Analyze This: The dark side of Damascus

Arms dealer's extradition is a reminder of Syria's terror ties.

al-Kassar 224 88 (photo credit: AP)
al-Kassar 224 88
(photo credit: AP)
Monzer al-Kassar is not a name most Israelis would identify as one of its terrorist enemies. He has neither planned nor participated in such attacks, nor is he a member of any of the groups that has carried them out. But Kassar has in fact played a key role in some of the worst atrocities committed against Israeli and Jewish civilians, and his links to one Arab regime in particular - that of his native country, Syria - deserve special scrutiny at a moment when Jerusalem is just about to begin potentially historic negotiations with its government. Kassar, 63, is an international arms dealer, and, by some accounts, has spent much of his lifetime as a key supplier of weapons to many of the worst enemies of Israel, America and the West. Earlier this year, he was arrested by Spanish authorities after allegedly offering to sell weapons, including surface-to-air missiles, to agents of the US Drug Enforcement Agency posing as representatives of Colombia's FARC guerrilla group. On Friday he was extradited from Madrid to New York City, where he is scheduled to face trial on charges that also include conspiracy and money-laundering. The list of Kassar's alleged clients is a long one, ranging from Somali warlords to Bosnian militias, Brazilian rebels to Iranian agents. He is also rumored to have worked at times with Western governments - for example, as a middleman in the arms deals of the Iran-Contra scandal of the 1980s. This has led to claims that such ties have helped him remain relatively unmolested by authorities, for years living an openly lavish lifestyle as the so-called "Prince of Marbella" like a villain out of a James Bond movie. Kassar is also alleged to be a major supplier of weaponry to Palestinian terror organizations. His major legal entanglement prior to the current case against him came in 1995, when he was charged by Spanish authorities with providing the guns and explosives used by the Abu Abbas terror cell in their hijacking of the ship Achille Lauro, and the subsequent brutal murder of American Jew Leon Klinghoffer. Kassar denied the charges, but not the fact that he was a friend and supporter of Abu Abbas, telling the The Guardian two years ago: "No, you cannot call him a terrorist. He's a hero. He's a hero in the eyes of the Arabs ... I don't allow you to call him terrorist!" Kassar's acquittal in that case has led to allegations that Madrid allowed him to operate as long as he kept his business off Spanish soil and away from Spain's enemies. But Washington has in recent years stepped up its pursuit of Kassar and the pressure for his extradition, no doubt because he has been fingered as a key arms supplier for the Iraqi insurgents killing US troops. Among his reputed governmental links, there is no doubt that his closest one through the years has been to the rulers of his homeland. Kassar's father was a significant early backer of Hafez Assad, and later served him in various senior diplomatic positions. Kassar himself is considered to be a personal protege of longtime Syrian defense minister Mustafa Tlas, one of the top figures in the Ba'athist oligarchy that has maintained an iron grip on the country for over four decades. Among the many unsavory services Kassar is alleged to have provided for Damascus is facilitating its role in the international narcotics business. Having himself been arrested in his younger days for hashish smuggling, he is believed to have played a major role in the export and distribution of the bountiful harvest of the Lebanese Bekaa Valley opium fields that long operated under Syrian protection. Perhaps Kassar's most nefarious role is one that won't get mentioned in the New York courthouse where he will soon stand trial - the part some informed sources believe he played in the bombings of the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires in 1992 and the Argentinean capital's AMIA Jewish Center in Buenos Aires in 1994. Kasser was among a number of businessmen of Syrian origin or roots believed to have close ties with Carlos Menem, himself the child of Syrian immigrants, providing the Argentinean president with funds and contacts used to help further his political career, and in return protecting them from prosecution for their links to terrorist groups. In 2000, Kassar was indicted by an Argentinean court for using fraudulent documents in order to obtain citizenship there eight years earlier, possibly with Menem's assistance. Another Argentinean judicial investigation into Kassar's activities uncovered a source claiming that the sophisticated Centex (C-4) explosive used in the Buenos Aires bombings had originated in a Spanish factory owned by Kassar, and been smuggled into Argentina via his contacts with Syrian intelligence. Just last month, an Argentinean prosecutor asked a local court for permission to arrest Menem, on charges he covered up the involvement of Syrian-Argentinean individuals connected with the bombings. Although focus on foreign involvement in these atrocities usually emphasizes the alleged Iranian role in their execution, Kassar serves as a useful reminder of the part Damascus is believed to have played in them. Given the shadowy and Byzantine nature of Syrian politics, it is difficult to know the nature of Kassar's current standing with the government of Basher Assad. But as Israel sits down to negotiate with Damascus over issues that decisively touch on this country's most sensitive security concerns, this shady super-criminal is an all-too-fitting exemplar of the dark side of Damascus, one that goes far beyond simply the shelter and aid it openly provides to such groups as Hamas and Hizbullah. [email protected]