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Last Updated: Sunday, 16 September 2007, 12:45 GMT 13:45 UK
The mysterious 'Merchant of Death'
By Mark Doyle
BBC World Affairs Correspondent

The name Victor Bout first came on my radar in the late 1990s when, in my job as a BBC reporter in Africa, I found myself spending an inordinate amount of time with soldiers.

Victor Bout
The region had more than its share of wars and armed men.

I spent time with scruffy rebels in the Guinean bush and smart Indian UN peacekeepers; I sought out a United Nations commander at a golf club in Liberia one Sunday morning and met a Nigerian general later the same day in a hotel bar; I counted British majors, Nigerian colonels and South African mercenaries as my friends.

Almost all of them had heard about a (to me) mysterious man called Victor Bout, a Russian businessman who apparently traded in Africa and beyond.

To me it seemed rather odd that so many soldiers knew this Russian. Odd, that is, until 2003, when Mr Bout's name was included in a UN Security Council resolution travel ban list.

Victor Bout appeared on the list - along with the then Liberian President Charles Taylor and some of his ministers - as "Victor Anatoljevitch Bout alias Butt, Bont, Buttee, Boutov, Sergitov Vitali", and was described thus:

"Businessman, dealer and transporter of weapons and minerals. Arms dealer in contravention of UNSC resolution 1343. Supported former President Charles Taylor's regime in efforts to destabilise Sierra Leone and gain illicit access to diamonds."

For sale

A new book on Victor Bout by American journalists Doug Farah and Stephen Braun contains allegations that the Russian had a much wider remit than just Africa.

Charles Taylor
The UN says Mr Bout supported the then Liberian President Charles Taylor
The authors describe a hydra-headed network of companies which emerged from the ashes of the former Soviet Union in the early 1990s - all of them associated in some way, the book says, with Mr Bout.

The business allegedly started from the large number of former Soviet army and air force planes that were sitting on airfields more or less redundant. In the chaos of the collapsing state, these Antonovs and Illyushins - along with their crews - were up for sale.

More robust and easier to maintain than American aircraft, the former Soviet air fleet was perfect for delivering goods to bumpy wartime airstrips around the world.

The range of countries Mr Bout has allegedly dealt with is breathtaking. UN documents, many fed with information by a tenacious Belgian arms researcher, Johan Peleman, have named him in connection with wars in Angola, Sierra Leone and Liberia.

The new book also details his activities in Afghanistan, Iraq and Colombia. It explains how, at one point, the man had a palatial residence in South Africa - only to have it attacked in an apparent gangland fallout.

On the run

But the most extraordinary thing about Mr Bout is that he is still at large despite

  • having been sought by senior officials in the former Clinton administration (the Bush administration appears to have taken its eye off the ball)
  • having an arrest warrant issued against him in Belgium
  • being named frequently by the UN in connection with illegal arms deals
  • being publicly condemned as a "Merchant of Death" by the British MP Peter Hain while he was a Foreign Office minister

The book explains Mr Bout's success by his undoubted vision and ambition as a businessman, but also by two broad strokes of luck. The first was that he emerged as a serious business player, with military connections, at a time when a lot of hardware was available for sale from the former Soviet bloc.

Washington now had different interests, given its greater emphasis on Iraq
The second stroke of luck was that Mr Bout came to be best known to - and named by - UN investigators at a time when the only remaining superpower, the US, was concentrating on its own "war on terror" rather than on countering arms trails which terrorised Africans, Asians and others.

Indeed, one of the most surprising sections of the new book details how the US military used planes allegedly subcontracted to companies associated with Mr Bout to deliver supplies to the American war effort in Iraq.

By this time, the informal cell of US officials working on tracking Mr Bout, set up under the Clinton era, had lost clout.

It wasn't that the US overtly wanted to deal with Bout-associated companies but that Washington now had different interests, given its greater emphasis on Iraq.

His planes were available, at the right price, and his crews were ready to take the risks - like elsewhere in the world, in other eras. And maybe - given that he is still at large - like now.

Merchant of Death - Money, Guns, Planes and the Man Who Makes War Possible by Douglas Farah and Stephen Braun is published by John Wiley and Sons, Inc, Hoboken, New Jersey.

Arms traders 'dodging embargoes'
02 Oct 06 |  Special Reports
Controlling the arms trade
18 Jun 06 |  The Westminster Hour
Key figures on UN list
21 Oct 02 |  Africa

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