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End of the Road for Notorious Arms Dealer?

Victor Bout

Victor Bout was arrested March 6 during a U.S.-Thai sting operation in Bangkok. The U.S. has requested his extradition. (Photo: AP)

He is known as "the merchant of death" and he's been on the run for years from the U.S., the United Nations and Interpol. Now Bout sits behind bars in Bangkok, Thailand, following his March 6 arrest by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) and Thai police. Wanted for violating U.N. arms embargoes and fueling wars in Africa, Bout was caught in a DEA sting in which the Moscow-based arms dealer thought he was selling surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) to representatives of Colombia's cocaine-dealing FARC guerillas.

Bout is now facing extradition to the United States and charges of providing material support to a foreign terrorist organization, which is punishable by 15 years in prison.

FRONTLINE/World first reported about Bout's arms trafficking in 2002 when I wrote about him on this Web site in connection with the series' first television report, "Gunrunners."

Bout is facing charges of providing material support to a foreign terrorist organization, which is punishable by 15 years in prison.

His story, said to inspire the 2005 Nicolas Cage movie, "Lord of War," reveals how conflicts around the world are often fueled by international arms traffickers out to make a profit. The U.N. imposed a travel ban on Bout in 2001 for his role in fostering civil war in Sierra Leone.

According to U.N. experts, Bout aided the Liberian regime of former president Charles Taylor in arming rebels in Sierra Leone. Taylor was found to be partially funding his arms purchases through the sales of "blood diamonds."

Taylor is currently on trial for war crimes in The Hague.

A former Soviet air force officer, Bout, 41, became the world's most notorious arms dealer by putting together a fleet of Soviet-era cargo planes that deliver weapons all over the globe. His network of dozens of freight companies and logistics specialists in several continents included more than 60 Soviet-era planes at its height.

Despite years of high-level condemnation from U.N., U.S. and European leaders, Bout faced little chance of arrest on a 2002 Interpol warrant issued by Belgium for money laundering -- the only crime he was charged with. Living safely in Moscow since 2002, Bout never feared arrest by Russian authorities.

U.N. Peacekeeper.

In Liberia, the U.N. has reportedly disarmed more than 100,000 former rebels following the end of the civil war and the collapse of Charle Taylor's government.

Many of the U.N. and private arms investigators who had pursued him had grown disillusioned that the U.N. arms embargoes he routinely busted would ever result in a jail sentence.

Bout became infamous in 2002 following allegations -- widely reported around the world -- that he sold arms to the Taliban (and indirectly, to Al Qaeda) before the American-led invasion of Afghanistan. But living safely in Moscow since then, his story had been gradually fading from the world's attention.

Bout's name did appear in another major scandal a few years ago -- but that was mainly an embarrassment for the Pentagon and the Bush administration. In December 2004, the Los Angeles Times broke the story that air transport companies in Bout's network were filling contracts for U.S. companies that had been hired by the U.S. military in Iraq. A single Bout company Air Bas had flown 142 flights into Iraq during 2004 alone, according to a U.S. official cited by Newsweek.

What was more embarrassing to the Bush administration was that Bout was flying supplies into Iraq for the U.S. military at a time when President Bush had signed a July 2004 Executive Order forbidding any American from doing business with Bout.

Despite repeated claims by U.S. officials that Bout's companies were no longer providing services, journalists continued to report flights into Iraq by companies in his network as late as 2006. It appeared that Bout could shuffle his planes and reregister his freight companies faster than U.S. officials could identify and ban them. The scandal reinforced public perceptions that the war effort was so disorganized that the U.S. government was willfully paying millions of dollars to a company it knew to be an organized criminal group that had sold arms to the Taliban and Al Qaeda.

What was even more embarrassing to the Bush administration was that Bout was flying supplies into Iraq for the U.S. military at a time when President Bush himself had signed a July 2004 Executive Order forbidding any American from doing business with Bout and his companies.

For years, the U.N. and Western governments had tried to close in on Bout. After the U.N. imposed its travel ban on the Russian arms dealer, Belgium in 2002 issued an Interpol warrant for him on money laundering charges. In 2004, the U.S. Treasury imposed sanctions on Bout -- a business ban and assets freeze -- for his role in arming the Taylor regime in Liberia. Nine months later, it added four of his associates and 30 of his companies. Federal agents raided the home and offices of Bout's close business associate and U.S. Army veteran Richard Chichakli in Richardson, Texas in 2005. Chichakli was named in documents as the chief financial officer for at least three companies owned by Bout.

gun stockpile

Small weapons collected in Congo, a country that Bout has trafficked to and which has suffered one of the bloodiest civil wars in recent history.

The following year they raided a sporting goods store in Nanticoke, Pennsylvania, from which a Bulgarian-registered company in Bout's network was suspected of purchasing high-tech weapons for Russian intelligence services. Other sanctions, made law by an additional executive order in 2006, targeted Bout for arms trafficking in Congo. In March 2007, more of his firms were added to the Congo-related sanctions list.

Bout was finally arrested in a luxury hotel in Bangkok, the Sofitel Silom, while arranging to sell 100 shoulder-fired missiles and other weapons to DEA agents posing as representatives of Colombian FARC guerillas. Bout was not known to have much experience or contacts in either Southeast Asia or South America, though a Bout-owned plane had been documented making four flights in 1998 and 1999 to Peru carrying weapons that ended up in FARC hands. Exposing himself by traveling to Thailand, where his network was weak, may have been his undoing.

Douglas Farah, former Washington Post West Africa bureau chief and coauthor of a 2007 book about Bout -- Merchant of Death: Money, Guns, Planes and the Man Who Makes War Possible -- believes there was little urgency within the Bush administration to apprehend Bout.

"I don't think there has been any will at all among most of the U.S. government for a significant period of time," Farah says. He tells me his investigation showed that only a handful of Treasury and DEA agents were really intent on pursuing the case.

U.S. intelligence services were compromised because they had contacted Bout after September 11th to ask about using his military freight services when planning the invasion of Afghanistan.

Farah says the DEA was free to go after Bout because, unlike the Defense Department, it had no prior entanglements with the gunrunner. The Pentagon has an uncomfortable history with Bout due to his air freight contracts in Iraq, Farah says, and U.S. intelligence services were also compromised because they had contacted Bout after September 11th to ask about using his military freight services when planning the invasion of Afghanistan.

"I don't know what precipitated the DEA's particular interest in him, but something did and they were able to get him, which, to me, is something close to a miracle," Farah says.

"A lot of people [Bout's associates] are very nervous because of this," adds Johan Peleman, an arms expert who investigated Bout while serving on several U.N. panels probing the violations of arms embargoes in Africa. [Peleman is featured in the 2002 "Gunrunners" FRONTLINE/World report and also appears in last year's FRONTLINE/World story about the shipment of Chinese AK-47 rifles to Congo.]

Peleman says that those who have worked with Bout, either directly or as part of his network, will be more cautious because they are now afraid that their names might come up in the case against him. "And that is exactly what is necessary to deter these activities," he says.

But Peleman doubts the arrest will destroy Bout's gunrunning network. "They will have to develop new techniques to divert cargo and do their business. It will be a costly matter," he says. "It will slow down the operations for awhile but I'm sure the network will still be around. In the end, no one is irreplaceable."

"Bout's arrest has a lot more to do with U.S. policy in Colombia than it does with Bout's violations of U.N. arms embargoes in Africa," according to arms investigator, E.J. Hogendoorn, formerly of Human Rights Watch, who also served on U.N. expert panels. The fact that Bout was apparently willing to sell SAMs to Colombia's FARC rebels is "very troubling" to the U.S. and its antinarcotics operations in Colombia, he says, which includes aerial eradication of coca fields and support for Colombian police and military services. Based on his 10 years investigating the illicit international small arms trade, Hogendoorn says that "one of the few things that the U.S. has really been trying to control is SAMs."

"Bout's arrest has a lot more to do with U.S. policy in Colombia than it does with Bout's violations of U.N. arms embargoes in Africa," according to arms investigator, E.J. Hogendoorn.

Alex Vines, head of the Africa program at the Royal Institute of Oriental Affairs in London and also a former advisor to the U.N. on arms trafficking, agrees that Bout's dealings with the FARC, not his nefarious Africa gunrunning, was what prompted Bout's arrest: "I say the trip wire was Colombia. They created a case that is compelling and that's why he's been picked up."

To convict Bout in court and sentence him to prison requires a strong case, Vines says. To underline his point, Vines cites the acquittal March 10th of "Big Guns" van Kouwenhoven by a Dutch appeals court. Kouwenhoven had received an 8-year sentence in 2006 for smuggling arms to Liberia's former president, Charles Taylor, in exchange for access to timber rights. Kouwenhoven had been the only person in the world ever convicted of violating a U.N. arms embargo. Yet, he is now free.

Another example is the case of Leonid Minin, who was featured in the "Gunrunners" story. Minin was the world's first gunrunner to be arrested on charges of violating a U.N. arms embargo, but was later released from jail in Italy for lack of evidence before the trial began.

"It goes to show the importance of having a very, very strong case before you act," says Vines. "If that's available in what happened in Colombia, then that is exactly the way to go."

The main question now is whether Bout will go to trial in the U.S., where he will face a charge of providing material support to a foreign terrorist organization.

The main question now is whether Bout will go to trial in the U.S., where he will face a charge of providing material support to a foreign terrorist organization. Thai authorities can hold him for 84 days without charges, until May 29. They are still deciding whether to try him in Thailand or grant the U.S. extradition request.

"Large commercially successful networks of companies like Bout's, which tightly integrate their legal and illicit activities, can not operate without government complicity, either intentional or inadvertent," says Rachel Stohl, senior analyst at the Center for Defense Information in Washington.

Stohl says a trial could reveal a lot about the mechanics of the illicit international arms trade since Bout clearly knows a lot about the complicity of governments in the illegal trafficking of weapons.

"How much of that will come out? And how much of that do governments want to come out?" she asks. "Some people are not going to come out of this looking very pretty. And I can't imagine he's not going to use some of that for leverage."

Matthew Brunwasser first wrote about Victor Bout and other illegal gunrunners in 2002 in the very first edition of the FRONTLINE/World website.