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Victor Bout was born in 1967, in the small town of Dushanbee in Tajikistan, then a part of the USSR. Bout was highly talented at languages and enrolled in the Soviet Union’s Military Institute of Foreign Languages, after his basic military training saw him reach the rank of Lieutenant. He held a senior rank at the institute, which was closely connected to Russia’s infamous GRU, the country’s largest foreign intelligence service.
In 1991, fluent in six languages and capable of flying a variety of aeroplanes, Bout decided to pursue a career in the freighting business. At the time, surplus military material was being sold freely by army officials, keen to make a quick buck. Bout found acquiring planes easy and was able to purchase three massive transport aircraft for a mere $120,000. Douglas Farah and Stephan Braun, who chronicled Bout’s exploits in ‘Merchant of Death: Money, Guns, Planes and the Man Who Makes War Possible’, suspect he may have had support from the KGB, which allowed him to purchase the planes so cheaply, as well as provide him with a detailed list of ex-Soviet weapons clients.
Bout rapidly grew his fleet to 50 planes, and by 1992 had entered the world of arms dealing. In his international exploits reselling arms stock across the globe, Bout used a number of aliases, including Boutov, But, Budd and Bouta. His dealings stretched across Africa, the Middle East and the Balkans, and he was involved in most of the major conflicts of the 90’s.
By late 2001, Bout was already facing increasing international obstacles to his deliveries, But it was after 9/11 when the US identified Bout as having played a role in arming the Taliban, he become one of the primary targets in the War on Terror. He faced particular issues with his deliveries to Liberia after inspectors for the UN repeatedly named him in their investigations in to the Liberia-Sierra Leone conflicts, recommending he be placed on international travel ban lists. In 2002, Belgium issued a warrant for his arrest, claiming he had illegally hidden money flows of over $300m from tax authorities. Bout relocated from Africa to Russia, where he was protected by the state.
Despite Bout’s potentially embarrassing prior dealings with US intelligence agencies, in March 2008, Bout was lured from Moscow to meet with undercover US agents in a hotel bar in Bangkok. Agents posed as members of FARC and told Bout they wanted to buy weapons from him to shoot down US made helicopters. Bout agreed to the request, and said that any fight against the United States was also his fight. In the middle of negotiations, he was arrested by DEA agents and Thai police officers. The Thai courts however ruled against extraditing him to the US in August 2009, determining that giving support to FARC was a political act, rather than a criminal one, based on the decision that FARC was not a terrorist organisation. The Thai-US extradition treaty only allowed for extradition in criminal cases. The court’s decision in part was attributed to Russian political pressure, which strongly opposed Bout’s extradition.
In March 2010, the US issued a second warrant on different charges. This time they focused on Bout’s alleged violation of a US presidential order freezing his assets in the US. They claimed that Bout used a newly formed company, Samar Airlines, to purchase two aeroplanes from a Florida based company at a cost of just over $17m, as well as using a Florida company to provide the crew to fly the planes from the US to Tajikistan. While his name did not appear on any documents, the US claimed he was the real owner of Samar. The Appeals Court overturned the previous ruling on 20 August 2010, deeming FARC a proscribed terrorist organisation, and ruling that Thailand was obliged to extradite Bout in accordance with its treaty with the US. In November that same year, he was handed over to DEA agents and boarded a plane to the US. In April 2012, he was sentenced to 25 years in jail in a New York court room after being found guilty of conspiracy to kill US citizens and officials, delivering anti-aircraft missiles, and aiding a terrorist organisation.
2. Selected cases
Case 1: Afghanistan 1990s
Bout’s first client was the newly installed Northern Alliance government of Afghanistan, which had previously fought a devastating war against Taliban fighters. Bout travelled frequently to Afghanistan, where he came to know Ahmed Shah Massoud, a notable local politician, warlord and poet, who had been dubbed the Lion of Panjshir. Massoud and Bout bonded over extravagant dinners and a love for hunting, which they would sometimes carry out with sniper rifles shot from one of Massoud’s helicopters. Bout managed to secure a number of profitable arms deals, supplying Massoud with Russian weapons.
He is said to have played both sides of the conflict and over the next few years he reportedly netted an estimated $50m, delivering weapons to the Taliban from his base in Sharjah in the UAE. He also helped the Taliban set-up its own transport network by selling the organisation a fleet of cargo planes in 1998. In the wake of 9/11, Bout’s relationship with the Taliban made him an international pariah, though he has since denied working with them in interviews. 
Case 2: Bosnia
He broke arms sanctions and supplied weapons to Muslim Bosnians who were facing the depredations of Serbian nationalists. The deals were funded by the Third World Relief Agency, a charity with links to Islamic extremists, including Osama Bin Laden. In September 1992, the charity hired an Ilyushin 76 to deliver a substantial cache of arms from Khartoum in Sudan to Maribor, an airport in Slovenia close to Bosnia. Bout owned the plane and was probably involved in the procurement of weapons as well.
Case 3: Angola
Bout’s first major African client was the Angolan government, which was fighting a civil conflict against rebel group, UNITA. Bout developed a close working relationship with the Angolan military, in particular the country’s air force. Between 1994-1998, he concluded contracts to the value of $325m with the Angolan Air Force, creating a company in Belgium for that specific purpose. However in 1998, the Angolan government discovered that Bout had been supplying UNITA with a range of weapons from Bulgarian arms manufacturers. Bout made 37 flights to UNITA, which had been paid for with blood diamonds. The cargo included millions of rounds of ammunition, rocket launchers, cannons, anti-aircraft guns, mortar bombs and anti-tank rockets. When the Angolan government discovered his duplicity, Bout’s contracts were cancelled.
Case 4: Liberia
Bout was introduced to arms dealing in Liberia by Sanjivan Ruprah, the former President Charles Taylor’s lieutenant. Ruprah, a Kenyan national, was working with Charles Taylor in sponsoring the Revolutionary United Front’s (RUF) seizure of Sierra Leone. By November 1999, Ruprah had been appointed ‘Global Civil Aviation agent worldwide for the Liberian Civil Aviation Register’, which in effect made him in charge of Liberia’s aeroplane registry. By 2000, Ruprah was directly involved with Bout in helping to set up front companies in Abidjan to effect arms deals. By this time Bout was undertaking major deliveries to Charles Taylor, using a convoluted system which included a number of different front companies registered, often fraudently, in a number of different jurisdictions. This not only concealed rockets and ammunitions, but advanced weapons systems which significantly advanced the military capabilities of his clients. According to the UN: ‘The cargo included attack-capable helicopters, spare rotors, anti-tank and anti-aircraft systems, armoured vehicles, machine guns and almost a million rounds of ammunition.’ Acting much like a legal defense contractor, he even provided after sales support in the form of helicopter spares and rotor blades.
Case 5: US invasion of Iraq
In 2003, shortly after the invasion of Iraq, the US faced a major problem. While it had taken control of a number of key landing strips, conditions remained perilous for civilian contractors. To fill the gap, the US and its contractors turned to a range of air cargo suppliers operating around the world. From 2003 until at least the end of 2005, one of the most consistent operators was Irbis Air, an international airline owned and controlled by Viktor Bout. Bout is estimated to have earned $60m between 2003-2005, from his Iraq flights.
3. Additional information
Literature and articles about Victor Bout
· Merchant of Death: Money, Guns, Planes, and the Man Who Makes War Possible (John Wiley & Sons, 2008), Douglas Farah & Stephan Braun
· Arms and the Man, New York Times (August 2003), Peter Landesman. See here:
· Disarming Victor Bout, New Yorker, Nicholas Schmidle. See here:
Films about Victor Bout
· ‘The Notorious Mr Bout’, a biopic based on Bout’s home archive
· ‘Lord of War’, a film starring Nicholas Cage which is loosely based on Bout.
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