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24 June 2008

The deadly convenience of Victor Bout

Portrait of gun-runner Victor Bout
Creative Commons - Attribution 2.0 Generic Creative Commons - Attribution 2.0 Generic

Snapshot of Russian citizen Victor Bout

With international arms dealer Victor Bout behind bars in Bangkok, many world leaders are squirming over revelations of his client list.

By John CK Daly

The arrest on 6 March of 41-year-old Viktor Anatol'evich Bout in Bangkok continues to shine a most unwelcome (for some) spotlight on the shadowy world of the international arms trade, and will doubtless leave many governments, including the US, scrambling for cover as they attempt to limit the fallout from his arrest.

Bout was taken into custody in a conference room on the 27th floor of Bangkok's five-star Sofitel hotel after reportedly attempting to sell armaments to Colombia's FARC guerrillas.

His arrest involved not only the Royal Thai Police and the US Drug Enforcement Agency, but the Romanian Border Police, the Romanian Prosecutor's Office Attached to the High Court of Cassation and Justice, the Korps Politie Curacao of the Netherlands Antilles and the Danish National Police Security Services.

The following day, Michael Garcia, the US Attorney for the Southern District of New York, and Michele Leonhart, the Acting Administrator of the DEA, announced the unsealing of charges against Bout (aka "Boris," Victor But," "Viktor Budd," "Viktor Butt," "Viktor Bulakin," "Vadim Markovich Aminov … and so on.

On 10 March at 9 am in Manhattan district court federal agents arraigned Bout's associate, Andrei (Andrew) Smulian, who, according to the DEA, was arrested along with Bout in Thailand.

Smulian, apparently spirited out of Thailand, was charged with conspiring to provide material support to a designated foreign terrorist organization, according to the Economist magazine. Smulian was detained without bail. Prosecutors did not say where or when he had been arrested, Agence France Presse reported.

One of Bout's three lawyers, Yan Dasgupta, claimed that, "Some [US] governmental officials at the moment of his detention tried to actually send him to United States without following proper extradition procedure prescribed by the law. He was doing everything in his power including physical resistance not to fly to the US," according to Profile magazine.

Dasgupta confirmed that Smulian had been in Bangkok at the time of Bout's arrest, telling journalists, "We don't really understand what happened to Mr Smulian. It is quite interesting and surprising and strengthens my argument on (Bout) being forcibly sent to the United States," AFP quoted him as saying.

On 8 March after a brief hearing, Bout was fingerprinted before the media and transferred to Bangkok's Klong Prem Special Prison. The Russian embassy immediately hired Thai lawyer Lak Nitiwatvichan, who told reporters, "He was a military man. He has done nothing wrong. Thailand is a sovereign country, so since he was arrested in Thailand, he is willing to be prosecuted under Thai law," according to the Bangkok Post.

On 11 March, Lak posted 500,000 baht (US$15,835) in cash for bail, but the Criminal Court issued a statement noting that "The suspect is accused of being involved in international terrorism. This is a serious case and he may leave the country, so the court is not allowing the bail for the suspect," the daily reported.

On 23 April, the US Department of Justice issued its Overview of the Law Enforcement Strategy to Combat International Organized Crime, which revealed the sting operation, noting: "Unbeknownst to Bout, the people he believed to be FARC members were actually confidential sources working with the Department of Justice."

Equal opportunity supplier

During his career Bout has been an equal opportunity merchant of death, reportedly supplying former Eastern bloc weaponry to 17 African countries, al-Qaida, Afghanistan's Northern Alliance, the Taliban, Hizbollah, Muammar el-Qaddafi and the Philippines' Abu Sayyaf militant group, among others.

Demonstrating a real flair for business, Bout's numerous, shadowy firms and their suspected accomplices comprise a very impressive list, including nearly 40 aviation companies and their numerous branches around the world, with the Air Cess entity being the flagship.

Nearly everything about Bout’s past is murky. While his USSR passport states that he was born in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, Bout said during a February 2002 interview that he was in fact born in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan, according to Russia's Ekho Moskvy radio. The Guardian lists Bout’s birthplace as Tashkent, Uzbekistan. As late as 2004, the Chairman of Britain's House of Commons Select Committee on Foreign Affairs identified Bout as a Ukrainian.

Further muddying the portrait are such relatively simple questions as the number of passports that he carries (five or more), which include two Russian (internal and foreign) and one Ukrainian. The January 2005 UN Security Council Committee on Liberia Assets Freeze List gave four differing passport numbers. The Ukrainian SBU, successor to the Soviet-era KGB, states that Bout is a citizen of the United Arab Emirates.

Bout graduated as an interpreter in the late 1980s from the prestigious Military Foreign Languages Institute in Moscow, where in addition to his Russian and Uzbek, he reportedly learned English, Farsi, French, Spanish and Portuguese, later picking up the African languages Xhosa and Zulu during his travels, Alain Astaud writes in "Portrait du trafiquant d'armes 'Victor B' A Bout portent."

Bout subsequently served in the 339th military-transport aerial regiment of the Soviet Air Force in Vitebsk, Belarus, and was in 1987 subsequently posted to Angola with UN peacekeeping forces, where he worked as a translator and developed political and military ties, according to Russia's Kommersant newspaper. Bout also served in Mozambique, furthering sharpening his abilities in Portuguese, Izvestia reported.

Opportunity knocks

The 1991 implosion of the USSR was a catastrophe for the Soviet military-industrial complex. The USSR's former first deputy defense minister Pavel Grachev subsequently observed that of the Soviet Air Force's three military transport aviation divisions only two regiments remained operational, while the breakup of the USSR left units in Vitebsk and Ukraine's Dzhankoe, Zaporozh'e and Krivoi Rog beyond Russian control. Among the newly unemployed in Vitebsk was Senior Lieutenant Bout.

An executive decision opened the door for wide-scale looting of Soviet-era military equipment deemed surplus, not only in Russia but throughout the newly created Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). Immediately after the collapse of the USSR, when the last Soviet defense minister Evgenii Shaposhnikov became commander-in-chief of the new CIS armed forces, the right to dispose of "surplus property" was granted down to the level of battalion commander, according to an article in the Sovershenno Sekretno magazine.

In 1992, Bout left the military and was discharged into the reserves as a Senior Lieutenant, according to Russia's Novosti newspaper. Bout found the shambolic post-Soviet aviation environment a perfect setting for his unique skills.

It was in this chaotic setting that Bout ostensibly made his first "purchase" of three Antonov AN-12 aircraft for US$120,000. Bout then started Transavia Export Cargo Co, based in Ostend, together with the Belgian pilot Ronald Desmet.

Bout's planes, registered in Monrovia in 1993, covertly supplied Belgian soldiers in Somalia. Several reports in the Russian media claim that, in return for a cut of the profits, Bout was proffered the Antonovs by the General Staff's Main Intelligence Directorate, while many speculate that he might have been a member of the directorate himself, given that it (the GRU) ran the Military Foreign Languages Institute. Bout's possible KGB links included possible marriage ties. A December 2000 UN report on his activities noted that his wife Alla's father, Zuiguin, "at one point held a high position in the KGB, perhaps even as high as a deputy chairman."

In 1995, Bout also started the Air Cess air cargo company, the only firm in Bout's network that ever officially listed him as its head, which he registered in Liberia. Like Transavia Export Cargo Co., Air Cess operated out of Ostend, which Bout used until 1997. Interestingly, Ostend had been a transit point for weapons in the Iran-contra operation 11 years earlier.

The scale of Bout's various enterprises was startling; one Russian media source reports that, in the aftermath of the post-Soviet economic chaos in the Ukraine, Bout and his associates purloined one-third of Ukraine's Soviet-era arsenal and sold it on the global market, netting US$49 million.

In 1997, under pressure from the Belgian authorities amid media allegations that he had sold 40 tonnes of weapons to the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan, Bout moved his operations to Sharjah in the UAE. Shortly thereafter, he was running the biggest of the Emirate's 160 air-cargo companies, employing 1,000 air and ground crewmembers.

Africa, the diamond years

It was in Africa that Bout built his aviation empire. By 2000, in eight short years, his aerial armada had grown from three to nearly 60 aircraft operated by a dizzying array of shell companies.

UN experts in 1996 claimed that Bout was shipping arms from Bulgaria and Romania to Hutu forces in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) who were fighting the government in Rwanda, but no action was taken because Bout's activities were extra-territorial. Rwanda still allegedly owes Bout US$21 million for the weapons.

Between 1997 and 1998, Air Cess shipped US$14 million of weapons from Bulgaria via Togo to Angolan rebel group UNITA (National Union for the Total Independence of Angola) and the Liberian-backed Revolutionary United Front of Sierra Leone, violating the UN embargo. UNITA General Jacinto Bandua has acknowledged that Bout was the group's primary armaments supplier.

Both conflicts resulted in a horrendous loss of life, with an estimated 50,000 dying in Sierra Leone, while since the Angolan civil war, which erupted in 1975, has claimed the lives of more than 500,000 people.

Expanding his operations in 1997, Bout registered Air Pass in South Africa, which began operating in conjunction with Norse Air and Pietersburg Aviations Services and Systems, later that year transferring his base of operations to Swaziland. Bout's African client list would eventually expand beyond Angola to include Cameroon, the Central African Republic, the DRC, Equatorial Guinea, Kenya, Liberia, Libya, Congo-Brazzaville, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, South Africa, Sudan, Swaziland and Uganda.

Bout's pilots knew how to evade radars, used false identification markings and observed radio silence, flying with their aircraft navigation lights turned off. African clients would set up temporary airstrips, deceiving American satellites by only cutting down underbrush to slightly below wing level rather than clear-cutting an identifiable runway for the rugged former Soviet aircraft. Bout's pilots specialized in precise parachute cargo drops onto prearranged coordinates. For such services the money in the early 1990s for Russians was extraordinary. In Angola, leasing Bout's aircraft cost US$1,200 per hour and pilots made US$5,000-10,000 per month.

In 1998, as South African authorities moved to indict Bout with 146 breaches of civil aviation regulations, he moved his operations to Swaziland. When authorities there subsequently grounded 43 of his aircraft because of inadequate documentation, the aircraft magically reappeared in Bangui in the Central African Republic.

In 2000 and 2001, Bout shuffled dozens of flights through South Africa using front companies.

After the December 2000 publication of two UN reports on African gun-running, many European diplomats expressed outrage during UN meetings that Bout was working so openly in Africa's war zones, causing him yet again to relocate his Air Cess and Air Pass offices to Sharjah.

The following year, Bout's company headquarters reappeared in the neighboring emirate of Adjman, even though Bout continued living in Sharjah. Meanwhile, in Central Africa, Bout's villa in the Kimihurura section of Kigali, Rwanda, was so overrun with Bout's CIS personnel, from pilots to mechanics, that the locals dubbed it "The Kremlin."

As interesting as Bout's lethal arms deliveries were the materials he took in payment. Beside the better known "blood diamonds" and gold, one of Bout's major mineral exports from the Congo was coltan, or columbo-tantalite, which is processed into tantalum and used in the production of mobile phones, computers, jet engines, fiber optics and capacitors.

By late 2000, the suddenly rising global demand for tantalum capacitors for mobile phones, laptop computers, video cameras, consumer and automotive electronics caused coltan prices to soar that year from US$30-40 per pound to over US$300 per pound by December. As coltan prices skyrocketed, Bout's planes transported coltan from the DRC to Uganda, Tanzania and Kenya, according to Spain's El Pais magazine.

During Africa's "second Congo war" (2000-2002), Bout supplied weapons to more than 20 armed groups from eight states participating in the slaughter. By then Bout was the biggest operator in the African arms market; his front companies employing an estimated 300 people operating 40 to 60 aircraft, including the world's largest private fleet of Antonov cargo planes, according to Russia's RIA-Novosti.

Determining Afghanistan

Bout said during a 2002 interview, "Before the Taliban came in we had a very large volume of shipments there. In 1997, we were the second-biggest operator in Afghanistan after Lufthansa. We cooperated with the legal government of Rabbani, which was recognized by the world community," Komsomolskaia Pravda quoted him as saying.

Bout would eventually supply more than Afghanistan's Northern Alliance forces. In 1995, an Aerostan Iliushin-76 plane leased by Bout's company Transavia was forced to land in Kandahar by a Taliban MiG-21 jet fighter and Taliban officials impounded "30-odd tons of AK-47 small arms ammunition" meant for Rabbani's forces.

While the Taliban by then had captured 10 provincial capitals, it had not yet taken Kabul. On 16 August, 1996 the crew reportedly "overpowered" their Taliban guards and returned the plane to Sharjah.

Western intelligence believed that Bout subsequently used the incident to establish relations with the Taliban, with some US and UN officials asserting that Bout made his first deal with the Taliban in 1996 in the UAE, one of only three nations to recognize the regime.

On 15 April 2002, the British publication Air Cargo News published an article alleging that in 1995 Bout had supplied an aircraft to Osama bin Laden. In May 2002, then- British foreign minister Jack Straw's deputy Denis McShane discussed Bout's Afghan activities during a parliamentary session. In commenting on one of Bout's cargo planes, McShane said, "Prior to September 11th, this aircraft had reportedly been frequently overflying Iran from Saudi Arabia to Kabul and Kandahar in Afghanistan. It is now reportedly parked at Jiddah in Saudi Arabia."

Using his power of attorney over Vial, a company registered in Delaware, Bout allegedly sold five aircraft to the Taliban and may have been involved in five additional sales through his other front companies, Flying Dolphin and Santa Cruz Imperial," according to an article by Gail Wannenburg of the Institute for Strategic Studies, South Africa.


Dr John CK Daly is a non-resident scholar at the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute, Paul H Nitze School of Advanced International Studies of the Johns Hopkins University in Washington DC. He is also the chief analyst for Oilprice.com.

Editor's note:

For part two of "The deadly convenience of Victor Bout" please click here.

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