Viktor Bout's story has been a long, winding, mysterious tale that has recently come much closer to resolution. Arguably the most notorious international arms dealer in history, Bout now sits in a jail cell less than a mile from my apartment, following the end of a prolonged extradition battle between Russia and the United States. Thai authorities had been holding Viktor for over two years thanks to a Thailand-based sting operation executed by an elite US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) team. There are quite a few public sources of information on Viktor - he was on tonight's episode of 60 Minutes, you can find dozens of links on his Wikipedia page, and there are even more news articles featuring the man. In spite of this trove of readily available information, I ultimately decided I couldn't NOT write a post about Viktor Bout.
Most interesting to me is not that Bout was able to both arm the Taliban while simultaneously flying hundreds of shipments on behalf of the US government. Or that he carried out these US shipments while an executive order from President Bush expressly prohibited Americans from doing business with him. Or that the Taliban hijacked one of his planes ten years prior to again doing business with him (business that allegedly included sending planes full of jihadis from Sharjah to Afghanistan). While all these nuances and sub-plots are fascinating, I am most interested in two things; first, I am in awe of the technical proficiency and savvy with which he operated his business, and how this allowed him to navigate and survive unbelievably treacherous waters over a long period of time. Second, it is always amazing when we - the non-CIA, special ops, or shadow world operators - are given a tiny glimpse of the world's underbelly. It is an underbelly we all know exists, but is a part of the world about which most of us know very little. These types of stories are by their nature so complex that a simple official script cannot overwrite or explain away the underlying realities. With a little reading between the lines, it is through these stories that we can learn more about the global push and pull of power.
Perhaps I should start with the basics: Bout is a man suspected to have multiple identities, fluency in six languages, and a staggering $6B in personal wealth. Shortly after starting his career as a Soviet military translator (rumor is he's ex-KGB), Viktor Bout took advantage of a crumbling USSR and purchased a few planes, which he then used to transport cargo to and from various places. He soon built, deal-by-deal, a fleet of some 60 airplanes that would quickly and efficiently deliver whatever you needed, wherever you were located. From his headquarters in Sharjah he and his fleet filled a massive void in Africa in the 1990s; while others were pulling out in the face of multiple civil wars, he and his fleet were going in. In particular, Bout's many front companies did significant arms business with Charles Taylor in Liberia, with both sides of Angola's bloody civil war, and with rebels in the Republic of Congo.
Over time Bout developed a reputation for being a "door to door" service; he could fly his planes into very dangerous situations, load or unload aircraft cargo, and exit. There are many people around the globe with weapons, many with contacts, and many with strong logistical capabilities. Bout's services pulled them all together. And by the end of the 1990s he was no longer a niche player. He was global, integrated, and dynamic. For prospective clients, best of all was his complete lack of an ideological bent. He would sell his services to radical Islamists, Americans, Colombian guerillas, African warlords, you name it. And he seemed to be immune to prosecution. The NSC wanted to arrest him in the 1990s, but could not figure out how to do so given problems of jurisdiction. According to the New York Times, as of 2000 the US government had never once prosecuted a case of arms trafficking. Bout was famous for being one step ahead of whatever authority might be on his tail. He would register an aircraft in Liberia, then move the registration to the Central African Republic, followed by Equatorial Guinea and then Moldova. By the mid-2000s when he was being traced by the Americans for violating UN sanctions, he would simply shut down the companies on the "problem" list and re-open new companies, using the same planes, crews, and technology. It would take months for the new companies to be identified and forced to shut down, at which point the cycle would repeat itself.
But in the late 2000s it was becoming increasingly clear to the Americans that his existence was not acceptable. In the past, he had been tolerated because his pilots were among the few who could and would complete the perilous flights into Iraq. But it was also clear he had access to huge stockpiles of former Soviet weapons, possibly including nuclear weapons. In 2006 he was suspected to have been operating with rebels in Somalia and Hezbollah in Lebanon. It was obvious that he had no qualms arming enemies of the United States, from FARC rebels to Al Qaeda. And so the American authorities devised a plan: the DEA hired a former acquaintance of one of Bout's lieutenants to approach his friend about an arms deal. In this fake deal, the DEA pretended to be FARC operatives seeking surface-to-air missiles, among other weapons. Bout's employee apparently trusted his old friend, and took the deal proposal to Bout. The undercover FARC rebels pushed for a face-to-face with Bout, initially suggesting Bucharest as a meeting place. When it became clear to Bout that he was not welcome there, Thailand was chosen as the destination. Upon arriving at a five star hotel in Thailand, Bout and his colleague were arrested, not for arms trafficking but for conspiring to kill Americans.
As described above, his legal situation remained in limbo for two years while he and the Russians fought extradition. In a very brief prison interview, Bout said: "In my case the charges are very general. There is no concrete data: what time, where, what happened. No! They just say: he is bad, he is dangerous... Whatever there is in my story today... it's a Hollywood movie." And in fact, a Hollywood flick - "Lord of War" - was based on Bout's escapades. But Bout's point relates to the same difficulty the NSC had prosecuting him in the 1990s. Could the US prove beyond a reasonable doubt that he had intent to kill Americans? That question will be answered in the coming months as Bout heads to what is sure to be a high profile trial.
However none of the tactical drama surrounding the sting operation or his arrest get to the crux of the issue. Why did the Americans want him so badly, and why were the Russians defending him so aggressively? The Christian Science monitor came up with a few good reasons for the American arrest: it sends a message to smugglers around the world that the United States is still the global policeman. Alternatively, Bout probably has a tremendous amount of valuable intelligence on Russia and on other conflicts with relevance to the United States. The conspiracy theorists - and Russian defenders of Bout - claim the US wanted to put him out of business because he had taken such a chunk of the CIA's illicit dealing business. Of course it is possible that the US was just tired of him supporting its enemies, and no longer needed his help in Iraq and Afghanistan.
As for the Russians, there are a few ways to interpret their intense, public support for Bout. It is possible that Bout made a deal with the Russians whereby in exchange for his mobility, freedom, and access within Russia, he kept Russian security services updated with the on-the-ground intel his business generated. Alternatively, it is possible that Bout was a part of something much more vast. I hesitate to speculate here, because it is very much outside of any expertise I have. But what if Bout were nothing more than the underworld "public face" (ironic, given his secrecy) of a broader international smuggling ring endorsed by the Russian government? They would certainly be angling for their man... A fascinating 2003 New York Times profile seems to support this idea: "I began to understand why Bout was both eager to talk and reluctant. Cornered by multiple governments, selling off his assets and hounded by the press, he wanted to complain that he had merely become the fall guy for a criminalized -- and quasi-legal -- political structure much larger and more significant than Victor Bout. But if he revealed too much, he said, he would be perilous."
As is the case with most high profile geopolitical mysteries, I'm sure that over time these questions will be answered. At a minimum, the reverberations of his capture supported that Bout had become the leading global operator in his field. It is also evident that one way or another, there is a hell of a lot more going on here than what meets the eye. In terms of his actual capture, it seems like a surprisingly amateur move on the part of Bout and his lieutenant. Bout knew the supposed FARC rebels were not senior leadership, and apparently did not bother to do background checks, choosing instead to trust his associate. Why would he be so careless after decades of meticulously covering his tracks? Why did he feel like he needed so badly to do this deal? Perhaps the freezing of his assets by the US Treasury was affecting his liquidity needs... Perhaps he needed to show he was still the preeminent global trafficker... Perhaps he was too trustworthy of his closest advisors... Or perhaps he was just tired?