'A necessary evil' Merchant of Death by Douglas Farah and Stephen Braun
Reviewed by Bertil Lintner
He is caught at last. Or is he? In the 2005 Andrew Niccol movie Lord of War,
the international arms trader Yuri Orlov (Nicolas Cage) is confronted by
federal agent Jack Valentine (Ethan Hawke), who tells him that he doesn't seem
to realize the seriousness of the situation. Orlov has rubbed shoulders with
every dictator on the planet, and supplied weapons to warlords and mass
murderers. But Orlov response stuns Valentine.
The international arms trafficker says that he is not going to spend a second
in a courthouse. Valentine may be congratulated
on a job well done, but that's all. Orlov is just going to "walk out of here",
he says, "because I'm evil but a necessary evil". He may have broken every arms
embargo imaginable, but people like him will continue to thrive because, in the
end, more powerful people need their services.
Lord of War was a feature movie, not a documentary, but it is loosely -
very loosely - based on the alleged gunrunning activities of a Russian called
Viktor Bout. In the 1990s, he was wanted by Interpol and, in 2000, the British
Foreign Office Minister responsible for Africa, Peter Hain, called him "the
chief sanctions buster and ... a merchant of death who owns air companies that
Belgium, where he had had a base, issued a warrant for his arrest. According to
Lee Wolosky, a White House National Security Council adviser, "Viktor Bout was
a bigger problem than just moving weapons. He had a logistics network, the best
in the world." A US defense official once said that "Viktor Bout is like the
Donald Trump or Bill Gates of arms trafficking. He's the biggest kid on the
block." The United Nations, at least in theory, banned Bout from international
travel and said they were going to freeze his foreign bank accounts.
Bout's business empire emerged from the ruins of the Soviet empire, when the
world's largest country broke apart into 15 different republics, which left a
huge arsenal of weapons, which basically were unaccounted for since Moscow no
longer was in charge of storages and supply depots in the newly-independent
states. Ukraine in particular became an almost inexhaustible source of supply
for everything from small arms to artillery, missile launchers, attack
helicopters and millions of rounds of ammunition.
Bout, whose background is somewhat obscure but perhaps linked to now dissolved,
or reconstituted, Soviet intelligence services, saw an enormous business
opportunity in this unprecedented situation. His career, as researcher John
Daly called it in an October 21, 2004, article for the Jamestown Foundation
Terrorism Monitor, is that of "the world's premier illegal arms merchant", and
it began in 1993.
Through his former intelligence contacts, he was well connected and, as top
graduate of the Moscow foreign language institute fluent not only in Russian,
but also in Spanish and English, and he later learned French, German and
Portuguese, as well as, reportedly, several African languages. Armed with this
background and some cash, he acquired a few old aircraft and began flying arms
via Bulgaria to various destinations across the globe.
What later became a huge fleet of aging Russian cargo planes - Antonovs,
Ilyushins, Tupolevs and Yakolevs - flew supplies for the Taliban in
Afghanistan, for warlords and dictators in Rwanda, the Congo, Liberia, Sierra
Leone and Sudan, or to anyone willing to pay. In Angola, his planes flew
supplies for both the government and rebels fighting against it. The rebels
paid in diamonds. In Afghanistan, he armed both the mullahs of the Taliban and,
later, their sworn enemy, the late Ahmad Shah Massoud, who reportedly paid in
emeralds (which also could have been Lapis Lazuli).
The main base for his confusing array of private airlines was the rather
obscure airport in Sharjah, one of the seven sheikhdoms that make up the United
Arab Emirates, UAE. Bout reportedly made millions from this deadly trade, but,
unlike Yuri Orlov in Lord of War, he was never even apprehended.
Now 40 years old, he lives in Moscow, where he appears to be well protected.
But not only by the Russians - in this remarkably well-researched book, authors
Douglas Farah and Stephen Braun state: "Despite revelations that his planes had
secretly aided Islamic militants in Afghanistan, Bout's organization not only
has survived but also flourished - astonishingly, by flying weapons and
supplies for the US military and private contractors in Iraq, reaping millions
from the nation that once pursued him." Well, it was not easy to find private
air cargo companies that were willing to take the risk of flying in and out of
Baghdad. But Bout and his staff of experienced dare-devil pilots had experience
working under even worse conditions.
Farah, a former West African bureau chief of the Washington Post, has written
one previous book, Blood from Stones: The Secret Financial Network of Terror,
in which he investigates the role of West African diamonds, and the
international gold trade, in financing global terror networks. Braun is a
Pulitzer-winning national correspondent for the Los Angeles Times. Together,
they have produced an impressive, investigative work, outlining not only how
international arms traffickers such as Bout, and especially Bout, operate - but
also the ironies of the international response to their activities.
In 2003, several dozen East European cargo firms began to fly into Baghdad, the
authors state. Among them was Bout's new flagship air form, Irbis, which was
registered in Kazakhstan but based mostly in Sharjah. Irbis, Farah and Braun
found out, "had been hired repeatedly as a secondary military sub-contractor,
delivering tents, frozen food and other essentials for American firms working
for the US Army and the US Marines".
Bout's airline "also was a third-tier contractor for the US Air Mobility
Command, flying deliveries for Federal Express under an arrangement with Falcon
Express Cargo Airlines". And Ibris was also flying, the authors learned, "under
reconstruction contracts with the petrochemical giant Fluor, and with Kellog,
Brown, and Root (KBR), the engineering and construction subsidiary of
Halliburton - the influential multinational conglomerate that had been awarded
a massive non-bid reconstruction contract in Iraq and that was previously
headed by Vice President Dick Cheney".
Bout was evil, perhaps, but, it seems, a necessary evil ...
Merchant of Death: Money, Guns, Planes, and the Man Who Makes War Possible
by Douglas Farah and Stephen Braun, John Wiley & Sons, Hoboken, NJ, 2007,
July 9, 2007. ISBN-10: 0470048662. Price US$25.95, 308 pages.