By the bloody standard set in Africa in the last decade, the 1997 conflict in Congo-Brazzaville between forces loyal to Pascal Lissouba, the elected president of the country, and Denis Sassou Nguesso, who succeeded him, was a small war. It barely merited mention in the wire dispatches of international news services, despite a death toll as high as 10,000 and another 800,000 people forced to flee their homes because of the conflict.

On Oct. 15, 1997, after six months of fighting, Nguesso’s Cobra rebels, backed by troops sent by Angola—which had its own interests in the country—prevailed, driving Lissouba into exile. He flew to London via Gabon, ending his four-year reign during which his various economic reforms had failed to alleviate the nation’s poverty. In addition to this legacy, Lissouba left behind a multi-million dollar debt for weapons his government had purchased to fight Nguesso’s Cobras.

Over a three-month period in 1997, Lissouba’s government ordered more than $60 million in arms. A dozen shipments brought helicopters, rockets, missiles and bombs from a handful of countries to Congo-Brazzaville. Executives of the French state-owned company, Elf Aquitaine – which pumped oil from the country and was a longtime player in its various changes in government, often befriending both sides – had arranged a loan backed by the country’s future petroleum production to pay for the armaments. Yet Lissouba was forced to flee before the payments could be made, leaving the middleman who had arranged the shipments owed millions of dollars.

In order to get paid for the Congo-Brazzaville deal, Monsieur threatened to reveal everything about his deals, embarrassing the French intelligence services, former officials of Elf Aquitaine, and African heads of state. The Elf executives had the most to fear: at the time of his threats, the French government was investigating the company’s long history of corruption, including its involvement in the trade of weapons in exchange for oil, and its manipulation of African politics.That middleman, Jacques Monsieur, was not the sort of man to write off his losses. Believed to be among the biggest arms traffickers in Europe, Monsieur had violated a United Nations embargo by shipping arms to Bosnia and Croatia during the long bloody conflict in those countries, with the approval, he later claimed, of both the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency and the Direction de Surveillance de Territoire (DST), the French domestic intelligence service.

Jacques Monsieur
Jacques Monsieur Image: Le Soir

He later forfeited his good relations with Washington by acting as an importer-exporter of arms for the Islamic Republic of Iran, for whom he also tried to procure uranium. He worked closely with executives from the French oil giant, Elf Aquitaine, the state-owned petroleum company that, until its merger with TotalFina in 2000 to form TotalFinaElf, was the sixth largest oil producer in the world. Though he had aroused the ire of U.S. government officials and was under investigation by French and Belgian law enforcement authorities, Monsieur lived openly in France, all the while violating international sanctions by shipping arms to war-torn countries.

Jacques de Naurois, the director for institutional relations for TotalFinaElf, said, “Whatever the French foreign policy towards Africa was, Elf Aquitaine was only concerned with exploiting the oil. For the rest, we leave historians to explain and resolve the mysteries of ancient history.” When asked if Elf had been involved in arms deals, he answered “No,” without elaborating. The trials of Elf scandalized France and reached into the upper echelons of the country’s ruling elite, including the former foreign minister, Roland Dumas, who kept his mistress, Christine Deviers-Joncourt, on the Elf payroll. Dumas was sentenced in June 2001 to six months in prison for corruption and abuse of public property. To date, 42 people have been charged in connection with the arms and corruption scandals and several have been convicted, including Elf’s former chief executive officer Loik le Floch-Prigent and his right-hand man Alfred Sirven. Monsieur’s career, including his dispute over the unpaid weapons he shipped to the Lissouba government in 1997, illustrates that often arms traders who are ostensibly profit-seeking freelancers actually serve the interests of Western intelligence services and corporate elites. They violate U.N. arms embargoes with the implicit – sometimes explicit – approval of government officials, and attempt to tip the balance in armed conflicts for the benefits of business interests.

French Connections

A Belgian born on March 31, 1953, Monsieur, nicknamed “the field marshal,” had been active in arms trading since the 1980s. He was a participant in the Iran-Contra affair, but the first solid information about his dealings came from the Belgian federal police, who in 1986 found a suitcase in Brussels that belonged to him.

The documents in his suitcase revealed that Monsieur was in contact with the Israeli intelligence service Mossad, as well as Iran, and that he had been attempting to export Armbrust grenade launchers – German-built light anti-tank weapons — without a license. Monsieur obtained false “end user” certificates from other countries, especially the former Zaire.

This first investigation of his activities, however, led nowhere. According to Belgian law, Armbrust launchers are regarded as “hunting weapons,” not weapons of war. Though he had not broken Belgian law, European law enforcement authorities began to keep track of Monsieur.

But law enforcement authorities weren’t the only ones with an interest in the Belgian arms dealer. Monsieur had very good contacts in France, both with the DST and executives from Elf Aquitaine. France appeared to be the protector of Monsieur, who had relocated his operations there in 1993. For six years, while authorities from Europe continued investigating his activities, he lived there openly, despite growing evidence of his involvement in illegal arms trading. In 1999, French authorities indicted him for his weapons trafficking. The court proceedings that followed revealed more information about his career – and his connections to the DST and Elf executives.

In September 2000, Monsieur told a French judge of having been contacted in 1991 in Brussels by the CIA, and, with the blessing of the French DST, of having sent tens of millions of dollars of weapons to Croatia. From 1991 to 1995, he found his best markets in Croatia and Bosnia, even though the two countries were under a United Nations embargo.

Another French magistrate, who is well versed in the Croatian trafficking case, said it was a political operation. “A decision from on high led, in 1995, to the cancellation of a fourth wave of weapons deliveries to former Yugoslavia,” implying that French authorities had tacitly approved the prior three “waves” of weapons shipments.

While his good relations with the DST were useful to Monsieur, he said he had a far closer relationship with Elf Aquitaine that began in the early 1990s. He claimed that Elf was prepared to finance some of the arms trafficker’s deals. A letter sent by Monsieur in 1991 to a Polish arms manufacturer on behalf of an Angolan colonel states this explicitly. In the letter, which was discovered by Belgian investigators, Monsieur organized the transportation of tanks, transport helicopters, attack helicopters, and assault rifles to Angola. To the Polish dealer, Monsieur wrote that those weapons are “to be financed by budget or L/C” (Loan/credit), and he mentioned that he had the financial green light from Elf Aquitaine: “This has been confirmed by Elf themselves.”

TotalFinaElf’s de Naurois said Elf had no relationship with Monsieur. “Elf Aquitaine was a company that deals with oil, not with weapons,” he said. He also denied that Elf had ever financed any of Monsieur’s arms deals.

Monsieur was not the first to assert that Elf Aquitaine was linked to arms trading in an oil-rich country. As the French newspaper Le Monde revealed in a 12-part investigative series in 1998, Elf Aquitaine was infiltrated from its founding in 1965 by secret agents who were charged with working out ways of getting access to the oil fields of Africa. The company was formed just as access to petroleum became a crucial strategic matter for France. When the country’s colonies in sub-Saharan Africa and Algeria gained their independence, France lost its easy access to their oil reserves, and became oil thirsty. Elf was set up to slake that thirst by whatever means necessary.

As has now been well documented in the French court cases, wherever Elf Aquitaine found oil, it worked hard to create the political conditions that would guarantee easy access to it. In the oil-rich former colony of Gabon, Elf operatives and the French army were instrumental in the coup that toppled President Laurent Mba in 1964, less than four years after independence. An obscure thug named Omar Bongo, who had been on the payroll of the French secret service, became the country’s new master – a role that he has filled ever since. Soon after the coup, Gabon became Elf Aquitaine’s best oilfield and Bongo became an extraordinarily rich man. Jacques Foccart, the French politician and confidante of Charles de Gaulle, who masterminded France’s Africa policy between the 1950s and his death in 1997, put it candidly: “To defend the interests of our country, we cannot be afraid to extend our hand to the devil.”

Elf was not averse to playing both sides of a civil war. Le Floch-Prigent, Elf Aquitaine’s CEO between 1989 and 1993, acknowledged aiding Jonas Savimbi, leader of the rebel movement, UNITA, at the same time as the company was strengthening its ties with the Angolan government of José Eduardo Dos Santos in Luanda. In 1996, while he was serving a prison sentence, Le Floch-Prigent wrote “a short history” of his involvement in Elf and in Africa. He wrote that his role as Elf’s CEO was “to keep the equilibrium between Savimbi and Dos Santos in Angola, in order to prevent either from winning.”

One of the key figures in Elf’s African oil dealings was an executive named Jack Sigolet. After serving in the French military in Algeria, he joined the finance department of the French state-owned Régie Autonome des Pétroles (Independent Directorate of Petroleum) in 1962, which soon afterwards became Elf Aquitaine. After the launch of Elf, he worked for four years in Tehran, before returning to Europe to handle the finances of the company. In 1978, he became chief of Elf’s Africa finance department, and pioneered a concept that has been adopted by many oil companies since: the oil-backed loan.Elf Aquitaine provided the government with revenue through its payments for the right to exploit Angolan oil fields, Le Floch-Prigent said, and paid UNITA to avoid attacks on its installations and personnel. “Elf’s problem in Angola was that some of the company’s installations in the country are located in regions that regularly change hands,” Le Floch-Prigent said. “We therefore negotiated with [UNITA leader Jonas] Savimbi to protect our materials and personnel. In the end, we gave money to him.” How much, he wouldn’t say.

In an interview with ICIJ, Sigolet explained that such loans are the way for debt-ridden African heads of state to pay their accounts, buy weapons or fulfill their need for splendor by mortgaging future oil income. Oil money is the preserve of the head of state, and the movement of money is unrelated to the normal budget of the country, and thus requires that the deals be discreet, he said.

“I advised that these financial schemes should not develop in public space,” said Sigolet. “A certain secretiveness was required. This was achieved by my proposal to the president [of Elf] to nominate me as ‘chargé de mission,’ attached to both the head of Elf’s oil department of the group and to its finance department. Elf appointed me as a kind of counselor to presidents or finance ministers of African states, working with multilateral organizations (the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, the European bank, etc.). In the furtherance of those activities, I was answerable to nobody inside the group.”

Sigolet said that, through him, Elf not only provided oil-backed loans to African states and their leaders, but also became a partner in the financial decision-making of those leaders (TotalFinaElf’s de Naurois denied Sigolet’s characterization). Sigolet also helped arrange arms deals for them, he told ICIJ, including one failed deal with Monsieur that involved another of Monsieur’s favorite clients, the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Arming Iran

The Shiite fundamentalists who took power in Tehran in 1978 inherited weapons originally purchased by the Shah’s regime. But they had difficulty maintaining and upgrading their military hardware, not least because of a U.S. arms embargo on the country following the 1979 embassy hostage crisis. The Iranian government did business with Monsieur because he was able to provide it with new flight and defense material and spare parts from the United States.

According to his own documents, in 1992 Monsieur transmitted to the Iranian Air Force plans devised by the French company, Matra, for adapting its “Magic-2 Air to Air” missile to the Phantom F-4 aircraft.

In 1992, Monsieur attempted to deliver Electron radar material to Iran. Electron is the radar system that tracks Hawk surface-to-air missiles. It is unclear whether that radar material was delivered, but Monsieur did sell Tehran a key technology that is currently used by Iranian airports for civil aviation, according to an intelligence document.

In a document obtained by Belgian police, Monsieur asked the Iranians their prices for mortars, assault rifles, ammunitions and light artillery to be sold to Burundi. He said that he would deliver the bulk by air with an Ilyushin 76, and reassured his Iranian counterparts that if they had the slightest concern about the destination of the weapons, he could find “other end users,” suggesting that, as he had done with the Armbrust launchers, Monsieur would falsify the documentation. Neither the French nor the Belgian investigators were able to determine whether the deal ever went through.Monsieur acted as an import-export agent for the Iranian military. In addition to radar systems and aircraft missiles, he proposed selling Bell-Agusta helicopters to Iran. And on Aug. 22, 1996, Monsieur suggested to the Iranians that they export weapons to the small central African state of Burundi, a neighbor of Rwanda, in violation of a U.N. weapons embargo, according to sources involved in investigating the affair. The military head of state, the ethnic Tutsi Pierre Buyoya, had seized power in a coup the previous month, threatening to plunge the country into a new round of ethnic bloodletting between Hutus and Tutsis.

By this time, U.S. Customs officials had seen enough. In 1996 they convinced Belgium to launch an investigation of Monsieur. Soon afterwards, French authorities began their own investigation into the sale of Stinger FIM-92A missiles to Iran. Monsieur was by then living in Bourges, France, and presented himself as a horse breeder.

Despite the investigations, Monsieur was still able to deliver weapons – some of them from Iran – to Congo-Brazzaville in the summer of 1997.

The long-standing dictator of Congo-Brazzaville, Nguesso, was another of Elf and France’s best friends in Africa – they even reportedly helped put him in power in 1979 in one of the country’s many coups. Jean-Pierre Cordier, the president of the ethics committee of TotalFinaElf, said that it was “beyond our imagination” to suggest that Elf would back a coup rather than deal with the government in power.

In the euphoria over multiparty democracy that followed the collapse of the Berlin Wall, Nguesso was persuaded to hold democratic elections in September 1993, which he promptly lost to his old nemesis, Pascal Lissouba. The election result didn’t weaken Elf’s standing in the country. Lissouba would later claim that Omar Bongo, the leader of Gabon, and Andre Tarallo, a senior executive from Elf, financed his election campaign by giving him about a million French francs (or roughly $170,000) in suitcases. Tarallo could not be reached for comment. De Naurois of TotalFinaElf cited the ongoing investigation and declined to comment on the election.

As the situation grew ever more dangerous, Lissouba recruited Israeli mercenaries under retired Gen. Zeev Zachrin, working for the Israeli private military company Levdan, to train his militiamen. Lissouba’s armed youths were up against Nguesso’s Cobras and the Ninjas of Bernard Kolela, the leader of another opposition party in Brazzaville.Lissouba – whose financial advisor was Jack Sigolet — initiated a series of economic reforms, including a privatization program that led to thousands of bureaucrats losing their jobs but failed to lift the country out of its poverty or put bread on people’s tables. Ethnically based militias further undermined the stability of the country.

In early 1997, Lissouba was still in charge in Brazzaville, but the Cobras were gaining in strength. On June 5, 1997, a civil war erupted and Lissouba desperately needed weapons. Testifying in the lengthy investigation into corruption at Elf, Lissouba told a French judge in December 2001 that he was offered arms by the oil company. He said that Sigolet and Elf’s “Mr. Africa,” Andre Tarallo—so-called because he had headed the oil company’s Africa division and overseen its Africa policy—had offered to arm him. “He [Tarallo] said, ‘You need a war chest’ …Tarallo and Sigolet offered me arms.”

From June 23 to Sept. 28, 1997, Lissouba ordered from Monsieur 12 consignments of weapons worth $61.4 million. Among those goods were five Russian-built attack helicopters, rockets, missiles and bombs. Most of the light weapons were Iranian. Forty Russian technicians and officers traveled with the materiel.

The invoices landed on the table of Col. Yves-Marcel Ibala, at the Congolese Internal Affairs ministry, which is in charge of security. To pay for the arms, the Lissouba regime used a specific bank account, “MinFin-Congo,” from the Paris offices of FIBA, a now-defunct French bank that was owned by Elf, Bongo, and other private investors in Gabon. The MinFin-Congo account was funded by a share of the oil taxes (set at 17.5% of the selling price of exported crude oil) that was paid by Elf-Congo to the Congolese state. The funds were deposited in the FIBA account for which the Congolese finance minister, Nguila Moungounga, had signing authority. In order to pay the weapons invoices, Moungounga would fax the invoices to the director of FIBA bank, Pierre Houdray. Houdray could not be reached for comment.

But the payments for the weapons were never made. Lissouba was desperate for cash; he asked Elf for a new loan that would be financed with future oil supplies. Lissouba wanted the money to be advanced to him as early as August. Sigolet wrote the draft of the loan agreement, which mentioned 10,000 barrels of crude oil per day as collateral. The contract was known as Darrow, the name of the offshore company created specifically for the deal.

Darrow never came into effect. After months of indecisive conflict, in which the capital was divided into fiefs under the rule of various brutal youth militias, and up to 800,000 people fled their homes, the Angolan armed forces intervened and helped install Nguesso as the unchallenged leader of Congo-Brazzaville. The Angolan initiative was motivated by two factors. Under Lissouba, Congo-Brazzaville had become a launching pad for the rebel movement in the neighboring Cabinda enclave which Angola claims as its own territory. Just as troubling to the Angolan government, the Angolan rebel UNITA movement of Jonas Savimbi was using Congo-Brazzaville to smuggle out the diamonds it used to finance its war machine.

The Angolan intervention proved decisive and brought the conflict to an end. Nguesso became leader of the country through the force of arms for a second time on October 15, 1997 – the same day that Lissouba fled the country.

But Monsieur had not been paid for his weapons and protested to the incoming government. The new president was in no hurry to honor debts accumulated up by his predecessor. Nor was he eager to pay for war materiel that had been used against the forces who had swept him to power.

On Dec. 9, 1998, in the Noga Hilton Hotel in Geneva, a meeting took place between Sigolet, Gilleron and Monsieur. There was little room for negotiation: Oba was prepared to acknowledge a debt of $15 million, but only willing to pay $5 million to settle the dispute.In 1998, Nguesso’s government and executives from Elf proposed terms of a settlement. That year, Pierre-Yves Gilleron, a former adviser to Lissouba and a member of the French DST, contacted Jack Sigolet in order to resolve the legal dispute between Monsieur and Congo-Brazzaville. Sigolet, who had retired from Elf, was back in the Congo, as financial advisor to the new president. The new Congolese minister for Internal Affairs, Pierre Oba, was working with Gilleron.

Denis Sassou Nguesso is sworn in as president in October 1997 Image: Reuters

The $5 million would be paid before June 30, 1999, according to the terms of the settlement. A day after the meeting, Monsieur drew up a hand-written summary of the discussions in order to formalize the oral agreement: “The staff of Jack Sigolet commits itself to employ its best efforts in order to assist the suppliers in recovering all or most of the unpaid sums, using their relations and financial expertise in order to obtain new markets: within Congo-Brazzaville; Angola (…). Last, Jack Sigolet guarantees the payment, both its amount and timing.”

On Dec. 11, 1998, Sigolet wrote to Monsieur: “If I can’t ‘guarantee the payment’ … because this is absolutely not within my reach or competence, I once again guarantee my availability in order to promote and legitimize the financial schemes that have been proposed to you.”

Sigolet was unable to follow through on the agreement arranged in Geneva. The $5 million due Monsieur was not paid on time. By the end of June 1999, only $3 million had been paid. Another $1 million was paid in the first half of 2000.

The situation grew tense because at the same time Monsieur and his associates had come under the scrutiny of French investigators. On May 20, 1999, the French government placed Monsieur and three of his associates under judicial control – meaning they could not leave the country and had to report regularly to the police – for “trade of war materials, weapons and ammunitions without the license of Defense Ministry.” Two of Monsieur’s associates claimed they were working with the approval of the DST – but this defense failed to get them off the hook.

In mid-2000, Monsieur once again met with Sigolet to insist on payment of the outstanding amount, Sigolet told ICIJ. But he also wanted to make sure that both of them would tell the same story to the French judge in charge of Monsieur’s case.

Little came from the meeting. Monsieur wrote a threatening letter, warning that, in the event of non-payment, he would destroy the reputations of Sigolet and Tarallo, who had already been named in connection with the burgeoning Elf scandal in France – Tarallo was indicted, though later acquitted in the high profile fraud case of Dumas. Monsieur also threatened to damage the entire reputation of Elf: “For the time being, the last payment is lacking,” he wrote. “This last payment would permit [me] to bury definitively one file everybody would like to forget as soon as possible. Especially since it now seems to interest some French authorities. By matter of circumstances, I have at my disposal an important amount of documents related to you, and among others: orders of weapons and ammunitions on behalf of Lissouba government, some signed J.S., other initialed J.S., (…) the detail of every flight on behalf of African governments using Elf planes(…) freighting of a helicopter, paid by Elf, for the election campaign in Gabon…”

The letter goes on, making charge after charge. Sigolet had always maintained that Tarallo was innocent of those accusations, and Tarallo himself denied any involvement in weapons sales at any time. Sigolet would not confirm or deny the substance of Monsieur’s letter in any detail, noting only that it was not totally accurate but appeared to be authentic.

Incarcerated in Iran

Monsieur was scheduled to testify in a French court at the end of 2000, but he disappeared in November. He turned up in Iran, where he faced another legal proceeding. On Nov.19, 2000, Branch Three of the Tehran Revolutionary Court arrested Monsieur and charged him with “spying and collecting classified information.” Tehran had a long record of relations with Monsieur. Business letters between Modelex, the state-owned arms manufacturing company, and Monsieur show how closely the arms trafficker had worked with Iranian officials. In the letters, Modelex, Monsieur, Tarallo and Sigolet appear to be working together as a unit.

There’s no question that Tehran was extremely well informed about the man they had arrested. Monsieur had worked closely with the Iranian regime to aid its arms exporting and its pursuit of raw materials, including some nuclear materials. Fourteen months prior to his arrest in Tehran, Monsieur was still negotiating with the Democratic Republic of Congo a “barter” of Iranian weapons for “copper, cobalt, uranium 294, 298, 380, thorium, titanium…”

Some of the circumstances of Monsieur’s captivity led French authorities to believe, at least at first, that the arms trafficker had eluded French justice by having the Iranians stage a mock arrest and detention. For example, Monsieur was unable to receive visitors in his Iranian jail, uncommon even in Iran. He also had given orders related to the maintenance of his property in France before traveling to – and being arrested in – Iran, suggesting he knew he might be gone for some time.

But from the beginning of 2001, it became clear that Monsieur was genuinely detained against his will. In early 2001, a single handwritten fax issued by the Iranian lawyer representing Monsieur reached his Parisian attorneys. According to the fax, Tehran knew that the Iranian weapon operations of the Belgian trafficker could have resulted in the payment of illicit commissions to Iranians, deposited into their Dubai bank accounts in amounts ranging from $17,000 to $25,000. In the same fax, Monsieur indirectly let his European lawyers know where they could find documents that could help prove he worked with knowledge and approval of the Iranian government.

In December 2001, Monsieur was finally sentenced behind closed doors in Tehran and declared “dischargeable on bail.” During his detention, the last $1 million installment for the weapons delivered to Lissouba had been paid. But the payments appear to raise more questions about Monsieur’s dealings in Iranian arms and African wars. When Monsieur told his lawyers “in which place, unknown until then to the French investigators” they could find documents he hoped would clear him of the charges in Iran, the Belgian trafficker unwittingly gave French investigators a new lead in their case.

French police later discovered documents in Tarascon in the south of France revealing the existence of an offshore company named Telogis (“Sigolet” spelled backwards) used for the payment of invoices related to planes. Sigolet denies any connection to Telogis, claiming that it is the creation of one of Monsieur’s closest associates. However, the documents exposed the financial web behind the Monsieur weapons: when the FIBA bank paid Monsieur and his partners, most of the money went to an anonymous beneficiary codenamed “CH,” suggesting another player beyond Monsieur.

The French investigation continues, as does a Belgian inquiry. And Monsieur appears to be within the reach of both countries. On May 11, 2002, Monsieur was arrested in Istanbul. Belgium, which has indicted him on charges of arms trafficking, is seeking his extradition.