Sarkis G. Soghanalian, arms dealer dubbed ‘merchant of death,’ dies at 82
By T. Rees Shapiro,
Sarkis G. Soghanalian, 82, an international arms dealer known as “the merchant of death” who sold French howitzers to Saddam Hussein and a U.S. cargo plane to Moammar Gaddafi, and who also provided his unique services to the CIA and FBI, died Oct. 5 at a hospital in Hialeah, Fla.
He reportedly suffered from heart disease; his death was confirmed by his former lawyer, Mark Geragos.
Mr. Soghanalian had a gargantuan presence in the multibillion-dollar arms market, both because of his heft — he weighed 300 pounds — and because of his seemingly limitless abilities.
He moved about the world with near impunity because of his cozy relationship with the U.S. government and its allies. He once dined at the White House with President Jimmy Carter.
Although he was a felon several times over, no conviction kept Mr. Soghanalian locked up for long. Geragos confirmed that Mr. Soghanalian’s clients included the National Security Agency and the U.S. Secret Service.
The longest stint Mr. Soghanalian served in prison was less than two years — and even then he was “released under very secretive circumstances” in the mid-1990s, Geragos said.
Mr. Soghanalian often said the key to his success was discretion and efficiency. From his Miami-based office, he could procure tens of thousands of AK-47 rifles, ammunition by the ton and missiles by the pallet.
He considered himself a fastidious businessman and required proof of his deadly wares’ delivery. Once, from Lebanese rebel fighters, he reportedly accepted human ears floating in jars of formaldehyde for assurance.
In addition to being an arms dealer, Mr. Soghanalian allowed the U.S government use of his jet fleet. He provided the CIA with chartered flights with no questions asked and once flew an American physician to Iraq to examine Hussein’s bad back.
For his allegiance, Mr. Soghanalian was awarded lucrative contracts with the United States and allied countries. At his peak, he earned more than $12 million a year.
With such fortune came notoriety, and Mr. Soghanalian was eventually dubbed “the merchant of death.” It was a moniker he nonchalantly dismissed.
“I know deep in my heart I’m not doing anything wrong,” he told the PBS program “Frontline” in 2001. “Alfred Nobel was called ‘the merchant of death’ when he first made gunpowder, and then they named it the Nobel Prize.”
Sarkis Garabet Soghanalian was born Feb. 6, 1929, in what used to be Iskenderun, Syria, and which is now part of Turkey.
To escape persecution, his ethnic Armenian family fled to Lebanon, where, as a teenager, he served in the French army during World War II.
After developing a fascination with weapons as a mechanic in a tank division, he decided to pursue a career in the arms business. He sold Jeeps and Land Rovers throughout the Middle East before moving up to tanks.
He began working for the U.S. government in the mid-1970s. With the outbreak of civil war in Lebanon, the CIA paid Mr. Soghanalian to arm Christian militia fighters with surplus Kalashnikov rifles from the Soviet Union. In return, the Palestine Liberation Organization placed a bounty on his head.
Word of Mr. Soghanalian’s smooth operation led him to do transactions with Gaddafi and to become Hussein’s main weapons supplier in the 1980s during the Iran-Iraq war. With tacit approval from the United States, Mr. Soghanalian circumvented a U.N. arms embargo and sold Hussein $1.6 billion in weapons, including advanced French artillery and U.S. helicopters.
After the Persian Gulf War, Mr. Soghanalian learned that yesterday’s friend could become today’s enemy. In the early 1990s, he was convicted in a U.S. District Court in Miami of conspiring to sell 103 helicopters to Iraq during its war with Iran. He was sentenced to six years in prison but was released early for helping to dismantle a counterfeiting operation that was pumping nearly perfect $100 bills into Lebanon.
Mr. Soghanalian said that he preferred to work with U.S. partners and that he attempted to ensure that his weapons did not reach the hands of rogues and tyrants — ultimately to little success. An Exocet anti-ship missile that he sold to Argentina’s military junta sank the Royal Navy’s HMS Sheffield in the Falklands War.
His marriage to Shirley Soghanalian ended in divorce. Survivors include two children.
Occasionally, Mr. Soghanalian used his extensive resources for good will. He sent 26 planes to airlift relief supplies to the Soviet Union in 1988 when an earthquake killed about 55,000 people and left more than 750,000 homeless, many of them Armenians.
For his humanitarian efforts, President George H.W. Bush said that Mr. Soghanalian “strengthened the ties that unite mankind.” In a letter, Mother Teresa wrote that God would reward the benevolence of Mr. Soghanalian and his family “a hundredfold.”