA agents on the case, said the anti-U.S. angle appealed to Al Kassar. “I think it upped the ante for him. This is something that he fundamentally liked.” Al Kassar’s lawyers have pointed out that Al Kassar’s alleged anti-American comments were made in a meeting that was not recorded.

According to court records, Al Kassar told his new clients the whole weapons package would cost between $7 million and $8 million, plus transportation.

To help seal the deal, the DEA wired four down-payments totaling more than $400,000 to bank accounts allegedly controlled by Al Kassar under the name of Bilal Hussein.

Al Kassar lined up a ship and brought the ship’s owner and its captain to meet with two DEA informants. The paperwork for the shipment – which was supplied to Al Kassar by the informants at the direction of the DEA – showed that the weapons were going to be delivered to police in Nicaragua.

On June 7, 2007, Al Kassar showed up in Madrid for a meeting with a man who was supposed to be “the big guy” to finalize the deal. John Archer was there on behalf of the DEA when Spanish police made the arrest. According to Archer, Al Kassar protested: “Do you know who I am?”

If he thought friends in high places could help him, he was mistaken. Spain approved his extradition to the United States and on June 13, 2008, just over a year after his arrest, Monzer Al Kassar was escorted onto a U.S. government jet bound for New York.

Among the passengers: James Soiles. It had been well over twenty years since he had first heard of Al Kassar. “I fired an e-mail on my BlackBerry to the Chief of Operations,” said Soiles, “And all's I said was, ‘He's ours.’"

On the plane, Al Kassar blasted his old nemesis, apparently without realizing that Soiles was right there, until another DEA agent pointed him out to the weapons dealer. “He says, ‘Jim Soiles? You?’” Soiles recalled. “And just literally, I thought he was gonna have a heart attack.”

Al Kassar’s trial lasted three weeks. After six hours of deliberation, the jury came back with a verdict: Guilty on five counts, including conspiracy to kill Americans.

In a sentencing memorandum, Al Kassar’s lawyers argued that their client deserved a break, a so-called downward departure from federal guidelines. In addition to describing his “long and successful career as an importer/exporter,” the attorneys cited Al Kassar’s “extensive and invaluable assistance against terrorism to the United States government and other countries for decades.”  Although precluded by the court from introducing details of that assistance, they stated that he had “risked life and limb.”

At his sentencing hearing, which I attended with one of my colleagues, there was an intense moment when the aging weapons dealer turned around and stared at the Klinghoffer sisters. It was a mean, intimidating stare. The sisters stared back. Later, Lisa Klinghoffer said, “To be able to look at that man and his face and stare him down was something I will never forget for the rest of my life.”

A few minutes after that stare-down, the judge sentenced Al Kassar to 30 years – essentially life – in prison.

“I don't think Al Kassar ever really saw the human side of what his actions did to people,” Lisa Klinghoffer said. “His guns murdered my father. And I don't really think he ever thought in terms of the humanity of it all – or the inhumanity of it all.”

Al Kassar is not giving up. He has brought in a new legal team to file an appeal. In a 55-page brief, his new lawyers argue that the trial judge made errors involving jury instructions and evidence. Among their claims: The judge mistakenly precluded “as irrelevant” defense evidence that involved classified information. 

The brief emphasizes Al Kassar’s cooperation with Spanish authorities and reiterates his contention that he never knew that the weapons were supposedly going to the FARC. 

There is also an instructive passage, an account of Al Kassar’s growing suspicions in the hours before his arrest, when he called his longtime police contact, Chief Inspector Villarejo Pérez. “There’s something weird,” he said: His clients wanted to deliver the payment in cash to his associate in Romania, and, Al Kassar added, they told him “the big guy” wanted to meet Al Kassar in person. “I don’t want some trap or something,” Al Kassar said.

In a second conversation that day, a seemingly more anxious Al Kassar asked the chief inspector: “…Is there any danger?  Is there any danger?”

“You know that whenever there’s any urgency to do something,” Villarejo Pérez replied, “that always means there’s a trap.”

Associate Producer Maite Amorebieta contributed to this report.