Merchant of Death: Money, Guns, Planes, and the Man Who Makes War Possible
by Douglas Farah and Stephen Braun
Wiley, $25.95 hardbound, 308 pp.
Reviewed by Steven Emerson
September 7, 2007
The ultimate "man in the shadows," Viktor Bout, is an arms dealer. Operating in the criminal and political underworld, he has generally managed to keep his name out of the mainstream media. But in this remarkable and courageous book, two well-respected journalists - Douglas Farah, formerly of The Washington Post, and Stephen Braun, a national correspondent for the Los Angeles Times - have ripped the curtain of willful ignorance away from someone who can only be described as one of the world's most despicable people. This book is going to compel you to finish it in one sitting once you start it.. A non-fiction thriller that is one of the best I have ever read.
"Merchants of death" is a phrase that first appeared in 1934, when the U.S. Senate carried out an investigation of the role of arms manufacturers in bringing about World War I. Viktor Bout, however, is a different sort of businessman, created by a different time. Rather than running giant factories creating artillery and other armaments for international conflicts, he has scavenged the massive arms depots in the former Soviet Union, and then fed the demands of dictators, warlords and bandits in "low-intensity" combat in the poorer countries of the world.
Bout's chief area of operations has been Africa - unsurprising considering the constant outbreaks of new and convoluted "insurgencies" and other ill-defined hostilities across the continent.
Viktor Anatolijevich Bout was, according to official Soviet records, born in 1967 in Dushanbe, capital of the then-Communist Central Asian republic of Tajikistan, although in a radio interview in 2002 he claimed to have been born in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan, another former socialist possession of the Russians. Other sources say he is Ukrainian, possibly of German ancestry, perhaps born in Smolensk.
His education is apparently unchallenged: he graduated from the Moscow Military Institute of Foreign Languages - an obvious training center for future spies - and went to Mozambique with a military air unit. The Soviets were intent on bringing the former Portuguese African colonies into the "socialist camp." Bout likes to say that he fell in love with Africa, but his affection was lethal. Innumerable innocents have perished because of his alleged devotion.
Viktor Bout is also fickle in his passions. He enjoys selling weapons to both sides of the wars in which he does business. In the early 1990s, Soviet Russia was turning into the world's outstanding rust belt. Airplanes were falling apart, bombs disintegrating, pilots out of work. What once had been the world's second largest air force was turning into the world's biggest salvage lot. Bout bought up clunky, noisy Antonov and Ilyushin aircraft, and made his first major sales of heavy weapons to the warlords shakily ruling Afghanistan in 1992. The Russians had been run out of the country and Bout was cultivated by Ahmad Shah Massoud, the charismatic leader of the Northern Alliance.
But in 1995 the Taliban, enemies of Massoud and his Kabul allies, captured one of Bout's Russian transports when the pilot was moved to offer a radio greeting to an acquaintance serving as a flight controller at the Taliban airport in Kandahar. Bout got out of that by organizing his crew's escape, but Russian sources claim that the crew really owed their freedom to Bout's agreement to supply weapons to the Taliban as well as the Kabul regime.
Bout's activities were then centered in Sharjah, one of the United Arab Emirates, and he had become a player in other conflicts involving Muslims. He organized arms shipments from the Shariah-enforcing dictatorship of Sudan, which brought the world several attempts at genocide even before Darfur, to the Bosnian Muslims, via Slovenia. The Clinton administration, sympathetic like most of the world to the Bosnians, pretended not to notice the traffic, handled through an entity in Vienna called the Third World Relief Agency (TWRA). TWRA was honeycombed with Islamist radicals, and in an Islamic replay of Afghanistan, and anticipation of events today in Iraq, mujahidin from various Arab countries flocked to the Balkans.
Perhaps Bout's greatest advantage as an entrepreneur was that he was continuing a supply chain rather than creating a new one. The vicious "liberation movements" in Africa, the Northern Alliance, the Taliban, and the warring ethnic armies in ex-Yugoslavia had all been trained with and used Soviet weaponry for decades. There was no marketing gap; they knew what they were happy with, and Viktor Bout was happy to supply them.
The intersection of radical Islam and African gangsterism brought Viktor Bout to the nightmare landscape of Liberia. Thug-in-chief Charles Taylor paid Bout in diamonds, which Bout was smart enough to have checked out by his personal gem expert. The Liberian affair produced perhaps the only humorous item in this gruesome account of human corruption - an aviation company called Air Cess. Apparently, nobody told Bout the meaning of "cess," as in "cesspool," in English. But he might not have objected, since he was profiting in a swamp of filth and blood.
Bout's profitable Liberian enterprise led him to provide weapons to the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) in neighboring Sierra Leone. Sierra Leone and Liberia had both been established in the 19th century as colonies of freed slaves - the first by the British, the second by the U.S. But when Bout arrived on the scene, they had other things in common: Liberia's Charles Taylor was the RUF's patron, both countries had produced terrorist "child soldiers," and "blood diamonds" had become the favored currency for high-value commerce - like that in arms.
As the millennium drew to a close, U.S. and United Nations investigators began tracing Bout's labyrinthine financial transactions and transport schedules, but Bout benefited from operating outside the U.S., as well as from the friendly attention of the Belgian authorities, who had their own bad history in Africa. His Taliban contract and other Muslim-oriented ventures, along with his African blood diamond trade, had put him in the same environment as Osama bin Laden. By 2000, according to Farah and Braun, then-adviser on counterterrorism to the White House Richard Clarke called for Bout's arrest, even considering his "extraordinary rendition." Clarke was convinced of the case by two dedicated but underappreciated public servants, Whitney Schneidman of the State Department and Lee Wolosky of the National Security Council. Wolosky succeeded in getting the Belgians to issue a warrant for Bout, but Bout fled to Moscow.
In 2005, the U.S. Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) announced sanctions against 30 business entities controlled by Viktor Bout, mainly because of his involvement with the Taliban, and, one degree of separation away, Al-Qaida. But the survival powers of Viktor Bout are not to be doubted. The authors of this book note that he may have been involved in the shipment of arms to Hizballah during the terrorist movement's war with Israel last year. According to U.S. military officials, Bout supplied arms to the Al-Qaida-allied United Islamic Courts, or Islamic Courts Union, in its brief seizure of Somalia and interference in Eritrea.
Many troubling questions remain about Viktor Bout. His reach is astonishing: Farah and Braun allege that his air fleet was used to deliver weapons to the U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan and Iraq after the atrocities of September 11, 2001. Last year U.S. Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms agents stumbled on evidence that a small sporting goods store in Pennsylvania had sold $240,000 in sophisticated rifle sighting and related technology to a firm run by the Russian counter-intelligence agency, the FSB. ATF considered that compelling reason to continue a high-level investigation of Bout.
Bout now lives in a fancy apartment in Moscow, maintaining business connections among former Soviet officials who have also found the military-industrial complex created by Communism to be a rich source of recyclable commodities. Although the United Nations has imposed an air travel ban on him, he commutes from Moscow, in the words of the authors of this book, "with ease across. Western Europe and the former Eastern bloc, ranging from his home base to satellite operations in Moldova, Belgium, and Kazakhstan and arms depots in Bulgaria and the Ukraine." He often used surface transport, to evade the UN order against him, and employs disguises as well as an impressive library of passports.
In outstanding service to journalism and the public interest, Farah and Braun have written a book that should be read by everybody interested in knowing the depths of human greed and its involvement with terrorism. It is disturbing to imagine how many Viktor Bouts the collapsed Soviet Union loosed on the world, and whether they might not, as many fear, end up selling nuclear materials or other weapons of mass destruction to groups like al-Qaida or Hizballah. Bout's associates still operate in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the setting for Joseph Conrad's original Heart of Darkness, on which Coppola's Apocalypse Now was based.
Viktor Bout has lived in the heart of darkness, a character in a horrific reality show we could call Apocalypse Forever. As noted, the reach of Bout's network is staggering. His presence is so pervasive that when Nicolas Cage starred in the movie Lord of War (2005), supposedly based on Bout's life, an aircraft used in the production was one of Bout's Antonovs. Bout professed to be unimpressed by the film. "Merchant of Death" reads like a thriller, made all the more amazing by the fact that it is a true story. Kudos to Farah and Braun.
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Reader comments on this item
Submitted by Paz, Dec 22, 2011 20:10
Lord Of War was actually based on the life of Yuri Orlov not Viktor Bout. But the very first International Arms Dealer was Sir Basil Zaharoff.