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Using a huge fleet of Soviet-era military aircraft skimmed from friends in the former USSR and its satellites, Mr. Bout’s Antonovs and Illyushin IL76s — and their 44-ton payloads — delivered “disassembled attack helicopters, heavy anti-aircraft guns, a multitude of AK-47s and shoulder-fired rocket launchers, mortars and artillery rounds, and millions upon millions of ammunition rounds” to customers including Jonas Savimbi’s UNITAS militia in Angola and FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) terrorists in Colombia. “En route over the FARC-controlled jungle … Bout planes would dive to 3000 feet, dumping out cases of AK-47s… . All told, the flights dropped about 10,000 weapons to the rebels, enabling them to greatly enhance their military capabilities.”

At the height of his empire in the early and mid-1990s, Mr. Bout worked out of a series of villas and compounds that stretched from the UAE to South Africa. In Rwanda, he “bought a large compound in Kigali… . Soon, there were so many Russian pilots coming and going from the large, heavily guarded house with heavy iron gates that locals referred to the place as ‘the Kremlin.’”

In the 1990s, Mr. Bout’s Ariana airline became the primary transportation link between the Gulf and Afghanistan. Mr. Farah and Mr. Braun quote Michael Scheuer, the former CIA analyst who ran the agency’s Alec Station, which was devoted solely to keeping tabs on Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda, as concluding that Ariana was in fact a “terrorist taxi service.”

“‘We’d see al-Qaeda operatives in the emirates and then we’d see them later in Afghanistan,’ Scheuer recalled. ‘They were getting into Afghanistan either through Karachi, in Pakistan, or through the emirates. And when they were coming through the emirates, it was almost always through Ariana flights.’”

What is perhaps most shocking is that for years, the U.S. government was ignorant of Mr. Bout and his transnational weapons trafficking and transporting network. “During a three-year stint as ambassador to Sierra Leone from 1995 to 1998, John Hirsch never heard the Russian’s name. He never read it either, in any of the confidential intelligence cables that came across his desk.”

This is not surprising. During the 1990s, under the stewardship of James Woolsey, John Deutch and George Tenet, CIA shut down most of its sub-Saharan stations, leaving the United States deaf, dumb and blind in the region. It was left to CIA annuitants hired as contract workers and the few remaining station chiefs to act as “circuit riders” wandering from country to country. There was still sporadic technical and signals intelligence gathering, but HUMINT — agent recruitment — was virtually nonexistent. And so, the United States lost its ability to discern what was actually happening. So far as intelligence product was concerned, the Dark Continent went dark.

By the time CIA and the Clinton administration’s National Security Council and the departments of State and Treasury finally started to ping on Mr. Bout with any seriousness, the White House had other priorities. There was, according to Mr. Farah and Mr. Braun, a flurry of activity in 2000. But then came the elections, the new administration and of course September 11.

Currently, the authors sadly conclude, “international efforts to hunt him down and scuttle his air operations are mostly abandoned, confined to sporadic efforts by the Treasury Department and the U.N. Security Council to freeze his assets.” Even more incredibly, though he is banned from doing business in the United States, one of Mr. Bout’s companies secured a Department of Defense contract to fly DoD supplies into Iraq in the months following the U.S. invasion in 2003.

Currently, Mr. Bout lives in a luxurious Moscow apartment, protected by his friends in the Kremlin. He claims to have given up his air transport companies and still denies any connection with arms trafficking. But according to some intelligence sources, there is a distinct possibility that Mr. Bout was involved in arming Hezbollah with sophisticated armor-piercing Fagot and Kornet anti-tank missiles during the 2006 summer war with Israel.

And in July of 2006, planes bearing the flag of Kazakhstan but lacking tail numbers — an old Bout operational tactic — were seen unloading weapons in Mogadishu. “Within weeks,” write Mr. Farah and Mr. Braun, “intelligence officials concluded that the flights were carried out by Bout’s network.” Just like Ernst Stavro Blofeld, for this real life merchant of death, it would seem, old habits die hard.

John Weisman’s CIA novel, “Direct Action,” was released in paperback by Avon Books in the spring of 2006. He can be reached at blackops@johnweisman.com.