MERCHANT OF DEATH: MONEY, GUNS, PLANES, AND THE MAN WHO MAKES WAR POSSIBLE
By Douglas Farah & Stephen Braun
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.