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Viktor Bout

Viktor Bout

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Published by: yweisbrod on Mar 09, 2008
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November
|
December
2006
39
I
n many ways, Viktor Bout is a prototypical,modern-day, multinational entrepreneur. Heis smart, savvy, and ambitious. He’s goodwith numbers, speaks several languages, andknows how to seize opportunities when they arise.According to those who’ve met him, he’s polite, pro-fessional, and unassuming. Bout has no known his-tory of violence, and no political agenda. He loves hisfamily. He’s fed the poor. And through his hard work,he’s become extraordinarily wealthy. During the pastdecade, Bout’s business acumen has earned him hun-dreds of millions of dollars. What, exactly, does he do?Former colleagues describe him as a postman, able todeliver any package virtually anywhere in the world.Not yet 40 years old, the Russian national alsohappens to be the world’s most notorious armstrafficker. He, more than almost anyone else, hassucceeded in exploiting the anarchy of globalizationto get goods—usually illicit goods—to market. He’sa wanted man, desired by those who require a smallmilitary arsenal and pursued by law enforcementagencies who want to bring him down. Globe-trottingweapons merchants have long flooded the ThirdWorld with
AK
-47s, rocket-propelled grenades, andwarehouses of bullets and landmines. But unlike hisrivals, who tend to carve out small regional territories,Bout’s planes have dropped off his tell-tale military-green crates from jungle landing strips in the Congoto bleak hillside runways in Afghanistan. He hasdeveloped a worldwide network of logistics, maneu-vering through a maze of brokers, transportationcompanies, financiers, and weapons manufacturers—both illicit and legitimate—to deliver everything fromfresh-cut flowers, frozen poultry, and U.N. peace-keepers to assault rifles and surface-to-air missilesacross four continents.His client list for weapons is long. In the 1990s,Bout was a friend and supplier to the legendary AhmedShah Massoud, leader of the Northern Alliance inAfghanistan, while simultaneously selling weaponsand aircraft to the Taliban, Massoud’s enemy. Hisfleet flew for the government of Angola, as well as forthe
unita
rebels seeking to overthrow it. He sent anaircraft to rescue Mobutu Sese Seko, the ailing and cor-
Russian entrepreneur Viktor Bout has made millions as the world’s most efficient postman, able to deliver any kind of cargo—especially illicit weapons—anywhere in the world. How was he able to build hisintricate underground network? By exploiting cracks in the anarchy of  globalization.
|
By Douglas Farah and Stephen Braun
Douglas Farah, a former
Washington Post
foreign corre-spondent, is a terror finance consultant and author of 
Bloodfrom Stones: The Secret Financial Network of Terror
(NewYork: Broadway Books, 2004). Stephen Braun is a national correspondent for the
Los
Angeles Times
. The authors arewriting a book about Viktor Bout, which will be published in 2007.
   I   L   L   U   S   T   R   A   T   I   O   N   B   Y   R   O   B   D   A   Y   F   O   R
       F       P
The
Merchant
of 
death
 
40
Foreign Policy
[
The Merchant of Death
]
rupt ruler of Zaire, even though he had supplied therebels who were closing in on Mobutu’s last strong-hold. He has catered to Charles Taylor of Liberia, theRevolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, and Libyanstrongman Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi.Bout’s customers are not exclusively corrupt Third-World leaders. He built his fortune by flying tons of legitimate cargo, too. These included countless trips forthe United Nations into the same areas where he sup-plied the weapons that sparked the humanitariancrises in the first place. He’s done business with West-ern governments, including the United States. Over thepast several years, the U.S. Treasury Department hastried to put Bout out of business by freezing his assetsand imposing other sanctions on him, his businessassociates, and his companies. But the Pentagon andits contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan have simulta-neously paid him millions of dollars to fly hundredsof missions in support of post-war reconstruction inboth countries. In an age when the U.S. president hasdivided the world into those who are with the UnitedStates and those who are against it, Bout is both.International officials believe that Bout’s businesspractices—in particular, his refusal to discriminateamong those who are willing to pay the right price—are, in fact, illegal. Peter Hain, then the British For-eign Office minister responsible for Africa, stood inParliament in 2000 to lash out against those violat-ing U.N. arms sanctions. He singled out Bout, dub-bing him Africa’s “merchant of death.” But Bout’sdeals often fall into a legal gray area that globaljurisprudence has simply failed to proscribe. It’s notfor lack of trying. His peripatetic aircraft appear inlittle-noticed U.N. reports documenting arms embar-go violations in Liberia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Angola, and Sierra Leone. U.S. spy satel-lites have photographed his airplanes loading cratesof weapons on remote airstrips in Africa. Americanand British intelligence officials have eavesdropped onhis telephone conversations. Interpol has issued a“red notice,” requesting his arrest on Belgian weaponstrafficking and money-laundering charges.Yet Bout has managed to elude authorities over andover again. Laws simply do not address transnational,nonstate actors such as Bout. His most egregious ille-gal acts have included multiple violations of U.N. armsembargos, a crime for which there is no penalty and forwhich there is no enforcement mechanism. Today,Bout lives openly in Moscow, protected by a Russiangovernment unconcerned by the international outcrythat surrounds him and his business empire.
INTERNATIONAL MAN OF MYSTERY
Much of Viktor Bout’s early history is eitherunknown or of his own making. He is married andhas at least one daughter; that much is true. Hisolder brother Sergei works for him. But any otherpersonal information is clouded in mystery. Evenhis place of birth is unclear. According to his offi-cial Russian passport, Bout was born on Jan. 13,1967, in the faded Soviet outpost of Dushanbe,Tajikistan. But during a 2002 radio interview inMoscow, Bout said he was born near the CaspianSea in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan. A 2001 SouthAfrican intelligence report lists him as Ukrainian.He is known to carry more than one passport anduse an array of aliases, including Vadim S. Aminov,Victor Anatoliyevitsch Bout, Victor S. Bulakin,and the sardonic favorite of his American pur-suers, Victor Butt.The deliberate obfuscation has made it diffi-cult to track Bout, his partners, and his business. Hesays he was an Air Force officerand has acknowledged graduatingfrom the prestigious Soviet Mili-tary Institute of Foreign Languagesin Moscow in the late 1980s. Hereportedly speaks fluent English,French, Portuguese, Uzbek, andseveral African languages. U.N.officials say he worked as a trans-lator for peacekeepers in Angolain the late 1980s. Several reports tie him to Russ-ian organized crime.Although British and SouthAfrican intelligence reports say that Bout was sta-tioned in Rome with the
kgb
from 1985 to 1989,he has strenuously denied any intelligence back-ground. But military language school was a knowntraining ground for the
gru
(or Main IntelligenceDirectorate)—the vast, secretive, Soviet militaryintelligence network that oversaw the Cold Warflow of Russian arms to revolutionary movementsand communist client states in the Third World.
Viktor Bout is a wanted man, desired by those whorequire a small military arsenal and pursued by lawenforcement agencies who want to bring him down.

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