Bout is the poster boy for a new generation of post Cold War
international arms dealers who play a critical role in areas
where the weapons trade has been embargoed by the United Nations.
as FRONTLINE/World reports in "Gunrunners,"
unprecedented U.N. investigations have begun to unravel the
mystery of these broken embargoes, many of them imposed on African
countries involved in bloody civil wars. At the heart of this
unfolding detective story is the identification of a group of
East European arms merchants, with Victor Bout the first of
them to be publicly and prominently identified. The U.N. investigative
team pursued leads that a Mr. Bout [pronounced "butt" in Russian]
was pouring small arms and ammunition into Angola, Rwanda, Sierra
Leone and the Congo, making possible massacres on a scale that
stunned the world.
Despite being pursued for years by a flinty group of private
and government arms investigators, a positive visual ID of this
United Arab Emirates-based arms merchant only became available
when two Belgian journalists ran into him at an airstrip in
remote rebel-held Congo. And it was only recently that his name
became familiar in the United States, following press reports
of his role in arming the Taliban regime in Afghanistan five
years ago. If not for this link to Afghanistan, it is probable
that Bout would still be a low-profile character in the clandestine
world of illicit arms trading.
That accusation and the heat it generated in the media eventually
flushed Bout into the open. From the apparent safe haven of
Moscow, he gave CNN and the Associated Press, among others,
on-the-record, on-camera interviews rebutting the allegations
The case of Victor Bout personifies the exceedingly difficult
task of keeping small arms out of the world's bloodiest and
most destabilizing conflicts. Perhaps most striking is the fact
that while Bout has been accused by U.N. investigators, the
press and intelligence sources, no government has yet charged
him with gun-smuggling.
Since the U.N. has no law enforcement powers - its investigators
cannot subpoena, detain or arrest - the work of the expert panels
investigating the illegal arms trade depends on "naming and
shaming" individuals and governments to change their activities.
Using the diplomatic prestige of the United Nations, they publicize
the results of their international detective work, hoping the
bad publicity will prod governments into action.
Media coverage has been vital to that effort, and coverage has
increased with the release of each new U.N. report. The story
is huge. It spans several continents and involves a large network
of shady individuals, front companies and government officials;
clunky old Soviet cargo planes; corrupt African bureaucrats
and thieving East European military officials.
An in-depth examination of the media's coverage of one of these
arms dealers --Victor Bout -- from an obscure aviation company
owner, known only to arms control activists, to a "businessman"
helping Angolan UNITA rebels rearm, and finally into the leader
of what some officials are now calling "the world's largest
arms-smuggling network" -- shows how international priorities
are changing following September 11. In fact, intelligence sources
close to the hunt for Osama Bin Laden and his Al Qaeda associates
say they are beginning to turn their attention to clandestine
arms traffic as a way to learn what the terrorist network and
its allies are up to.
cargo planes with illicit cargoes in war conditions and breaking
international embargoes such as the one on Angola requires more
than individual effort. It takes an internationally organized
network of individuals, well funded, well connected and well
versed in brokering and logistics, with the ability to move
illicit cargo around the world without raising the suspicions
of the law or with the ability to deal with obstacles. One organization,
headed, or at least to all appearances outwardly controlled
by an Eastern European, Victor Bout, is such an organization."
U.N. Angola Report, December 21, 2000
Little was known publicly about Bout before he became a regular
international media item, commonly called "the elusive Victor
Bout." On August 25, 1995, Agence France Presse reported
that an Aerostan plane leased by Bout's company Transavia was
forced to land in Kandahar, Afghanistan by a Taliban jet fighter.
Taliban officials impounded "30-odd tons of AK-47 small arms
ammunition" meant for government forces in Kabul. At the time,
the Taliban had captured 10 provincial capitals, but had not
yet taken Kabul, and little more was heard about the event until
after September 11.
In 1997, Business Day in South Africa reported that Bout's
company Air Cess was opening an office in Swaziland. And two
years later in March 1999, the U.K. Observer wrote about
a British pilot regularly violating the arms embargo against
Sudan, who had used the "services of former KGB major Viktor
Bout, whose fleet of Antonov aircraft has been delivering arms
to African war zones for many years."
The first time Bout was mentioned in the context of embargo-busting
was in January 2000 when UK Foreign Minister Peter Hain publicly
named him as one of three "businessmen" helping re-arm Angolan
UNITA rebels, despite a U.N. arms embargo. The civil war that
followed Angola's independence in 1975 is one of the oldest
and most intractable in Africa, leaving up to 1.5 million people
dead. It is a conflict now largely fought over territory, diamonds
and other valuable resources, and prolonged by illicit arms
The U.N.'s Angola Report issued December 21, 2000 first brought
the issue of the "conflict diamonds" trade to the world's attention.
It detailed how, in many regions in Africa, civil conflicts
have turned into turf battles over diamond-mining territory.
The proceeds from the diamonds are then used to buy illicit
weapons and deepen the conflicts. Many human rights activists
and organizations have been working for years to eliminate these
so-called "blood diamonds" from international markets. A combination
of the Angola Report, media coverage of the trade and the sordid
story of arms merchant Victor Bout has elevated its position
on the international agenda.
Bout is often mentioned in the press as being "paid in diamonds"
although there appears to be no hard evidence for this. Part
of what makes Bout so hard to pin down is that he creates layers
of companies and individuals between himself and any alleged
criminal activities. There are, however, many known links between
"blood diamonds" and some of his associates. There is also certain
knowledge that his clients fund their arms budgets from diamond
The Angola Report includes reports of attempts to set up a diamond-cutting
factory in Kigali, Rwanda, where Bout had an operational base.
Such a factory would have seriously undermined controls on "conflict
diamonds," since only uncut diamonds can be traced. Individuals
involved in the plan were said to be linked to Bout. The Liberia
Report mentioned that Bout's close associate Sanjivan Ruprah
- now in jail in Belgium, and a major source of information
for US officials about Bout's Taliban connections - owned diamond
mines in Liberia and also sold arms.
Before September 11, Bout's involvement in Afghanistan was mentioned
in the press only occasionally in passing. Western intelligence
officials or anonymous investigators were quoted as saying Bout
started off there, arming the government forces fighting the
Taliban and other rebels groups. On January 1, 2002, the Washington
Monthly took Bout's Afghan connection one step further,
saying that he switched sides and started selling to the Taliban
while negotiating for the release of his plane and crew in 1995.
This assertion was based on a quote from a source familiar with
his activities who said, "He's a very enterprising person. When
his plane was detained, he used the opportunity as a business
introduction to the Taliban."
A few weeks later, on January 20, the Los Angeles Times
reported on the key role played by the United Arab Emirates
in hosting money laundering and arms trafficking operations
for Al Qaeda and the Taliban, a result of loose government oversight.
The article reported that Bout teamed up with Afghan-based militants
in the emirate of Sharjah, where, as recently as early 2001,
a company called Flying Dolphin, flew shuttles twice a week
to the Taliban headquarters in Kandahar. Its owner, Sheik Abdullah
bin Zayed al Saqr al Nahyan, was the UAE ambassador to the U.S.
from 1989 to 1992, and was described by the U.N. as a business
associate of Bout.
Afghan and U.A.E. air industry sources reported a meeting between
"two Russians" and the United Arab Emirates representative of
Ariana, the Afghan national airline, in which it was agreed
that Bout's Air Cess would provide wheels, tires and other military
goods for the Taliban air force. Flying Dolphin would provide
charter flights when Ariana was unavailable.
The Afghan permanent representative to the United Nations, citing
Afghan and American intelligence reports, said Ariana flights
from Sharjah had transported chemical poisons to Kandahar: "cyanide
and other toxic substances purchased in Germany, the Czech Republic
and Ukraine." He said the Taliban "had nothing to do with this.
These chemicals were for Bin Laden and his people. It was some
of the chemicals they were using in experiments." Earlier, the
US had reportedly pressured the U.A.E. to clamp down on Bout's
operations, which simply resulted in his moving to a neighboring
On January 31 of this year, the Center for Public Integrity
(CPI) in Washington, D.C., published further links between Bout
and Afghanistan, largely based on Belgian intelligence documents.
According to these documents, Bout profited some $50 million
from weapons sales to the Taliban in the late 90s. This information
was independently verified by another European intelligence
source as well as by intelligence documents from an unnamed
African country, which said he had sold the guns "on behalf
of the Pakistani government." The documents were all from before
September 11 and did not specify the type or amounts of weapons
sold to the Taliban, other than the fact they were from the
stockpiles of the former Soviet Union.
The CPI report clearly stated that it had established no direct
links between Bout and bin Laden, but that Taliban ties to Al
Qaeda would have enabled weapons shipped to Afghanistan to make
their way to Bin Laden's forces. It also said Bout left Belgium
after details of the shipments were reported in the local media.
The story developed much more rapidly after February 8, when
Belgian police raided 18 homes reportedly part of Bout's network.
Police said they found invoices from sales to UNITA rebels in
Angola and passes from Bagram airport in Afghanistan. Seven
were arrested, three of whom were detained, including Sanjivan
Ruprah, the most important source of evidence thus far on Bout's
Ruprah, a Kenyan national, appears in the U.N.'s Sierra Leone
and Liberia reports as a major operative on arms deals to embargoed
African states. According to these reports, he collaborates
closely with "the highest authorities in Liberia" and is a "close
business associate of Victor Bout." He holds Liberian diplomatic
passports under different names and is Deputy Commissioner for
Maritime Affairs - Liberia is one of the world's main "flags
of convenience" for easy ship registration. He is also an arms
dealer, was directly involved in the operations of Leonid Minin's
arms sales to Liberia, and owns diamond mines in Liberia.
Belgian police charged Ruprah with involvement in a scheme to
print fake Congolese Francs and acquire fake passports, according
to a March 26 report in Le Monde. Clearly, these charges
were not as important to Belgian judicial authorities as his
connections to Victor Bout. Belgian authorities indicted Bout
a week later on money laundering charges, almost certainly based
on Ruprah's testimony. In late February, The New York Times
quoted a spokesman for the Belgian judge-prosecutor's office,
saying Bout used Ostend airport "as his western air-smuggling
hub, flying planes from there to central Europe to load up with
arms, and then to Africa or Afghanistan."
Largest Arms Trafficking Network in the World?
News organizations around the world, pressing hard to break
new stories about Al Qaeda, along with western officials eager
to be seen as fighting terrorism may be inflating Bout's significance
in describing him as heading "what some officials call the largest
arms trafficking network in the world." Such claims were never
made before evidence emerged linking Bout to the Taliban. And
even if true, the mandate of the U.N. arms investigations -
limited to violations of country-specific embargoes - and the
nature of the illicit arms trade make it impossible to confirm.
Most experts would agree that he is the largest known illicit
trafficker in Africa. Beyond that, the extent of his activity
is very difficult to pin down.
What is certain is how the power of these allegations brought
Bout out of invisibility and into a Moscow radio station on
February 28 for a live two-hour interview. An Inter-Fax news
bulletin arrived during the interview and was read over the
Russian bureau of Interpol has announced that it has been seeking
Victor Bout, suspected of having supplied weapons to the Al-Qa'ida
organization, for four years. Spokesman Igor Tsiroulnikov declared:
'Today we can say with certainty that Victor Bout is not in
On March 4, the Russian Federal Security Service issued a short
correction: "There is no reason to believe that this Russian
citizen has committed any illegal actions." Bout described the
accusations against him as "the plot of a Hollywood action movie
in which it is so interesting to find a Russian trail."
Brunwasser is a freelance journalist based in Bulgaria. He worked
as field producer on FRONTLINE/World's "Gunrunners"
- LEONID EFIMOVICH MININ:
From Ukraine, a New Kind of Arms Trafficker
relevant to this article:
Russian Tied to Iraq Deals
The Los Angeles Times details reports indicating that
companies linked to reputed Russian arms trafficker Victor Bout
have received millions of dollars from U.S. contractors in Iraq,
including Halliburton subsidiary KBR. "What's obviously wrong
is that U.S. taxpayer dollars are going to fatten the wallet
of someone associated with the Taliban and with atrocities in
places like Liberia and Sierra Leone," says Wisconsin Senator
Russell Feingold in the article.
Seeks Arms Dealer With Suspected Qaeda Ties
This article reports on allegations against Victor Bout
and the United Nations description of Bout as perhaps
the number-one arms smuggler in the world. The article
also investigates evidence of Bout's involvement with
arms shipments to Afghanistan, the Taliban and Al Qaeda.
(New York Times, February 26, 2002)
Aids Pursuit of Weapons Network
This article describes the case against Bout built by
U.S. and European investigators. Although Bout has long
been suspected of supplying the Taliban, new evidence
collected since September 11 gave impetus to issuing a
warrant for his arrest. (Washington Post, February
Bout Responds to the Allegations Against Him
In a statement released in Moscow and posted by the Center
for Public Integrity on March 4, 2002, Bout says he has
spent years building an honest air cargo business. That
business has been ruined, he says, by media and governments
looking for a scapegoat. He denies any connections to
the arms trade, the Taliban, Al Qaeda, and military or
Ex-Soviet Officer Turns Sanctions Buster
This Financial Times profile reports on the numerous investigations
of Victor Bout and his air freight companies. The article
notes that in the same year Bout's company Air Cess was
seen in connection with UNITA rebels in Angola against
U.N. sanctions, it also legally ferried U.N. peacekeepers
from Pakistan to East Timor. (Financial Times,
July 10, 2000)
'Merchant of Death' Sold Arms to the Taliban
Based on Belgian intelligence documents, international
intelligence agencies, Western government and U.N. officials,
NGOs and press sources, this report posted by the Center
for Public Integrity presents evidence purportedly showing
that Bout armed the Taliban "on behalf of the Pakistani
government." A spokesman for the Pakistani government
says that weapons allegedly supplied by Bout were delivered
legally, before U.N. sanctions were in place. (The
Public I, January 31, 2002)