By Matthew Brunwasser
Victor Bout is the poster boy for a new generation of post Cold War international arms dealers who play a critical role in areas where the weapons trade has been embargoed by the United Nations
unprecedented U.N. investigations have begun to unravel the mystery of these broken embargoes, many of them imposed on African countries involved in bloody civil wars. At the heart of this unfolding detective story is the identification of a group of East European arms merchants, with Victor Bout the first of them to be publicly and prominently identified. The U.N. investigative team pursued leads that a Mr. Bout [pronounced "butt" in Russian] was pouring small arms and ammunition into Angola, Rwanda, Sierra Leone and the Congo, making possible massacres on a scale that stunned the world.
Despite being pursued for years by a flinty group of private and government arms investigators, a positive visual ID of this United Arab Emirates-based arms merchant only became available when two Belgian journalists ran into him at an airstrip in remote rebel-held Congo. And it was only recently that his name became familiar in the United States, following press reports of his role in arming the Taliban regime in Afghanistan five years ago. If not for this link to Afghanistan, it is probable that Bout would still be a low-profile character in the clandestine world of illicit arms trading.
That accusation and the heat it generated in the media eventually flushed Bout into the open. From the apparent safe haven of Moscow, he gave CNN and the Associated Press, among others, on-the-record, on-camera interviews rebutting the allegations against him.
The case of Victor Bout personifies the exceedingly difficult task of keeping small arms out of the world's bloodiest and most destabilizing conflicts. Perhaps most striking is the fact that while Bout has been accused by U.N. investigators, the press and intelligence sources, no government has yet charged him with gun-smuggling.
Since the U.N. has no law enforcement powers - its investigators cannot subpoena, detain or arrest - the work of the expert panels investigating the illegal arms trade depends on "naming and shaming" individuals and governments to change their activities. Using the diplomatic prestige of the United Nations, they publicize the results of their international detective work, hoping the bad publicity will prod governments into action.
Media coverage has been vital to that effort, and coverage has increased with the release of each new U.N. report. The story is huge. It spans several continents and involves a large network of shady individuals, front companies and government officials; clunky old Soviet cargo planes; corrupt African bureaucrats and thieving East European military officials.
An in-depth examination of the media's coverage of one of these arms dealers --Victor Bout -- from an obscure aviation company owner, known only to arms control activists, to a "businessman" helping Angolan UNITA rebels rearm, and finally into the leader of what some officials are now calling "the world's largest arms-smuggling network" -- shows how international priorities are changing following September 11. In fact, intelligence sources close to the hunt for Osama Bin Laden and his Al Qaeda associates say they are beginning to turn their attention to clandestine arms traffic as a way to learn what the terrorist network and its allies are up to.
"Landing heavy cargo planes with illicit cargoes in war conditions and breaking international embargoes such as the one on Angola requires more than individual effort. It takes an internationally organized network of individuals, well funded, well connected and well versed in brokering and logistics, with the ability to move illicit cargo around the world without raising the suspicions of the law or with the ability to deal with obstacles. One organization, headed, or at least to all appearances outwardly controlled by an Eastern European, Victor Bout, is such an organization." U.N. Angola Report, December 21, 2000 Little was known publicly about Bout before he became a regular international media item, commonly called "the elusive Victor Bout." On August 25, 1995, Agence France Presse reported that an Aerostan plane leased by Bout's company Transavia was forced to land in Kandahar, Afghanistan by a Taliban jet fighter. Taliban officials impounded "30-odd tons of AK-47 small arms ammunition" meant for government forces in Kabul. At the time, the Taliban had captured 10 provincial capitals, but had not yet taken Kabul, and little more was heard about the event until after September 11.
In 1997, Business Day in South Africa reported that Bout's company Air Cess was opening an office in Swaziland. And two years later in March 1999, the U.K. Observer wrote about a British pilot regularly violating the arms embargo against Sudan, who had used the "services of former KGB major Viktor Bout, whose fleet of Antonov aircraft has been delivering arms to African war zones for many years."
The first time Bout was mentioned in the context of embargo-busting was in January 2000 when UK Foreign Minister Peter Hain publicly named him as one of three "businessmen" helping re-arm Angolan UNITA rebels, despite a U.N. arms embargo. The civil war that followed Angola's independence in 1975 is one of the oldest and most intractable in Africa, leaving up to 1.5 million people dead. It is a conflict now largely fought over territory, diamonds and other valuable resources, and prolonged by illicit arms imports.
The U.N.'s Angola Report issued December 21, 2000 first brought the issue of the "conflict diamonds" trade to the world's attention. It detailed how, in many regions in Africa, civil conflicts have turned into turf battles over diamond-mining territory. The proceeds from the diamonds are then used to buy illicit weapons and deepen the conflicts. Many human rights activists and organizations have been working for years to eliminate these so-called "blood diamonds" from international markets. A combination of the Angola Report, media coverage of the trade and the sordid story of arms merchant Victor Bout has elevated its position on the international agenda.
Bout is often mentioned in the press as being "paid in diamonds" although there appears to be no hard evidence for this. Part of what makes Bout so hard to pin down is that he creates layers of companies and individuals between himself and any alleged criminal activities. There are, however, many known links between "blood diamonds" and some of his associates. There is also certain knowledge that his clients fund their arms budgets from diamond sales.
The Angola Report includes reports of attempts to set up a diamond-cutting factory in Kigali, Rwanda, where Bout had an operational base. Such a factory would have seriously undermined controls on "conflict diamonds," since only uncut diamonds can be traced. Individuals involved in the plan were said to be linked to Bout. The Liberia Report mentioned that Bout's close associate Sanjivan Ruprah - now in jail in Belgium, and a major source of information for US officials about Bout's Taliban connections - owned diamond mines in Liberia and also sold arms.
Before September 11, Bout's involvement in Afghanistan was mentioned in the press only occasionally in passing. Western intelligence officials or anonymous investigators were quoted as saying Bout started off there, arming the government forces fighting the Taliban and other rebels groups. On January 1, 2002, the Washington Monthly took Bout's Afghan connection one step further, saying that he switched sides and started selling to the Taliban while negotiating for the release of his plane and crew in 1995. This assertion was based on a quote from a source familiar with his activities who said, "He's a very enterprising person. When his plane was detained, he used the opportunity as a business introduction to the Taliban."
A few weeks later, on January 20, the Los Angeles Times reported on the key role played by the United Arab Emirates in hosting money laundering and arms trafficking operations for Al Qaeda and the Taliban, a result of loose government oversight. The article reported that Bout teamed up with Afghan-based militants in the emirate of Sharjah, where, as recently as early 2001, a company called Flying Dolphin, flew shuttles twice a week to the Taliban headquarters in Kandahar. Its owner, Sheik Abdullah bin Zayed al Saqr al Nahyan, was the UAE ambassador to the U.S. from 1989 to 1992, and was described by the U.N. as a business associate of Bout.
Afghan and U.A.E. air industry sources reported a meeting between "two Russians" and the United Arab Emirates representative of Ariana, the Afghan national airline, in which it was agreed that Bout's Air Cess would provide wheels, tires and other military goods for the Taliban air force. Flying Dolphin would provide charter flights when Ariana was unavailable.
The Afghan permanent representative to the United Nations, citing Afghan and American intelligence reports, said Ariana flights from Sharjah had transported chemical poisons to Kandahar: "cyanide and other toxic substances purchased in Germany, the Czech Republic and Ukraine." He said the Taliban "had nothing to do with this. These chemicals were for Bin Laden and his people. It was some of the chemicals they were using in experiments." Earlier, the US had reportedly pressured the U.A.E. to clamp down on Bout's operations, which simply resulted in his moving to a neighboring Emirate.
On January 31 of this year, the Center for Public Integrity (CPI) in Washington, D.C., published further links between Bout and Afghanistan, largely based on Belgian intelligence documents. According to these documents, Bout profited some $50 million from weapons sales to the Taliban in the late 90s. This information was independently verified by another European intelligence source as well as by intelligence documents from an unnamed African country, which said he had sold the guns "on behalf of the Pakistani government." The documents were all from before September 11 and did not specify the type or amounts of weapons sold to the Taliban, other than the fact they were from the stockpiles of the former Soviet Union.
The CPI report clearly stated that it had established no direct links between Bout and bin Laden, but that Taliban ties to Al Qaeda would have enabled weapons shipped to Afghanistan to make their way to Bin Laden's forces. It also said Bout left Belgium after details of the shipments were reported in the local media.
The story developed much more rapidly after February 8, when Belgian police raided 18 homes reportedly part of Bout's network. Police said they found invoices from sales to UNITA rebels in Angola and passes from Bagram airport in Afghanistan. Seven were arrested, three of whom were detained, including Sanjivan Ruprah, the most important source of evidence thus far on Bout's operations.
Ruprah, a Kenyan national, appears in the U.N.'s Sierra Leone and Liberia reports as a major operative on arms deals to embargoed African states. According to these reports, he collaborates closely with "the highest authorities in Liberia" and is a "close business associate of Victor Bout." He holds Liberian diplomatic passports under different names and is Deputy Commissioner for Maritime Affairs - Liberia is one of the world's main "flags of convenience" for easy ship registration. He is also an arms dealer, was directly involved in the operations of Leonid Minin's arms sales to Liberia, and owns diamond mines in Liberia.
Belgian police charged Ruprah with involvement in a scheme to print fake Congolese Francs and acquire fake passports, according to a March 26 report in Le Monde. Clearly, these charges were not as important to Belgian judicial authorities as his connections to Victor Bout. Belgian authorities indicted Bout a week later on money laundering charges, almost certainly based on Ruprah's testimony. In late February, The New York Times quoted a spokesman for the Belgian judge-prosecutor's office, saying Bout used Ostend airport "as his western air-smuggling hub, flying planes from there to central Europe to load up with arms, and then to Africa or Afghanistan."
The largest Arms Trafficking Network in the World ?
News organizations around the world, pressing hard to break new stories about Al Qaeda, along with western officials eager to be seen as fighting terrorism may be inflating Bout's significance in describing him as heading "what some officials call the largest arms trafficking network in the world." Such claims were never made before evidence emerged linking Bout to the Taliban. And even if true, the mandate of the U.N. arms investigations - limited to violations of country-specific embargoes - and the nature of the illicit arms trade make it impossible to confirm. Most experts would agree that he is the largest known illicit trafficker in Africa. Beyond that, the extent of his activity is very difficult to pin down.
What is certain is how the power of these allegations brought Bout out of invisibility and into a Moscow radio station on February 28 for a live two-hour interview. An Inter-Fax news bulletin arrived during the interview and was read over the air:
"The Russian bureau of Interpol has announced that it has been seeking Victor Bout, suspected of having supplied weapons to the Al-Qa'ida organization, for four years. Spokesman Igor Tsiroulnikov declared: 'Today we can say with certainty that Victor Bout is not in Russian territory.'"
On March 4, the Russian Federal Security Service issued a short correction: "There is no reason to believe that this Russian citizen has committed any illegal actions." Bout described the accusations against him as "the plot of a Hollywood action movie in which it is so interesting to find a Russian trail."
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