Russian Lord of War Arrested

While Victor Bout might be running arms to your opposition, you know he’ll also ferry arms against a U.N. embargo for you.

Oh happy day! One of the world’s biggest arms dealers was arrested in Thailand on Thursday. His name – Viktor Anatoliyevich Bout. Age: 41. Thai authorities were acting on a warrant for his arrest issued by the US who accuse him of supplying arms to Colombia, the Taliban and Al Qaeda.

Al Jazeera’s Riz Khan interviews Douglas Farah an intelligence consultant and former journalist who wrote “Merchant of Death”, a book based on Bout.

Russia’s RSI Novosti reports

Moscow may request the extradition of Russian businessman Viktor Bout, arrested in Thailand at the request of U.S. authorities on charges of illegal arms trading, a Russian law enforcement source said on Thursday.

“At this time, Russia is awaiting investigation materials from Thailand…After that, a decision to request extradition may be taken,” the source said.

If this happens Bout might walk free as the present US administration is anxious to please the new Russian regime and is not fully committed to acting on the US extradition request.

He flew frozen chickens from South Africa to Nigeria and Belgian peace keepers to Somalia.

His planes delivered French soldiers to Rwanda after the genocide and United Nations food aid to some of the crises his weapons had helped to create.

In 1997 his planes flew Mobutu Sese Seko, the dictator of the Congo, to safety as rebels closed in on him. Bout had armed the rebels.

He’s conducted business with both the US and UK governments. “In an age when the U.S. president has divided the world into those who are with the United States and those who are against it, Bout is both“, supplying arms to both sides of a given conflict which has earned him the moniker ‘the merchant of death’.

Bout’s real money came when he realized he could fly lucrative commercial cargo on the flights back from the weapons deliveries. His most profitable enterprise was flying gladiolas purchased for $2 in Johannesburg and resold for $100 in Dubai.

He has links to every conflict going on in Africa – Angola, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Sudan, Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Somalia, Uganda and Kenya – to name but a few countries.

Bout was formerly a Soviet military office who built his fortune in the chaos following the breakdown of the USSR by buying up old Soviet military aircraft and weaponry from desperate arms suppliers. The main supplier being Ukraine. Desperate for hard currency the Ukraine sold off Soviet weaponry to whoever would buy. Viktor Bout helped to move and sell the product and soon the world was awash in weapons.

United Nations investigations placed him at the centre of an elaborate network of logistics and aviation companies delivering weapons to Sierra Leone, Liberia, Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo, among other countries.

Johan Peleman, an arms trade expert who works for the UN peacekeeping mission in Congo, said many of Mr Bout’s aircraft were operating in Africa but in some cases “he has either sold them or sub-leased them for longer periods of time”, making it more difficult to link him to operations.

“Planes landing in Somalia look familiar. Some of his front-men remain active in the Great Lakes region. I still see a number of aircraft registered in Sao Tome and some in Angola that used to be his,” Mr Peleman said.

Most recently, he added, law enforcement agencies had been investigating possible ties between companies associated with Mr Bout and militant groups in Nigeria, whose sophisticated weaponry has made it difficult for the federal government to re-establish control over the oil-producing Niger delta.

One Russian arms trade expert speaking on condition of anonymity said Mr Bout had been free to live in Moscow because “there were a lot of accusations but no proof. He is a transporter. He is like a taxi driver. A taxi driver can drive someone carrying suitcases. It’s not his duty to know what’s in the suitcases.”

Viktor Bout - merchant of death
“I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse.”

The photo above is one of the rare photos of Bout in circulation prior to his recent arrest and was taken for a NYT article written by Peter Landesman. Bout agreed to be interviewed by Landesman because he had things he wanted to get off his chest.

One night Landesman got a call at his hotel from an anonymous source asking him to meet at a McDonald’s in Pushkin Square, Moscow. The source put to him the idea that Bout had become the fall guy for a conspiracy involving Russia and the newly independent Soviet republic – Ukraine.

The source encouraged Landeman to view Bout from the following perspective:

He said to imagine the structure of arms trafficking in Russia like a mushroom. Bout was among those in the mushroom’s cap, which we can see. The stalk is made up of the men who are really running things in Russia and making decisions. Looking from above, he said, you never see the stalk. (Landesman)

Among those in the metaphorical mushroom cap was a Kenyan Asian who was arrested in Belgium in connection with supplying arms to Liberia in 2002. Sanjivan Ruprah described as a diamond dealer (who profited from Sierre Leone’s blood diamonds) was on a US list of most wanted men and and one of the world’s most notorious arms dealers. Ruprah was also the partner of Viktor Bout. According to Belgian researcher Tim Raemaekers they both held a substantial stake in a diamond business in Kisangani, DRC, and enjoyed diamond concessions in Banalia, DRC

Both he and Bout also enjoyed a covert relationship with US Feds since long before 9/11. According to a report submitted to the UN Security Council in 2002 his interests also included mining interests in Kenya.

Damien Hirst Diamond Skull worth £50 million
Conspicuous Consumption – Damien Hirst’s For the Love of God

Damien Hirst said in a recent documentary on the making of this grotesque diamond skull that he was careful to source conflict-free diamonds, an impossibility due to the fact that most diamonds coming on the market are coming from places like DRC. The construction of the skull also caused a shortage on the diamond market in 2006 which inevitably created demand. “Ladies and gentlemen, it would be irresponsible to circumvent the fact that it is highly problematic, if not unfeasible, to work out a system in order to control the flow of rough diamonds around the world. The reality is that once diamonds are mined there is almost nothing one can do in order to prevent them from reaching the market. No certification scheme can truly be reliable, not only because war-torn areas are by definition disorganized, but mainly because it is intrinsically impossible to distinguish between good and bad diamonds. Misguiding traders and consumers with untrustworthy guarantees would inevitably be demystified over time.”

Continued… The UN reports states:

A Kenyan national named Sanjivan Ruprah plays a key role in Liberia’s airline registry and in the arms trade. Before his involvement in Liberia, Sanjivan Ruprah had mining interests in Kenya, and was associated with Branch Energy (Kenya). Branch Energy owned diamond mining rights in Sierra Leone, and introduced the private military company, Executive Outcomes to the government there in 1995. Ruprah is also known as an arms broker. He has worked in South Africa with Roelf van Heerden, a former colleague from Executive Outcomes, and together they have done business in Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and elsewhere. Ruprah was once in charge of an airline in Kenya, Simba Airlines, until investigations into financial irregularities forced the company’s closure.

If this wasn’t interesting enough, Branch Energy is a sister company of Energem Resources previously known as DiamondWorks. Both are companies that Odinga has ties to. As Minister for Energy, Odinga handed contracts to Energem to import oil for Kenya and pushed Kenya into rapacious oil deals with Sudan.

Energem Resources is presently owned by a couple of arms-dealers. One Tony Teixeira, a South African arms dealer of Portuguese descent who coincidentally has links to the molasses factory in Kisumu originally owned by the Odinga’s firm Spectre International. These are glaring irregularities which have not been fully explained by the Odinga’s.

It is significant that the Odinga family business, Spectre International Ltd, acquired the then state-owned Kisumu Molasses Plant soon after Raila started politically cooperating with Moi.

[Spectre – a ghost. something unpleasant or dangerous imagined or expected: the spectre of nuclear holocaust Concise Oxford English Dictionary]

Raila has consistently argued that the acquisition of the molasses plant was a pure business deal which had nothing to do with politics, but his critics point out at the coincidence between the time his family acquired the parastatal and Raila’s shift of political alliance. It is highly unlikely – indeed one may even say impossible – that the Moi government would have sanctioned the Kisumu Molasses Plant deal at the time if Raila had not become an ally of Moi’s.

[…]Soon after taking over the plant from the government, Raila struck a lucrative deal with Energem whereby the Canadian firm bought 55 per cent of the Kisumu Molasses plant. Sources say that the Odinga family was paid over US$ 5 million (about Kshs 420 million) to relinquish the control of the molasses plant. The Odinga family had paid only Kshs 3.6 million for the property.

The sale of the plant to Teixeira’s Energem was made shortly before Odinga’s National Development Party entered into a partnership with then ruling party, Kanu. Teixeira now also owns a controlling stake in Spectre. Two members of the Odinga family sit on its board of directors. Spectre International is also a major funder of the Orange Democratic Movement.

It will be very interesting to see how much more the world is going to learn about the men who have helped to destabilise countries across Africa if Viktor Bout remains behind bars. This article is the bomb and lists the activities of USAID and US corporations who are engaged in extracting resources from the Democratic Republic of Congo resources. More to follow no doubt…

Revealed: The trap that lured the merchant of death

BLOWBACK

[…]While Bout’s exploits as an arms dealer of choice to a host of unsavoury regimes and groups appears largely beyond dispute, what is more puzzling is how he got away with it for so long. The answer, according to many long-time Bout experts, intelligence officials and US government sources, is that there exists a strong circumstantial case that his ability to get into the world’s most troubled regions and deliver exactly what he promised on time and at the promised cost made him an invaluable ally to more powerful interests than African warlords and diamond smugglers.

Alex Yearsley of the London-based Global Witness, the organisation that led the charge against both Bout and his partners for trading weapons throughout Africa, often in exchange for contracts for natural resources, believes his ability to evade arrest reflected not simply a lack of will by certain nations but a crass exercise in realpolitik.

‘Due to the complicity of members of the [five permanent members on the United Nations] Security Council in the conflicts that Bout armed, on both sides, there were always politically expedient excuses not to arrest [him] earlier,’ he says. ‘He ran an operation that always had plausible deniability. If his planes got caught delivering weapons to rebel movements or sanctioned regimes, they could always claim he was a rogue businessman. On several occasions when he was about to be arrested by one government another government would find a use for him.’

Bout’s activities fell under increased scrutiny over the past five years, particularly after the revelations that he had been given contracts to serve the Iraqi occupation. UN travel sanctions and moves by the US Department of Treasury to freeze his assets and complicate his business operations limited his business, according to US government documents. But based in Moscow, Bout was able to continue operations until his arrest. Yearsley echoes many observers when he says it appeared he was under the protection of the Russian government.

‘He seemed to have a very high level of protection in Russia, living there a happy and a free man despite Interpol ‘red’ notices and Belgian arrest warrants. [This protection] makes a mockery of Russia’s justice system. He was used by [Vladimir Putin] to wind up the Western liberals and make some Russian generals rich,’ he said.

In a meeting last autumn, one European intelligence official who had worked on a long-running investigation into Bout’s activities in Africa was openly cynical that he would ever be caught. ‘Arrest Bout? Nobody wants to. Even my own government eventually shut us down. There’s been a decision to hassle him with sanctions to keep him in line but everyone needs him at some point, or might [need him]. Plus he’d just be replaced by someone else and they could be worse,’ the official said.

‘As long as he stays quiet and remains useful, he can do this indefinitely.’

In the end it was an agency of one of those states suspected of turning a blind eye to Bout’s activities that was the engine behind his capture. According to a source with close ties to the DEA, the operation was so sensitive it was kept secret from other members of the US intelligence community, including high-ranking members of the Justice Department, precisely because of the fear that Bout might be tipped off by elements that the DEA agents feared had protected him in the past. A special unit was set up to run the operation due to ‘war on drugs’ legislation and guidelines, allowed to operate outside the normal protocols that require US government-wide notification.

Few people, even in the closed world of US intelligence, knew the DEA was tracking Bout, let alone setting him up for an arrest. ‘[The DEA] was laughing at the CIA in their offices,’ because they had arrested someone that was perceived to be working for the agency, said one witness.

The strong suspicion that elements in US and other Western intelligence services supposed to be pursuing Bout were occasionally protecting him – no evidence suggests an official policy to protect Bout – is supported by an American diplomat who had tracked Bout as part of investigations into the trade in Russia’s post-Cold War arms stockpiles.

The diplomat described how efforts to track or harass Bout in the late 1990s and early 2000 by small-arms control experts at the State Department would eventually draw the ire of certain CIA officials, resulting in angry phone calls to the diplomat’s superiors demanding that they back off. But the diplomat was emphatic that he did not believe the agency actively or officially worked alongside Bout, but rather traded information with him, making him a useful, if unappealing, occasional asset.

‘I sense they were just as shocked as the rest of us when the bastard was found flying into Baghdad [on behalf of the US government],’ he said of the CIA.

Farah, meanwhile, believes that Bout’s willingness to work with Islamic organisations such as Hizbollah and the Islamic Courts in Somalia, considered an al-Qaeda ally by American officials, probably helped speed his demise.

‘I think Bout was arrested now for several reasons: he was no longer useful to the United States and was an embarrassment … he had shown a willingness to work with those directly opposed to US vital interests,’ Farah says. ‘This, in the end, moved at least a portion of the US law enforcement and intelligence community to make him a high priority target, something he had not been for many years.’

Afterword: Going back to mushroom metaphors; it might be great news to hear that Bout is behind bars finally but the arms trade is not going away as the structure remains – the Antonov planes, the arms pipelines and the organisation are still in place, like mushroom mycelium ever present underground even when the mushroom is dead.

Related: On Kagame and other disinterested observers

Oh and by the way – Nicholas Cage’s character in the film Lord of War was based on him.

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