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    Central Asia
     Nov 10, 2007
BOOK REVIEW
'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 ferry arms".

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.

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