Alleged Arms Dealer Accused Of Terrorist Ties

Viktor Bout is in a New York jail after being extradited from Thailand Tuesday. The move follows more than a year of legal wrangling between Thai and U.S. officials. Bout is expected to face charges of trying to sell weapons to U.S. agents posing as Colombian FARC rebels in Bangkok. Steve Inskeep talks to Douglas Farah, co-author of Merchant of Death, a book about Bout.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

The world's most famous arms dealer arrived in New York last night. Viktor Bout came wearing handcuffs. He is a former Soviet intelligence officer. He did deals around the world, until he was arrested in Thailand in 2008. And after a long delay, Thai officials finally sent him to the United States this week.

Douglas Farah co-authored a book about the dealer whose business took off at the end of the Cold War.

Mr. DOUGLAS FARAH (Author, "Merchant of Death") He saw the vast potential of marrying the unguarded arsenals of the former Soviet bloc with the airplanes the had been abandoned across the tarmacs of the former Soviet Union and simply began flying aircraft and weapons out of the former Soviet bloc and into the wars that he was familiar with in Africa. Then he eventually branched into Afghanistan and other parts of the world.

INSKEEP: And how did he get caught?

Mr. FARAH: He got caught in a sting operation by the Drug Enforcement Administration, who he believed were agents of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia - the FARC. And they pretended to want to buy weapons from him. And with that, they were able to arrest him for arming a terrorist group with intent to kill Americans.

INSKEEP: And is that where American jurisdiction comes into that?

Mr. FARAH: Yes, because he was dealing with a known terrorist organization with the stated intent to kill Americans.

INSKEEP: And Thailand had a little bit of trouble accepting that and extraditing this man?

Mr. FARAH: They had a huge amount of trouble. There was a lot of political pressure. They publicly expressed their fear of offending either the United States or Russia with whatever decision they took. And then at the last minute, they decided to extradite him.

INSKEEP: Why was Russia fighting so hard to make sure that this man was not extradited and sent to New York? I mean, theoretically, he was committing a crime against Russia. He was stealing weapons from Russia and sending them abroad.

Mr. FARAH: Well, I think it's clear that in the latter part of his career, Bout had become much more a creature of the Russia state. And when the initial Interpol red notice went out for his arrest in 2002, he went back to Moscow and they denied he was there, even while he was living publicly. So I think there's clearly some complicity of the Russian government in his activities.

INSKEEP: Well, that raises another level of legal complexity, I suppose, because I think we could probably - without trying to hard - find Americans who have sent weapons to militant groups at some point over the decades, because that was U.S. policy at the time and they were quietly arming somebody. Could Russia conceivably claim that this man was simply acting for them, and therefore should be outside whatever law the United States wants to apply to him?

Mr. FARAH: Well, they could if they wanted to acknowledge they were arming some of the most vicious groups in the world, like the Revolutionary United Front in Sierra Leone, whose signature atrocity was hacking off the arms and legs of the men, women and children and systematic rape, or in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where some of the worst atrocities have happened, the war in Angola -none of which Russia was officially involved in, and I don't think they would want to take responsibility for their weapons being there.

That being said, he also did work extensively for the United States following the invasion of Iraq. He flew in hundreds of planeloads of equipment for the U.S. troops simply because they needed the airlift capacity they didn't have. And the decision was made that it was more important to keep ammunition and other goods and services flowing to the troops on the ground than blocking his flights.

INSKEEP: What, in the minds of prosecutors, sets Viktor Bout apart and puts him in a different category than almost any other arms dealer you could name?

Mr. FARAH: Well, I think because of the scale of his operations and that he was showing up in so many different conflicts across the globe, and he seemed to be working extensively with people who overtly wanted to harm the United States.

INSKEEP: Not just the guerrillas in Colombia, but other groups, as well, that wanted to hurt the U.S.?

Mr. FARAH: Well, some of his aircraft and some his - at least some of his partners, people he would have knowledge of, were flying weapons into al-Shabab in Somalia. And he'd a relationship with the Taliban. I think it was that sort of thing that made them think it would be better if he were no longer flying.

INSKEEP: Do you have a sense of the strength of the case - the legal case against this man?

Mr. FARAH: My sense is that it's quite strong. They had a similar case a couple of years ago where they ran almost an identical sting under identical circumstances for a person who was then brought over from Spain. The case stood up to all the challenges that were raised. So I think it's quite solid. But I guess we'll see.

INSKEEP: Douglas Farah, thanks very much.

Mr. FARAH: Thank you.

INSKEEP: He co-authored the book "Merchant of Death."

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