If Americans think we have problems with the recent disruption of a suspected terrorist cell in New York, they haven’t seen anything yet.
An appellate court in Thailand appears primed to uphold a recent lower court ruling that will unleash Viktor Bout, universally known as the “Merchant of Death,” back on the global community. To say that Bout is upset with the United States after spending more than a year in a Thai prison would be a gross understatement.
The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), the National Security Council (NSC) and the Department of State, not to mention the United Nations, many other countries and several international human rights groups, had been tracking Bout for several years, and all believed he posed a formidable risk to our national security and the global community.
So it was no surprise when the NSC asked me, as the chief of operations for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) in 2007, to direct the agency’s tradecraft at bringing Bout to justice. The NSC was impressed with the DEA’s recent string of successes in apprehending a number of high-value terrorist-related suspects, all captured utilizing purely judicial methods - exactly what President Obama strongly advocates.
Bout, whose legendary character is the basis for the movie “Lord of War” and the subject of the highly successful book “Merchant of Death,” has been held in prison since his arrest by Thai authorities. Bout, who many intelligence experts think is a former KGB agent, fell for an extraordinarily complex DEA undercover operation that lured him from Russia to Thailand for the sake of consummating a major arms deal with undercover DEA operatives, who he thought were representing the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).
FARC, which is designated by the U.S., the European Union and many other nations as a terrorist organization, has also been labeled my most experts as the world’s single-largest cocaine trafficking cartel. The DEA sting was closely coordinated with our intelligence community, as well as high-level officials of the same Thai justice system that could be turning this malevolent thug loose on a world that would be far safer if he were kept behind bars.
The evidence clearly reveals that Bout believed he was selling a massive quantity of AK-47 assault rifles, surface-to-air missiles and rocket-propelled grenades to FARC for use against U.S. personnel and interests. This latest event in Bout’s shadowy existence adds yet another layer of intrigue onto the man who is responsible for facilitating terrorism, murder and genocide at levels unmatched by anyone else in recent time.
Bout exploded onto the international scene shortly after the breakup of the Soviet Union, when he effectively leveraged his high-level former Soviet military and intelligence contacts and pounced on a capitalistic opportunity to sell a limitless assortment of Soviet arms that had been stockpiled during the Cold War. I’m talking about everything from AK-47 assault rifles by the millions to such advanced heavy weapons as Mi-24 Hind helicopter gunships, tanks and Igla surface-to-air shoulder-fired missiles that can knock down commercial airliners as easily as a sawed-off shotgun could blast ducks in a barrel.
His clientele were the potpourri of modern-day scum: global terrorists, ruthless dictators, merciless drug kingpins and other transnational organized criminal groups. However, it is the mark that Bout left on Africa that qualifies him as the world’s deadliest “shadow facilitator.”
Bout flooded the continent with hundreds of thousands of AK-47s and other modern weaponry before his arrest. Those arms replaced machetes and other archaic weapons wielded by heavily exploited and drugged young boys, who made up the ranks of several insurgent groups, and instantly transformed them from random murderers into perverse, mindless killing machines operating with assembly-line efficiencies. A million or more innocent Africans were slaughtered.
The recent Thai lower-court ruling declared that Bout could not be prosecuted in Thailand because the country did not distinguish the FARC as a terrorist organization, nor did the court recognize the group as a “criminal organization,” which is utterly ludicrous. Many nations do not agree with our country’s list of designated terrorist organizations, but every responsible nation in the world recognizes FARC as an international organized crime powerhouse. And we did not ask Thailand to prosecute Bout; we simply asked that Thailand extradite him to the U.S., so we could prosecute on our own soil a treacherously dangerous man who is hell-bent on supporting terrorism directed at our country and mayhem throughout the world.
The arcane lower court decision came after a year’s worth of judicial proceedings that strongly indicated the Thais would move to approve extradition. Many intelligence experts, as well as international human rights activists, think Thailand’s judicial action is highly suspicious. One thing is for sure: the last thing Russia wants is Bout on American soil spilling his guts after getting a taste of American justice meted out in a federal courthouse.
Something else is certain: Treacherous men hold grudges. If the NSC thought Bout was a substantial threat to our national security before the DEA stung him hard, he will certainly be a greater danger once the Thai government unleashes him on the global community.
Michael A. Braun served as the assistant administrator and chief of operations for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration for four years before retiring in October 2008, after 34 years in law enforcement.