Frontline World

Sierra Leone - Gunrunners


Synopsis of "Gunrunners"

Web-exclusive report on key players in the small arms trade

Source of Black Market Weapons

U.N. Investigator

State Department Analyst

Gunrunning, Cold War Stockpiles, and Conflict Diamonds



Interview With Tom Ofcansky
Photo of OfcanskyTom Ofcansky, an African affairs analyst with the State Department Bureau of Intelligence and Research, has closely monitored arms sales to Africa. In the 1990s, he developed a detailed classified database that tracked the suppliers and shipments of small arms to Africa. In an interview with FRONTLINE/World producer Rick Young in February 2002, he says that the Clinton administration was aware that small-arms trafficking was greatly contributing to violence and destruction throughout Africa, and that high-level officials were speaking out about the problem. But, he says, in the end, the issue was given a low priority. Ofcanksy comments on the implications that "failed states" -- areas such as Sierra Leone, where arms trafficking and other clandestine businesses run rampant -- have for the rest of the international system. He believes that until countries around the world make a concerted effort to prosecute individuals for illegal arms trafficking, very little will be done to stop it.

What changed in small-arms dealings, once the Cold War ended?

After the end of the Cold War, the Soviet Union collapsed. Tens of thousands of ex-Soviet soldiers were put out of work. Much of Eastern Europe was the same. In Africa, the lack of superpower support meant that the traditional militaries all but collapsed. And societies were beginning to fragment into numerous rebel groups, and there was a great demand for small arms. Many of the former Soviet people (one of the most famous ones is Victor Bout) became arms dealers. So, we went from a situation [that had] traditionally emphasized heavy arms to one which emphasized small arms -- what the soldier could carry. These would have been AK-47s, rocket-propelled grenade launchers, mortars, that sort of thing. They were cheap, they were durable, and they could be easily transported. And I think the fact [is] that the West kept track of the state-to-state arms transfers, but what made this a particularly difficult problem after the end of the Cold War was there was no tracking of small arms.

And it had a major impact on Africa -- very devastating. I guess 7 to 8 million people had been killed by the turn of the century [2000]. There were millions of refugees and internally displaced [people]. Also, numerous people maimed or otherwise brutalized. Whole areas of Africa just ravaged. I think perhaps Sierra Leone, Liberia, and eastern Congo are the most egregious ... examples.

What you're saying is, at the end of the Cold War, there was an availability of a particular type of weapon that had not been tracked before, and that the problem was the availability?

Well, the problem at the end of the Cold War with regard to small arms, I think, was the massive availability and the failure of the international community to track these arms. A few planeloads of arms going to an African country just didn't make the cut, in terms of an issue governments would want to pay attention to. But the impact of a few planeloads of arms, as we've seen repeatedly in Africa, had a devastating impact on fragile African societies. ...

So by the mid-1990s, where was the flow of arms going to Africa coming from, and what were the consequences?

The flow of arms into Africa is a worldwide phenomenon. Arms dealers use banks throughout the world. Transportation companies throughout the world, whether it be shipping or aviation. Deals are made in one country for arms purchased in another country. A lot of arms flowed out of the former Soviet republics. But there were also arms coming from European countries as well, and Asian countries. It was a bonanza. And it was unregulated. And the West really didn't get interested in the issue until the late 1990s, and then it was only expressions of concern rather than -- rather than actions.

The impact on Africa, if you could look at several different sectors of society. The Karamojong people living in eastern Africa, it's a pastoral group, traditional warriors. Suddenly, they're armed with AK-47s. It turned their society upside down. In eastern Congo, where you had an invasion by the Ugandans and Rwandans and various rebel groups active in the area, it just devastated the entire portion of that country. I can remember speaking with some people who lived there. They said, "There's nothing here. There's no roads. There's no police. There's no education. There's no medical services. There's nothing. You're on your own." And I think that's the most egregious example. And then you have rising crime rates in places like Nairobi or Johannesburg, in part fueled by the easy availability of arms.

Did the end of the Cold War affect the proliferation of individuals involved in the arms business?

Yes. At the end of the Cold War, individuals looking for easy -- well, not easy money --looking for money, became interested in arms trafficking to Africa. Some were from the former Soviet Union, some from Eastern Europe, some from Europe, and some from Asia. I think, again, Victor Bout has come to symbolize the arms traffickers, but he's only one arms trafficker. There are many others of his caliber who are active in Africa, and they've amassed wealth. In many African nations, there's no bother about taxes or safety equipment on aircraft and that sort of thing. It's an easy place to do business. And it's done in cash, usually. And one doesn't have to bother about taxes. Money transfers that take place go to banks that are less than active in monitoring where the money's coming from.

What was it that allowed individuals to get into this business easily?

The arms traffickers got into the business and were able to ply their trade largely because there are no international restrictions against them. It's not illegal to sell arms to Africa. The only exception to that, presumably, is where there are U.N. arms embargoes. "There has been no one prosecuted, to my knowledge, for violating U.N. arms embargoes." The nations that have U.N. arms embargoes now are Liberia; Sierra Leone; Somalia; Angola, for the rebels there; and then in the Congo, for the Hutu and other groups. And then in 2000 to 2001, there was an arms embargo against Ethiopia and Eritrea. So sales to countries other than those, there was no problem. It's not illegal. Sales to those countries under an arms embargo, I think, points to the international community's absolute failure to come to terms with this problem. There has been no one prosecuted, to my knowledge, for violating U.N. arms embargoes. You've had U.N. members, on the one hand applauding the imposition of arms embargoes, while on the other hand selling arms to the countries under arms embargoes.

And I think that the policy under the present regime in the United Nations has been one of "name and shame." So, the idea is, if Victor Bout is selling arms to Africa, and he is named, this is somehow going to convince him to stop trafficking in arms. I just don't see the rationale of such a policy. It has had no impact whatsoever. The United Nations has published reports repeatedly on arms trafficking to central Africa, for example. Countries are named, individuals are named, companies are named. It's no secret about who's doing what. But no action is taken against them.

So what does the easy availability of small arms mean to a place like Sierra Leone or Liberia?

In West Africa, I think, was probably one of the most egregious [examples]. You had a situation where rebels were gathering up child soldiers, often very young (12, 13, 14 or younger). Oftentimes, before a battle, they would give them drugs to get them ready for battle. And terrible things have occurred in Sierra Leone: limbs being chopped off, young girls taken as concubines for rebels, that sort of thing. Just a complete collapse of the society. And widespread devastation to the country's infrastructure. ...

As you came into this issue at the State Department, and your own awareness that the nature of conflict had changed and the nature of the business had changed, you began to build your own database, to look at the issue of arms traffickers. Why? And what were you doing?

Well, my initial interest was one of confusion, like everyone else's. What is all of this activity going on? Who are these people? And none of it made sense to me. So I began, with a colleague of mine, to compile a database. And it's very, very tedious work. But after a while, you start seeing patterns developing. The same name will start showing up, or the name of a bank will be showing up, or routes, or a company. And after keeping the database for, I guess, seven or eight months, I was able to identify numerous patterns in the arms trade. ...

What were you seeing in the database? What kinds of patterns and numbers of people involved, and how they do their business?

The information the database contained: First, it would name arms traffickers. It would name people that put the deals together, financiers. It would name banks that were involved in arms trafficking. It would name airlines that transported arms. It would name shipping companies that transported arms. It had information on routes, how the arms got from a country into Africa.

Was this a big group of people [in the database]?

I would say it was in three figures, the number of individuals involved in arms. Quite a considerable number of airlines, both ones that would surprise you and ones you haven't heard of. Shipping lines, a bit less. Lots of banks, and lots of brokers.

So you were beginning to get a fix on this secret world, this clandestine world.

Yes. It is a secret world. And it dawned on me that it's probably very similar to the drug trade, another secret world. It's also probably very similar to the trafficking in counterfeit currency, another secret world. It's probably very similar to the terrorists' world, another secret world. These secret worlds keep proliferating, and that's a significant challenge to the West -- to come to terms with all of these issues. Arms trafficking is a big one. Africa is probably on the high end in terms of its arms trafficking activity, and I don't see it ending any time soon, because of the lack of any controls.

But at the same time, it was such a secret world that you were able to get a look inside and figure out what's going on.

Yes. Despite the fact that it was a secret world, we were able to find out some very interesting inner workings of the arms trafficking trade. But, again, what does one do with that information? Much of it is highly classified and cannot be shared. I think this is another challenge facing the West in this proliferation of secret worlds. And there's going to have to be, I think, a more generous declassification process eventually, to help to come to terms with some of these problems. That was one of the most frustrating things for me, knowing all this information and not being able to share it with anyone outside of government. And, I think, a big problem.

You're suggesting that we know who these traffickers are?

Yes. We know who a lot of them are. I'm sure there are many others. The question is what to do. It's not [a priority] for the Western countries right now. I think that it's not going to be a priority ... for a while. Again, if it was a question of arms trafficking to Iran or Iraq, then it would make the cut. As I said before, a few planeloads of weapons to Africa just does not make the cut. But I underscore again the tremendous impact that can have on very fragile societies.

There came a point when Secretary Albright went to the United Nations and talked very forcefully about this issue. Why? Why was she doing it, and what was she saying?

Well, I think there was a concern there, and she was motivated by the tremendous devastation going on in Africa, ... one state after another collapsing into chaos and anarchy. And I think many other senior government officials shared that concern. So some of the things that she was saying, I think, paralleled my own views: the tremendous devastation, extraordinary number of deaths, the inability to get Africa to move forward until this problem is resolved.

Resolving the problem is, again, the big challenge to the Western world. The U.N. arms embargoes, historically, it has been left to member states to enforce them or not. I understand that, for most countries, it's not even against the law. So, the first step [needed] to make this work is to criminalize arms embargo violations. That has not happened. Once it's criminalized, that would enable the courts to go after, say, a bank in the United States, for example, that may be involved in arms trafficking, or an arms trafficker in Eastern Europe, that sort of thing.

Secondly, I think, a much more vigorous United Nations. They will send teams to areas in Africa to compile reports, as I mentioned. [But] what is needed is not information. What's needed is inspection teams in ports and airports, with the authority to detain aircraft or ships, or arrest people. That requires a significant change in the international system, and I just don't see that happening any time soon. And, in the absence of such activity, I fear that arms are just going to continue to pour into Africa, with devastating results.

Secretary Albright spoke very forcefully about the small-arms issue, about the proliferation of arms trafficking. In September 1999, speaking to the United Nations, she said, "Governments have a responsibility to keep arms transactions transparent and to make those involved accountable. If we do, we can tighten control of borders, make it harder to move arms around and drive illegitimate traffickers out of business." What was your reaction?

One of the things I remember the secretary mentioning is making arms transfers more accountable. Again, going back to the Cold War, the U.S. government maintained databases on conventional [military] arms sales between countries. And that was a public document. It was released every year. There is no such document for arms trafficking. So, I think that was one thing that she was calling attention to: the need for some sort of tracking of these arms shipments.

Enhanced border controls -- not just in Africa but in Europe as well, and Asia and North America and Latin America. Achieving these things requires a tremendous allocation of resources. Sadly, that never came. And I don't know that it's so much a criticism as an appreciation of the magnitude of this problem. You can look at drugs and the tremendous amount of resources that all countries put into stopping drugs. You can buy drugs in any major city in the planet. And I just don't see that they're prepared to make the kind of commitment necessary -- or even able to make the kind of commitment necessary -- to establish border controls over arms trafficking.

Characterize for me the issue of illegal small-arms trafficking and how that was perceived at the State Department at that point in time.

The State Department in the late 1990s perceived arms trafficking -- and, again, this was confined to those who followed Africa -- as a major problem, [but] competing with other issues in the department and in the government kept it at a very low priority. When you're looking at missile proliferation, chemical weapons proliferation, these were the most important issues. The African arms trafficking issue was an orphan child in the greater scheme of things. But for those who covered Africa, it was a very important issue. And we received a great deal of support from those individuals and offices that covered Africa on this issue.

Secretary Albright laid out a series of necessary steps to address illegal arms trafficking, not just to Africa but in general, as it is a global problem. What happened to those efforts?

Well, I think by the time that speech was made, it was the twilight of the [Clinton] administration. Taking action on some of those ideas probably would take years to get implemented and get agreement on and refine. I reckon she just ran out of time. And the new administration came in.

With similar interests?

Well, hard to say. Usually, when administrations change, you see six months to a year before they're settled in and understand things. And then we had the very unfortunate incident on September 11, which focused a considerable amount of the government's attention on one issue, which is terrorism. And the arms trafficking to Africa issue has, along with several other issues, just receded into the background.

Were you still getting all that attention from people, even in that twilight time, or did you sense a decline of interest?

There was still considerable interest, I think. And it's gone now, after 11 September. Very little interest in it. Perhaps a handful of people continue to cover the issue. And the government's resources, properly so, are focused on the aftermath of 11 September.

Contrast the level of rhetoric and attention that seems to be given to this topic and the amount of actual action.

Well, examining the rhetoric with the deeds, if you will, I think the deeds that have occurred so far are information gathering about arms trafficking. We've seen a whole host of U.N. reports, as I've said. They've named individuals. They've named companies. They've named banks. They've named countries that are involved. And these are public documents. So that's one issue. The other has been trying to increase African awareness of the problem. This is accomplished by holding conferences, training sessions, that sort of thing.

Those deeds, however, have had no impact on the problem. I don't think that it's a question of having the right policy. It's a question of investigation and prosecution. First, one has to criminalize it, and people need to be arrested.

The response of the United Nations thus far has been arms embargoes. Why?

I think, from the very foundation of the United Nations after the Second World War, this was a vehicle that the international community felt could stop the proliferation of arms to areas or countries where, in their opinion, arms should not go. It's a good idea. Making it work is a demand on the international system that, up till now, it has refused to address. How does one enforce it? The United Nations maintains largely that it's up to the member states to enforce the arms embargoes. You had some concern ... during the apartheid days in South Africa, when there was an arms embargo against it. The United Nations left it up to the member states. Very few member states chose to take action against individuals or corporations involved. You had a situation where countries were applauding arms embargoes against the apartheid regime and at the same time selling arms to the apartheid regime.

Have U.N. arms embargoes worked?

I know of no instance in the late 1990s or early 2000 period where a U.N. arms embargo has resulted in the prosecution of an individual, the jailing of an individual, or the acquisition of an arms shipment. There's just no mechanism to do it. Who is going to arrest them? The United Nations does not have monitoring teams. It does not have the authority to arrest people. Interpol had some [minimal] interest in arms trafficking. But their authority only extends to Europe. There's no mechanism. This again is a challenge to the international community. Something's going to have to be devised to address these kinds of problems.

You look at the top 10 arms producers in the world. The argument is made by some that they have a vested interest in keeping weapon sales going. That has to change. If it doesn't change, then we're going to see a continuation of what's been happening in Africa for the foreseeable future.

The United Nations has put out investigative teams. They've gone out in the field to identify the problem and to name and shame.

Well, the reports that are compiled by the United Nations are very informative. ... The problem is, they return to New York with the information, the reports are published, they (as I said) have identified airlines, ships, individuals, countries that are involved. So all of this information is known. From the United Nations perspective, this is enough to stop arms trafficking. They have been named and shamed. That has not happened. ... It has to be criminalized. In many countries, the first thing is to criminalize a violation of the U.N. arms embargo, because in most of the member states, it is not a crime.

The "name and shame" policy with regard to arms traffickers and arms trafficking, in my view, has been a total failure. ... Standing up and accusing a Security Council member of breaking a U.N. arms embargo and penalizing that by, let us say, suspending their voting rights, that could very quickly result in very serious ramifications inside the United Nations. ... If you start naming members and penalizing them or suspending voting rights, you'd be facilitating the collapse, I would think, of the United Nations. So it's very difficult, politically.

You're talking about a seismic shift in political will power.

Yes. I think, to come to terms with the arms trafficking problem in Africa and, I would think, in other parts of the world, would require a seismic shift in the way the international community does business. And, sadly, I just don't see that happening any time soon. We've got very difficult problems to deal with, everything from terrorism on one side to proliferation of these failed anarchical states on the other side. And historically, I think a case can be made that little or no attention has been paid to these failed states. And we've done so with great risk to ourselves, as the events of September 11 have borne out. I don't think we're in a situation now where we can just simply ignore a failed state. The African dimension of this, again, is going to be hard to convince many people [of], but we've had two examples already: the 1998 bombings in Dar es Salaam and Nairobi, where there was an African connection. And open borders, minimal policing capabilities, minimal information; and many people lost their lives as a result.

What's the connection between 9/11 and failed states?

Well, I think the September 11 tragedy underscored the fact that the West could no longer afford to ignore or give a very low priority to failed states. These are breeding grounds not only for arms traffickers, organized crime, all sorts of other things but also for terrorists. And again, the challenge facing the West is significant. ... I like to use the example of Bosnia. Essentially, what you have there is a U.N. protectorate. The day that goes, my guess is, the day the troubles are going to start again. There's no endgame. It's not going to be fixed next year or 10 years from now. It's going to be a permanent presence. I don't see that the international community is prepared to do that as yet. As we get further into the century, that may change. But areas like eastern Congo, for example, Sierra Leone, where there is a small British force in Freetown, this may be what we're looking at in terms of the future: making unlimited commitments. And that's something the West has not done very well in the post-1945 era.

So the risk of disengagement, the risk of Western disengagement, is?

 "In areas where arms traffickers can make money, many Western banks are complicit. When you go to a bank to make a deposit, they don't ask you where you've gotten the money." The risk of Western disengagement or "business as usual" with regard to failed states -- in terms of Africa, it's going to mean additional arms; more people either being killed, wounded, abused; greater destruction of infrastructure, whether it be roads, hospitals, schools, railroads, ... that sort of thing. It's a sliding back into chaos. Personally, I just can't see how it [the West] can remain aloof to these problems that affect an entire continent or an increasing part of the world.

But it's going to require a revolutionary change in how the West does business, in the way the United Nations does business, across the board, not just regarding arms trafficking. That's, again, a symptom of a wider problem. In areas where arms traffickers can make money, many Western banks are complicit in that. When you go to a bank to make a deposit, they don't ask you where you've gotten the money. They take your money. Maybe that has to change. Maybe there has to be some accountability there. And again, requiring significant change.

Look at just being an airline passenger now. Since September 11, there's a revolutionary change in the way an airline passenger is treated.

You mentioned that these failed states become a "breeding ground." What do you mean by "breeding ground"?

It's a breeding ground for organized crime because there are no state controls. Bribery is welcomed by government officials. It's also a breeding ground for arms traffickers, for drug traffickers, to use as transit points or as consumers. I think, if we could turn our attention to East Africa for a minute, you had a situation in Somalia where, since the early 1990s, it had been a failed state characterized by anarchy and a complete absence of any authority. And this breeding ground attracted ... terrorists, so we're led to believe that had a role to play in the explosions of the embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam. And I think that states, failed states, especially in Africa, are a magnet for all of these kinds of people. ... And I don't think we can support a situation where an increasing part of the world has failed. It puts pressure on the international system.

What do you mean by "magnet"?

Breeding ground or a magnet for arms traffickers, for criminal elements, for terrorists, for false-documents trafficking, drug trafficking, that sort of thing. Doing business in a failed state is much easier for these secret worlds than it is in a highly developed Western state. Chances of being arrested in a failed state for engaging in arms trafficking or any of these other activities that I mentioned is very minimal. One can buy one's way out of jail, for example, or oftentimes one operates in collusion with local warlords or government officials in these failed states.

So I think what is going on -- and it will intensify as we proceed into the century -- is a struggle between the failed states and the more developed states for control of the planet. And I think that the failed-state phenomenon is going to be the top issue that faces us for the first half of this century. And how the West comes to terms with the problems in these failed states, and a recognition of the commitment needed to resolve the problems in these failed states, is going to be far in excess of anything that we've done so far in the post-World War II era.

So this war on terrorism is actually part of a larger challenge?

Yes. Again, [September 11] was [a] symptom of a problem, more so than the problem. And a significant part of that network is in failed states. We had the situation in Afghanistan, and using failed states elsewhere in the world to either hide out or train people or try to gain a foothold. And from the perspective of those living in Somalia, you have a group there known as al-Itihaad, which supposedly is a terrorist group. But one of the things it has done is provided stability in certain areas, through establishment of Islamic courts; they've run health clinics; they've run schools. They're providing services that no one else has been able to provide. And I think when groups like that start getting the support of local communities, that's when you can enter into a breeding ground for trouble, because then you can tell someone, "Listen, we've provided these services to you. We'd just like you to drive this truck to the Kenyan border. Someone will take it from there." That sort of thing. The West needs to present an alternative to that. It has not done so as yet.

So the trafficking itself is just a symptom, really.

The arms trafficking is a symptom of a wider problem. The failed-state syndrome is part of that problem. ...

So is Leonid Minin just like the canary in the coal mine here?

Yes, he is a canary in a coal mine. If you arrest Minin today and shut him down, the problem will still be there. If you arrest Victor Bout today and shut him down, the problem will still be there. It's more than just an individual. It's more than just a bank. It's more than just an airline. It's a systemic problem. The international climate, as it's so configured now, allows this activity to go on. That has to change. And the process of changing, that's going to require a significant, unprecedented alteration of the international system. I just don't see that happening any time soon. But hopefully, as we get into this century, it will be a gradual process and [we'll] start coming to terms with some of these issues.