Viktor Bout has been accused by officials in the United States and Europe of being one of the world's most prolific arms traffickers, with a client list that allegedly includes the Taliban and Liberian warlord Charles Taylor.
Few people are better acquainted with Bout's business dealings and relationships with both Russia and the United States than Douglas Farah. Formerly an investigative reporter at "The Washington Post," he is now a senior fellow at the International Assessment and Strategy Center, a Washington-area think tank, and co-author of "The Merchant of Death," a 2007 book about Bout.
As Bout awaits extradition to the United States, Farah spoke with RFE/RL correspondent Richard Solash.
RFE/RL: How did Bout get his start as an arms supplier?
Douglas Farah: He seems to have had a unique gift in being able to see where the world was going. You'll recall in Africa, you had a series of wars that had been financed or supported by both the Soviet Union and the United States and their proxies. You had the UNITA rebels and the Angolan government, you had different wars that had been going on, so there's a great market for weapons and suddenly the weapons market essentially dried up on the proxy front. The superpowers were no longer providing them.
And he realized if he could get the weapons to the market, the market would then be able to absorb the weapons. And to me, his stroke of genius was figuring out that he also needed multiple aircraft to do that, and was able to acquire those aircraft very cheaply if he paid at all, [and] simply fly them out over the former Soviet Union, where they were spread across the tarmacs of the entire region, rotting in the sun because there was no money for maintenance, no money for fuel, and no one was flying them.
RFE/RL: Who were some of Bout's most notorious clients and what did he supply them with?
Farah: Well, I think the most clearly documented one is Charles Taylor in Liberia who was at that time supporting the Revolutionary United Front in neighboring Sierra Leone and it was that particularly vicious war where the signature atrocity was the hacking off of arms and legs of men, women, and children.
And you can track the worst atrocities or the worst offensives of the RUF in Sierra Leone to weapons shipments that arrived to Charles Taylor in Liberia and were transferred over. There's a direct correlation between when the weapons arrived and three to four weeks later these offensives.
He's also very closely identified with the UNITA rebels in Angola where he would deal directly with Jonas Savimbi, who often paid him in diamonds, and the latter history of the UNITA rebels in Angola's also particularly gruesome and gory.
He worked in Rwanda, he worked extensively in the Democratic Republic of Congo, arming different sides in that multifaceted civil war. So I would say quite a few. And then of course onward, a little later in his career, to [his dealings with] the Taliban and other groups.
Working With The Taliban
RFE/RL: To what extent did Bout work with the Taliban?
Farah: Well there's an interesting story, because he was also initially supplying the Northern Alliance with Ahmad Mas'ud, or "The Lion of Panjshir," the great resistance leader. And one of his aircraft carrying ammunition to Mas'ud was brought down by the Taliban in Afghanistan before they took power. They held the crew hostage for just about a year and as the negotiations progressed, then [the crew] eventually made their way out of captivity.
And almost immediately after that [Bout] began supplying the Taliban, running what was then Ariana Airlines, which was the official Afghan airline that the Taliban had taken over. And he was supplying maintenance to their aircraft, but also flying, in particular, ammunition to the Taliban.
RFE/RL: Was Bout a member of that downed crew?
Farah: No, he wasn't. But he went personally himself to negotiate several times with the Taliban that was holding his crew hostage. He also has a reputation of being very loyal to his people and treating them relatively well and not abandoning people in the field. He and his brother showed up numerous times and it seems that the deal was those guys would be allowed out if he would then begin servicing the Taliban as well.
RFE/RL: You mentioned that Bout had a reputation of being loyal, and yet he supplied arms to opposing sides of conflicts, such in Angola and Afghanistan. How did he get away with that?
Farah: Well, that's really one of the most fascinating parts about his career to me. As someone told me in the book, he was the ultimate mailman and you never shoot the mailman.
There were very few other people who could deliver what he could deliver across the African continent particularly, and also in Afghanistan, where you have no roads, no trains, no other method of transportation.
So I think all sides viewed him as a necessary part of their logistical supply line, and if they killed him because he was supplying someone else, they would also essentially be killing themselves. And I think that is a really remarkable part of his career.
Employed/Sought By U.S.
RFE/RL: Bout was also employed by the U.S. government. What is the history of that business relationship and how was that possible if he was also accused by the United States of arming terrorists?
Farah: Certainly the U.S. was a major client, particularly prior [to] and in the early days on the invasion of Iraq. Bout was ideally situated -- he was in Sharjah in the U.A.E., so that's that was very close to the theatre of operation. The United States had lost a great deal of military lift capacity. They simply didn't have the ability to fly stuff in to maintain an army of the size they were moving. And many American companies couldn't get insurance to do it, and insurance was not a major concern of Viktor's.
And so that constellation of events allowed Viktor to begin flying in a very large way for the Americans in the early part of that experience. Even though it eventually became known that it they were his aircraft, there was a calculation, essentially, that it was more important to get equipment to troops on the ground than it was to worry about who was getting them there. So eventually, as things stabilized a little bit and the needs were a little less, they began to try to focus a little bit on weeding him out.
RFE/RL: How did Bout manage to evade capture for so long?
Farah: I think the main answer is that most of what he was doing, while it was morally reprehensible, was not actually illegal. He was violating UN arms sanctions on different countries, but the punishment for that is for the UN to say, "You're a bad person, please don't do it again," and then you just keep on flying, which is what he did.
So there was no specific law of any specific country he violated which made it very difficult for the amorphous United Nations structure to ever do anything except to tell him he was a bad person.
One of the reasons it came to [the U.S.] decision to carry out this sting operation on him in Thailand was particularly to get him, to be able to document a crime that's a crime in the United States, and hope to get him extradited. And of course the other thing he always had was a good deal of protection from Russian intelligence structures and when things were getting really hot, he simply went back to Moscow and no one was going to touch him there.
RFE/RL: To what extent has the Russian government enabled or supported his activities?
Farah: Well I think it has waxed and waned. In the early days he clearly had financing from either retired and perhaps some still-active senior intelligence officials who essentially financed his initial operations. And our understanding in the book was that he was essentially operating on commission as he carried out these different arms deliveries.
And then I think the sort of monumental change for him came when he figured out he didn't have to fly anywhere empty ever across Africa. So he could begin to fly timber, gladiolas, frozen chicken, UN peacekeepers, relief aid, AK-47s, rocket-propelled grenades. It was all sort of one giant delivery service that he developed and I think that's when he really sort of takes off and becomes a little bit more independent.
And then, in the last few years, as [Russian President and later Prime Minister] Vladimir Putin began reconsolidating the very fragmented intelligence structure in Russia again, he comes back under more direct control of the Russian intelligence services.
RFE/RL: Russia has railed against the extradition decision. How much of an issue could this become in U.S.-Russian relations?
Farah: That's an interesting question. If it becomes a big issue, it will indicate to me that he knows a lot more about current operations and they're very afraid of what he could actually do -- [and] damage them now. If they sort of make a lot of noise and then drop it, it would indicate to me that most of his information they're afraid he could provide Americans would be somewhat historical in nature and they'd be relatively confident he couldn't hurt their operations now. I think it will be very interesting to see.
RFE/RL: What kind of information do you think he could tell U.S. officials?
Farah: Well I think that there is this gray-market area that particularly the former Soviet Union supplies, particularly in weapons, but also going to other types of illicit transport.
And I think one of the great concerns in all of this is the nuclear issue. What would be the capacity of moving components of nuclear bombs or weapons of mass destruction of any sort on the pipelines he was familiar with -- how far the Russians are advanced in that.
But also, there are Russian networks of arms suppliers across eastern Africa that are active in the wars in Somalia and Yemen and elsewhere, and I think he would know a great deal about that whole subterranean structure that exists, which I think at this point the U.S. knows very little about.