Former Soviet military officer Viktor Bout recently was arrested on a warrant issued by the United States, charging him with supplying weapons to the Colombian rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia.
The 2005 movie, Lord of War, was loosely based on the alleged gunrunning activities of Viktor Bout. Often dubbed the "Merchant of Death", Bout is thought to have supplied illegal weapons to dictators, warlords and mass murders around the world. In media reports, Bout often is described as one of the world's biggest arms dealers.
Michael Braun with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, or DEA, ran the sting operation that led to Bout's arrest in Bangkok earlier this month. "These are the folks that provide the arms to the potpourri of world scum, so that they can overpower and dominate the weak around the world," says Braun.
The DEA says 41-year-old Viktor Bout eluded authorities for years, thanks to his many passports, identities and the support he received from influential individuals. "Somebody like Viktor Bout has been in business for a long, long time. He has made tremendous contacts around the globe as he has conducted business as usual. Global arms traffickers are what I refer to as 'shadow facilitators,'" says Braun. "They provide the arms that terrorist organizations need to operate and they also provide arms to very powerful global drug trafficking organizations [and] to ruthless dictators."
Not much is known about Bout, says journalist Stephen Braun, coauthor of the book: Merchant of Death: Money, Guns, Planes, and the Man Who Makes War Possible. "He grew up in Tajikistan and attended school there. Then [he] attended the Moscow Academy of Languages, which goes under a different name now. It's known among Western intelligence agencies [that] it had been a feeder academy to both the KGB and also to the GRU, which was [Soviet] military intelligence," says Stephen Braun.
A High Flyer
Bout's suspected weapon's empire emerged from the 1991 break up of the Soviet Union that left a vast arsenal of weapons in its wake -- ranging from small arms to artillery, rocket launchers, attack helicopters and millions of rounds of ammunition.
Bout, who owns a Russian air transport and maintenance company, is accused of flying arms all over the world. Law enforcement authorities say he soon became number one in the arms trade business with a fleet of some 60 planes, operating out of the United Arab Emirates.
Los Angeles Times newspaper reporter Stephen Braun says Viktor Bout had a logistics network that was unrivaled in the arms trade world. "What made him, sort of, head and shoulders above all of his rivals in the arms industry was that he was the only man in that industry who created an organization that basically provided full service. He was sort of the Wal-Mart of the arms trade, if you will," says Braun.
A Long List of Suspected Clients
Analysts say Bout started by selling weapons to countries under U.N. arms embargoes. They say one of his first clients was the Taliban in Afghanistan. After that, law enforcement officials say he moved to Africa where he found buyers in Angola, Rwanda, Liberia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sierra Leon and Zaire.
In 2002, Bout turned up in Moscow. Some arms trade experts say that he could tell law enforcement a lot about Russian intelligence and the Russian weapons industry. It is also thought that he knows much about groups he allegedly armed -- from the Islamic Courts Union in Somalia to Hezbollah. He could also reveal more about his cargo flights to Iraq paid for by the United States and Britain. The Pentagon says it inadvertently contracted with a company linked to Bout.
Experts say Viktor Bout had access to some of the world's most dangerous weapons, as well. Andrew Smulian, who was arrested with Bout and is now facing trial in the United States, claims that Bout recently obtained 100 highly advanced surface-to-air missiles.
Arms trafficking expert Matthew Schroeder with the Washington-based Federation of American Scientists says these shoulder-fired missiles are some of the most tightly guarded weapons in the world. "And if the alleged source, Bulgaria, is the national source, that information right there would be highly valuable from a counter-terror perspective," says Schroeder. "So just in that case you can see the invaluable intelligence that could be provided by Mr. Bout, should he decide to talk."
Stemming the Arms Trade
Schroeder says catching Viktor Bout has highlighted the role of illicit arms traffickers in fueling conflict around the world and could serve as a deterrent to other gunrunners.
But some arms trade experts argue that there are many more arms dealers waiting to take over from Bout -- including his brother Sergei, who lives in Moscow.
Center for Defense Information expert Rachel Stohl says there is an urgent need for regulating the arms trade. "The reality is because there are no international standards on arms brokering, there are very few national laws on arms brokering that these men, and probably there are some women out there as well, are able to really survive by negotiating and navigating through this patchwork of laws and always stay one step ahead of the law," says Stohl. "The bad news is there is still a lot of work to be done and a lot more people willing to take his [i.e., Viktor Bout's] place."
Still many analysts say that putting Bout out of business is an unprecedented success because no other international arms dealer controls a network as formidable as his -- capable of delivering the deadliest weapons into the world's most dangerous hands, including al-Qaida.