By John C.k. DalyJamestown Foundation Terrorism Monitor
October 21, 2004
Viktor Vasilevich Bout, one of the world's most notorious arms merchants with proven links to the Taliban, has become a valued partner of the US as it grapples with the insurgency in Iraq. Bout's airline, British Gulf, flies material into Baghdad International airport for the US occupation forces. Given that the airport is now the world's most dangerous, with planes with everything from Kalashnikovs to surface to air missiles, Bout's 60 aircraft and 300 pilots and personnel provide the US authorities with "plausible deniability" in case one is downed. According to the commander of the U.S. Transportation Command, Air Force General John Handy, insurgents fire on U.S. military aircraft using Baghdad International on almost a daily basis. Handy remarked, "As we fly around, we are repeatedly shot at, with manpads (man-portable air defense systems), small arms, and triple-A (anti-aircraft artillery)." Handy compared the situation in Iraq to Afghanistan, noting that nearly all of the attacks "probably right now, 90 to 95 per cent" involve Iraq, with "very, very little out of Afghanistan". Aside from his fiscal compensation, it is believed that Bout will be amnestied from the multitude of international charges he faces in return for his service. For a man who formerly supplied the Taliban and guerrilla movements from Rwanda to the Philippines, that is quite a feat. Former US National Security Council member Lee S. Wolosky called Bout "the most powerful player in the trafficking of illegal arms." A UN Security council report notes that in law enforcement circles, Bout is referred to as "Viktor B" due to his use of at least five aliases and variant spellings of his surname.
Born in Tajikistan to Russian parents, the 37-year-old Bout lives in Moscow, where good connections have up to now shielded him from arrest. Bout has five passports, speaks six languages, and while his global arms trade was largely centered on Africa, he has run arms to groups as diverse as the Philippine's Muslim Abu Sayyaf Group and the Taliban. In 2000, the British Foreign Office Minister responsible for Africa, Peter Hain, called Bout "the chief sanctions buster andâ€¦a merchant of death who owns air companies that ferry in arms" to rebels in Sierra Leone and Angola. Bout also deeply involved himself in Liberia's civil unrest. At the time that Hain made his comments, Bout was not the only player in Liberia; among those doing business with the Taylor regime were senior al-Qaida members, Israeli-Ukrainian drug merchant and arms dealer Leonid Minin, Mobuto Sese Seko's bagman, and al-Qaida and Hezbollah middleman Aziz Nassour. Taylor also had ties with South African and Balkan organized crime rings. It was a perfect opportunity for Bout to expand his network of contacts. Both the FBI and the UN-supported Special Court for Sierra Leone have confirmed Taylor's al-Qaida connections. In return for supplying weapons to Liberia's former strong man before he was forced into exile in 2003 and Zaire's Mobutu, Bout received diamonds and precious minerals, highly fungible commodities on the international market. Further south, United Nations estimates that in running hundreds of tons of Bulgarian munitions to UNITA guerrillas in Angola, the Russian arms dealer made at least US$15 million. Researchers for the British-based charity Oxfam international estimate the African trade in illegal arms to be worth around US$50 million annually, about half of the global total.
Arming friends and enemies
Bout was a graduate of the Institute for Military Interpreters in Moscow, where in addition to his Russian and Uzbek, he picked up English, French, and Portuguese. His career as the world's premier illegal arms merchant began in 1993, when he left the KGB and began dealing arms from Belgium. Under pressure from the Belgian authorities, Bout moved his base of operations to the United Arab Emirates in 1997. In 2002, both Belgium and Interpol issued warrants for Bout's arrest. For his involvement in Liberia's bloody civil war, the UN banned Bout from international travel and froze his foreign bank accounts. Despite his usefulness in Iraq, Bout's deal to supply US$50 million worth of arms to the Taliban creates some embarrassment for the Bush administration. Der Spiegel reported in January 2002 that an Israeli of Ukrainian background, Vadim Rabinovich along with the former director of the Ukrainian secret service and his son brokered a deal, selling 150-200 T-55 and T-62 tanks to the Taliban. According to a Western intelligence source speaking on condition of anonymity, the tanks were transported by one of Bout's airfreight companies headquartered in the Persian Gulf. But the tank deal was hardly Bout's first transaction with the Taliban. In 1995, he was involved in running arms to Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani, then under attack by Taliban forces. A Bout-owned Iliushin-76 transporting weaponry to Rabbani's forces was forced to land by a Taliban MiG-21. Bout and Russian diplomats tried for a year to negotiate the crews' release to no avail. On August 16, 1996 the crew overpowered their Taliban guards and returned the plane to Sharjah; even though the deal was off, Western intelligence believes that Bout used the incident to establish relations with the Taliban. An investigation in early 2002 by Washington's International Consortium of Investigative Journalists claimed that Bout sold millions of dollars worth of weaponry to the Taliban in the late 1990s. Some US and UN officials assert that Bout made his first deal with the Taliban in 1996 in the United Arab Emirates.
Other intelligence (based primarily on Belgian intelligence documents) indicated that Bout made about US$50 million in his dealings with the Taliban. Britain's MI6 estimated Bout's profits in his dealings with the Taliban at a rather more modest US$30 million. While the report could find no direct evidence of Bout supplying bin Laden, the closeness of al-Qaida and their host Taliban government could certainly have facilitated the transfer of material. According to Afghanistan's permanent representative to the UN, at the time that Bout was delivering munitions to the Taliban, shipments also included potassium cyanide and other toxic chemicals. British Foreign Minister Jack Straw's deputy Denis McShane in April 2002 discussed Bout's Afghan activities during a question session in Parliament. 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." Nor did Bout's connections with the Taliban end with their overthrow in November 2001. Following the collapse of the Taliban, Bout's airline "Air Bas" was used to ferry Taliban and al-Qaida gold out of Afghanistan to Karachi, Iran, the UAE, and Khartoum.
Bout has consistently maintained his innocence in dealing with either the Taliban or al-Qaida. In an interview with Russia's Ekho Moskvy radio in March 2002, he protested saying, "I have never supplied anything to or had contacts with the Taliban or al-Qaida." Bout spent the interview berating US intelligence services, accusing them of slandering him to protect their own shortcomings in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Bout told his listeners, "They have turned me into a bugbear. It is a good subject for a horror story or a comic, and it raises the question of the efficiency of all these security servicesâ€¦that failed to avert September 11." Nor did Bout limit himself to war zones. Bout's US air operations included establishing Air Cess Inc. in Miami in September 1997 until the company was dissolved in September 2001. His agent, Richard Ammar Chichakli, a nephew of a former president of Syria fronted San Air General Trading, registered in Texas. After the 9/11, Chichakli said that Bout organized three flights transporting US military personnel to Afghanistan, but gave no further details.
Bout's value to the Bush administration
His value to the Bush administration in Iraq is immense, however. As one specialist in the arms trade, speaking on condition of anonymity said of his crews and aircraft, "they're accustomed to land in any kind of war zone without having a fit. And if one of their planes is shot down, there's no risk of American pilots' bodies being dragged through the streets". While after 9/11 the Bush administration suspected Bout of running arms to al-Qaida, according to a Belgian secret service source, the US nonetheless used Bout to ferry arms shipments to the northern Alliance for its operations against the Taliban. In 2004, the Bush administration began to press for Bout to be left off planned UN sanctions, in spite of French efforts at the UN in March 2004 to freeze his assets and an outstanding Interpol warrant for his arrest. A senior Western diplomat aware of the issues said, "We are disgusted that Bout won't be on the list, even though he is the principal arms dealer in the region. If we want peace in that region, it seems evident that he should be on that list." The Bush administration pressured the Blair government to remove Bout from its preliminary list of individuals for inclusion, and this was duly noted. Washington's logic is that Bout should be dealt with by separate UN measures dealing specifically with arms dealers. In the final analysis, Bout is able to operate freely for two simple reasons: he provides a service and is discreet, operating through his many front companies. Indeed Bout shuns publicity; only one public photograph of him is known to exist. A Belgian investigator, speaking on condition of anonymity, summed up Bout perfectly, noting, "The problem with Viktor is always the same one. He is a useful man, and can therefore count on important support."