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Merchant of Death

Money, Guns, Planes, and the Man Who Makes War Possible

by Douglas Farah and Stephen Braun

Hardcover, 308 pages, John Wiley & Sons Inc, List Price: $25.95 |


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Merchant of Death
Money, Guns, Planes, and the Man Who Makes War Possible
Douglas Farah and Stephen Braun

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Book Summary

Describes how Russian weapons supplier Viktor Bout built up a complex and deadly global empire that has furnished support to every insurgent, dictator, and terrorist around the world, documenting his global influence and the failure of the U.S. to stop him.

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Excerpt: Merchant Of Death

Merchant of Death

Money, Guns, Planes, and the Man Who Makes War Possible

John Wiley & Sons

Copyright © 2007 Douglas Farah
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-470-04866-5

Chapter One

The Delivery Man

One evening in April 2001, Jean-Pierre Bemba, a Congolese warlord leading a rebel army of guerrillas and gun-toting teenagers, discovered that he had a problem. Camped with his ragtag troops on a remote mountaintop in the northeastern corner of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC; formerly Zaire) with a magnificent view of Lake Albert, Bemba realized he was low on beer.

The rotund Bemba was hardly cut out for the role of austere revolutionary. Not one to give up the comforts of home to live off the land with his deprived gunmen, the articulate, fastidiously dressed warlord traveled with his own generators, chemical toilets, and hard tents, complete with cots. He was not about to waste a lovely night of revelry in the bush because of a simple oversight of logistics.

Fortunately, Bemba's traveling companion had a solution. Viktor Bout, who was tagging along with the warlord as part of an arms delivery into his remote stronghold, was equipped not only with his usual stores of weapons and ammunition, but also with the means to scour for beer. As part of the full-service package he provided to Bemba's war machine, Bout had rented the rebel leader two aging Soviet-built Mi-24 helicopters. Bemba and his retinue normally used the gunships to avoid the brutal marches that his troops were forced to make across hills covered with scrub brush and hellish clouds of torturing mosquitoes and small, biting flies. But on this night, Bout's helicopters proved uniquely fortuitous.

Moving swiftly with the authority of a seasoned commando, Bout gathered his crew and, accompanied by a heavily armed escort of twenty of Bemba's men, choppered across Lake Albert into Uganda. There, they occupied a small Ugandan town for about an hour, ordering residents in the town's market square to find all the available beer. When the townspeople had rounded up a few cases-Bout paid a little money for them-he scrambled back into the copter with his occupation force and flew off. Fortified with enough drink to last the night, the revelers sprawled across a secured hilltop as lights twinkled from the fishing boats on the lake below.

Bemba could afford Bout's services because Bemba controlled access to something Bout very much wanted: a rich diamond field that netted the rebel leader $1 million to $3 million a month in sales. These "blood diamonds"-illicit gems that were mined in rebel-held territory and shipped abroad despite international embargoes against their sales-were mostly moved illegally through the neighboring Central African Republic, where both Bemba and Bout had friends and protectors in high places.

When Bout finally bedded down, he slept, as he often did, with some of his crew near one of the helicopters. The aircraft was primed to make an emergency exit in case something went wrong. Bout's willingness to go the extra length for Bemba, despite the risks, made his client happy and kept the good times rolling. But Bout always took care to stay a step ahead, even from his clients.

Bout's ability to supply his customers with whatever they needed under almost any circumstances-while always keeping his options open-has come to define the Russian entrepreneur and his remarkable career. Unlike his rivals in the underground arms trade, Bout has not been content to live from deal to deal. He is a quintessential big-picture man who understands that organizations, not deals, are the underpinnings of meteoric business success. While most of his Russian countrymen struggled with the strange new complexities of international capitalism-the USSR's mortal ideological anathema for nearly three quarters of a century-Bout quickly built a flexible, expanding corporate organization that fused the functional remnants of the archaic Soviet system with the West's fluid, ambition-driven business culture. He built an operation that ranged across continents and hemispheres, carefully scattering planes, handpicked employees, corporate entities, and hidden wealth, creating a formidable empire capable of operating at a moment's notice in dozens of cities across the world.

Not even thirty years old when he first drew the attention of intelligence officials in the mid-1990s, Bout, now forty, remains the preeminent figure atop the world's multibillion-dollar contraband weapons trade, an underground commerce that is outpaced in illicit profits only by global narcotics sales. Bout's corporate earnings have reached easily into the hundreds of millions, and his own personal net worth was conservatively estimated at $5 million in 1998-well before he consolidated his firm's multimillion-dollar take from the Taliban and his organization's post-September 11 supply flights for the United States in Iraq. In Afghanistan alone, U.S. Treasury officials and Western intelligence reports claim, Bout's operation reaped more than $50 million for deals with the extremist mullahs. And hundreds of flights into Iraq for the U.S. military and private contractors may have netted his operations as much as $60 million.

Bout and his associates became masters at outsourcing their arms profits. So careful with his investments that he retained finance experts and even a Swiss bank administrator, Bout stands accused by the Belgian government of illegally laundering more than $32.5 million in arms profits through shell holding companies between 1994 and 1996. Often he took his payments in diamonds and other commodities stripped from the land in areas controlled by his warlord and tyrant clients. Congolese rebels offered coltan, a mineral ore used to make cell phones and computers. Ahmad Shah Massoud, the late Northern Alliance leader and Afghan defense minister, reportedly paid in emeralds. Charles Taylor in Liberia paid in diamonds, and to ensure that the payments were accurate, Bout hired a gemologist who often flew along on weapons flights to assess the stones.

New wars meant more money for Bout and for his competitors in the arms trade. But unlike his rivals, he also had an unfettered ability to deliver his goods. His private air force-which grew to more than sixty Russian cargo planes and a handful of American models by the late 1990s-made him the top private supplier and transporter of killing implements in a world addicted to his products.

Each year over the past decade some three hundred thousand to five hundred thousand people have died in sputtering, little-understood regional wars that have eroded international stability from the Democratic Republic of the Congo to Colombia. Most were killed with light weapons, from semiautomatic rifles to easily carried machine guns. The most popular and durable of them all is the Kalashnikov assault rifle, known as the AK-47, manufactured across the former Soviet bloc, as well as in China, North Korea, and elsewhere.

Invented in 1947 by Mikhail Kalashnikov, the AK-47, with its distinctive banana-shaped ammunition clip, flooded the Third World because of its simplicity of design and ruggedness. It rapidly became the weapon of choice for liberation movements, terrorists, and guerrilla armies. It is simple enough to be taken apart by a child, and often is in Africa's conflicts. It could take a beating and keep on firing long after most other weapons were inoperable. More than a hundred million of the weapons have been manufactured in the past six decades, nearly ten times as many as its nearest rival, the U.S.-made M-16. Ammunition was another vast, lucrative market because most of the armed groups across Africa and Latin America had little training and no fire discipline. Thousands of rounds could be expended in a brief firefight as gunmen fired wildly into the bush until their supplies were exhausted. Similarly, the Russian antitank rocket-propelled grenade known as the RPG or "Ruchnoy Protivotankovy Granatomyot" has flooded the Third World since its invention in 1961. RPGs were skillfully wielded by mujahideen fighters against Soviet forces in Afghanistan in the 1980s and by Somali street fighters against U.S. Special Forces in the Black Hawk Down battle in Mogadishu in 1993. This constant, profligate use of Russian-designed weapons and ammunition created a constant demand for resupply.

Bout did not take sides in his business. Any and every combatant was a prospective customer. His planes simultaneously armed warring factions in several different conflicts, aiding the Northern Alliance and the Taliban in Afghanistan, rebel and government troops in Angola, and several sides in the prolonged wars that convulsed the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

"He was friends of everyone," said one longtime associate. "They tolerated this because they had no alternative. No one else would deliver the packages. You never shoot the postman. He has no loyalty. His loyalty is to his balls, his sweet ass, and maybe his wallet."

Bout has often insisted he is simply a businessman, and he has long expressed bitterness about being targeted as an international criminal, complaining he is a marked man because of his high profile as a successful Russian. "I exclusively deal with air transportation," he said in 2002 in one of the few interviews he has granted. "And I have never been involved in the arms trade."

Indeed, Bout's aircraft often carry legitimate freight. His planes flew humanitarian supplies to nations ravaged in late 2004 by the devastating Indian Ocean tsunami. And they have hauled UN relief supplies for refugees fleeing the same African conflicts stoked by the guns he sold. Bout-controlled planes have ferried flowers from South Africa to Belgium and shipped beef and chicken around the African continent. Through much of the 1990s, he owned the franchise to sell Antonov aircraft in Africa, and ran one of the few maintenance facilities and aircraft-painting facilities outside of Russia that serviced Soviet-built planes.

Remarkably, even though many of the weapons shipments flown by Bout's planes have had lethal and reprehensible consequences, the deliveries were often made legally. He began just as the world economy was entering an era of fast-paced transformation. The laws governing the sales of weapons, designed to deal with country-to-country sales, simply could not keep pace. The result was a vast "gray market" of gunrunning that might violate UN or regional embargoes, but rarely ran afoul of national arms laws. The Bout network's work with the repressive Taliban did not overtly violate international law-because global arms and trade bans on the militants were enacted too late, and because the world at large remained unaware of his activities until after September 11. Even now, cracks and loopholes in international law often allow the Bout network to continue operating with near-impunity.

Bout was artful in skirting the edge of laws that were clearly unenforceable. Under existing international law, weapons merchants have few obligations-other than moral compunctions-to ensure that their arms supplies go to a legitimate army or state. And though a growing number of countries have enacted toughened statutes covering brokers and even transporters such as Bout, cargo carriers have little legal obligation to view and authenticate what their containers really hold. Customs officials, too, are rarely obliged to check invoices against real cargo. So the shell games continue around the globe, with few brokers held accountable.

"Very few countries have the sort of legal instruments to deal with exactly those middlemen or brokers," said Johan Peleman, a Belgian arms trade expert who investigated Bout's violations of weapons embargoes for several UN panels. "When it comes to making real recommendations and heavy-duty commitments to stop this, most countries don't want this practice of middlemen to end. They don't even want to regulate it."

While often described by casual acquaintances as polite, easygoing, and gifted at picking up languages, Bout did not get by on charm. In business relationships and social situations, he was often fussy in his personal habits, impatient to get to the point, overbearing and aggressive in cultures that prized social niceties and tact. His reputation was built almost entirely on his well-established history of delivering whatever his clients wanted, when they wanted it, and for that, he could be forgiven almost anything else.

He was brash, at times to the point of bullying, and did not brook criticism well. During Bout's hopscotch tour with Bemba of rebel strongholds in the Congolese hills, someone made the mistake of mentioning a verse of the Bible, offering an interpretation that seemed to bother the Russian. In front of a crowd of people, Bout suddenly launched into a loud, extended discourse in fluent French, explaining how the verse should be taken and how foolish the interpreter was. The startled audience of his impromptu exegesis was stunned into silence. No one dared disagree.

"He is really intelligent and could talk about anything," said Dirk Draulans, a Belgian correspondent for Knack magazine who tagged along with Bout and Bemba during their rounds in the Congolese bush. "It was sophisticated small talk, anything from the Bible to free trade zones. However, he is not charming and he does not have humor."

Yet at other times Bout waxed lyrical, conjuring up a bleakly haunting vista as he reminisced about his journeys in Afghanistan. "One of the most beautiful landscapes I ever saw was Afghanistan in spring," Bout rhapsodized. "A third of the country is colored blood red by poppies." Bout also showed a sociologist's fascination with tribal patterns in the regions where his guns stoked bloodshed. "He knew all about the historic and current Hutu and Tutsi migrations in the region," Draulans recalled. "He was a very smart guy. He said he was there as a tourist. That was the big joke. He said maybe some bad things had gone on the airplanes, but you know, he cannot inspect the cargo. But we saw weapons being loaded twice onto VB aircraft."

Like a tourist from hell, Bout incessantly videotaped nearly every meeting, every flight, every village and hamlet where he landed. His videotaping habit got him into trouble once on the same African trip, when he wandered away from a political meeting Bemba was holding and began filming a hospital in a nearby town. After Bout was gone about an hour, a local policeman showed up in Bemba's camp to consult with one of the warlord's bodyguards. The policeman confided that he had just arrested a white man, who had written his name on the paper, for illegally filming at the local hospital. This white man was being held in the town's sweltering, fetid prison, angrily demanding immediate freedom. The officer wanted to know what he should do with the prisoner, then showed a scrap of paper bearing the man's name. It was Bout. Informed in no uncertain terms that his prisoner was an important person and had to be sprung immediately, the policeman, suddenly trembling and sweating, rushed back to the jail to let his VIP inmate out. Time and again Bout's carefully cultivated friendships with Big Men would save him from unpleasantness.

"Bout could not have done what he did without the help of princes, kings, and presidents," said Michael Scheuer, a former CIA counterterrorism analyst who headed Alec station, the agency's in-house unit that tracked Osama bin Laden in the late 1990s. "It would have been impossible without help from the very highest levels."

In Sierra Leone, Bout negotiated weapons deals directly with Sam "Mosquito" Bockarie, a wiry hairdresser-turned-battle-commander notorious for savage combat tactics. Bockarie's nickname derived from his boasts that he would suck the life out of his enemies. Bockarie's violent Revolutionary United Front (RUF) forces were sponsored by another Bout client and friend, Charles Taylor, the president of Liberia. Taylor is one of only two sitting heads of government since World War II to be indicted for crimes against humanity and now awaits trial in The Hague on eleven counts, including mass murder and the enslavement of citizens. Taylor's alleged atrocities were legion, but he earned particular condemnation for forming and training Small Boy Units (SBUs), fierce combat units composed of children who were often sent into battle high on amphetamines and cocaine to bear the brunt of the fighting.

Like Taylor, Bemba of the DRC, who was named one of the country's vice presidents as part of a fragile 2005 peace accord, was another Bout client who now faces charges of human rights abuses at the International Court of Justice in The Hague. He was a player in the decade-long spasms of war in which tens of thousands died and hundreds of thousands were forced to flee their homes.

In Angola, Bout's planes shipped weapons to government forces and to the União Nactional para a Independência Total de Angola (UNITA) rebels under Jonas Savimbi. UNITA had degenerated from a once-respected rebel movement seeking to overthrow a Marxist regime to a violent force that preyed on civilians. A 1999 report by the U.S. Institute of Peace said that UNITA "has plunged Angola back into a recurring nightmare of war and human rights depredations."