MERCHANT OF DEATH: MONEY, GUNS, PLANES, AND THE MAN WHO MAKES WAR POSSIBLE
John Wiley & Sons, $25.95, 272 Pages
REVIEWED BY JOHN WEISMAN
When you think about fictional villains, really world-class bad guys, it’s the malevolent malefactors from James Bond movies that lead the pack. Dr. Julius No, Hugo Drax (“Moonraker”), Auric Goldfinger, Francisco Scaramonga (“The Man with the Golden Gun”), Christopher Walken’s louche, coiled spring Max Zorin (“A View to a Kill”), to name a few. All combine every one of the seven sins — especially Greed — with varying degrees of sophistication, inventive methods of dispatching large numbers of people and complete lack of concern for what the Pentagon calls collateral damage.
But it’s the arch-evil organization SPECTRE (Special Executive for Counterintelligence, Terrorism, Revenge, and Extortion) and its diabolical capo, the cat-cradling sociopathic merchant of death Ernst Stavro Blofeld, that dominate the James Bond villain field. SPECTRE and Blofeld were villainy on steroids.
Imagine, if you will, a criminal enterprise with resources so substantial its air fleet and global logistical network rivals NATO nations’ capabilities. Imagine a shadowy leader so amoral, corrupt, unscrupulous and ruthless that he sells weapons to both sides in a war, provides clandestine support to terrorist movements while claiming to be engaged in humanitarian relief services and, despite the efforts of dozens of local, national and international intelligence and law enforcement organizations to stop him, remains untouchable and at large in a comfortable hideout surrounded by armed retainers.
Oh, that description fits Blofeld and SPECTRE to the proverbial “T.” But it also fits a real-life international arms trafficker and air transport entrepreneur named Viktor Bout. Mr. Bout’s transnational network of front companies and blind corporations, and his secret alliances with some of the world’s most thuggish, bloody-handed dictators, criminal regimes and rogue states rival anything that Ian Fleming or Cubby Broccoli ever imagined.
Mr. Bout (pronounced ‘boot’) is a fortysomething Russian who “speaks almost-perfect English, as well as near-flawless French and fluent Spanish.” He has a fondness for sushi. A big-boned, barrel-chested fellow who today enjoys protekzia from the highest levels of the Russian government, he may or may not have ties to the former Soviet Union’s military intelligence apparatus, the GRU.
What is known — and is made abundantly clear in “Merchant of Death,” Douglas Farah and Stephen Braun’s exhaustively researched, extensively footnoted expose of Mr. Bout and his clandestine network — is a compendium of venality and amorality that pushes the edge of the envelope for the definition of “bad guy” to new and repulsive horizons.
Mr. Bout flatly denies being in the arms business or dealing with rogue regimes. “I am not,” Mr. Bout wrote in March of 2002, “nor are any of my organizations, associated with arms trafficking and/or trafficking or the sale of arms of kind [sic] anywhere in the world.” Instead, he continued, the media “have recklessly and intentionally fabricated stories which continue to snowball away from reality.”
Mr. Bout’s denials, unfortunately, fly in the face of mountains of evidence compiled by U.S., British, Belgian and South African law enforcement and intelligence agencies, as well as by Interpol, which in February, 2002, at the behest of the Belgian government, issued a Red Notice accusing Mr. Bout of money laundering and illegal weapons trafficking.
According to Mr. Farah and Mr. Braun, Mr. Bout’s weapons pipelines to conflicts in Central and West Africa “were fueling intractable violence in Sierra Leone, Liberia, Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and other African countries at risk.” Mr. Bout “cultivated close business and social ties with some of the Third World’s most abusive and murderous strongmen. He dealt directly with Charles Taylor in Liberia [Taylor is currently on trial in the Hague for crimes against humanity], Mubuto Sese Seko in Zaire, Paul Kagame of Rwanda, and rebel leaders Jonas Savimbi in Angola, Jean-Pierre Bemba in the DRC and Sam ‘Mosquito’ Bockerie in Sierra Leone.”
“Sam the Mosquito,” who ran Sierra Leone’s Revolutionary United Front or RUF, is typical of Mr. Bout’s clients. His armed “fighters” were known for systematic murder, amputating limbs and gang-raping their victims. For supplying the RUF, Mr. Bout was paid in cash, blood diamonds and gold, among other commodities. Of course, how he was paid made little difference, just so long as he was paid.
Mr. Bout is the apotheosis of immoral relativism. In Afghanistan, he armed both the Taliban and its mortal enemy, the Northern Alliance. Caches from his weapons shipments to Kabul probably made their way to al Qaeda.