Arms kingpin Viktor Bout stews inaBangkok jail after his arrest inadramatic 2008 sting operation—in whichhe offered to sell undercover agents 20,000 AK-47s and 10 million rounds of ammo, among other weapons. His trial resumes this week in Manhattan
This, he admits, was the most exciting cat-and-mouse game he’d ever played in his 29 years with the DEA, and finally, on the morning of March 6, 2008, Tom Pasquarello’s target was within reach. That morning, Viktor Bout, the world’s most-wanted black-market arms dealer, had flown from his home in Moscow to Bangkok, Thailand, to close what he believed was a deal with Colombia’s FARC rebels. Bout normally flew private, but on this day he flew commercial.
Bout, based on his background, knew how to play,” Pasquarello says. “He probably thought flying private would arouse suspicion.”
So Pasquarello, who had led the sting operation from the beginning, began staging his surveillance the night before Bout’s flight. There were undercovers stationed at the airport, at the street-vending carts that dotted the route to the hotel, in the hotel lobby, at every possible off-site restaurant Bout might consider. By 4 on the morning of his arrival, the entire hotel was staged; even the concierge was an agent.
We never had a large influx of people at any one time,” Pasquarello said. “We didn’t advertise this to many people -- probably no more than five knew at the beginning, maybe 20-25 when we were ready to arrest.”
Pasquarello was in a room close to Bout’s executive suite. Only one man, a British associate named Andrew Smulian, was with him. Bout was unarmed, as was the bodyguard, who stood watch outside Bout’s room. “He was South African, 6-foot-5, 270 pounds,” Pasquarello said.
Not long into the meeting between Bout and Smulian, Pasquarello got the go signal, and an eight-member SWAT team, armed with submachine guns, burst through the door. Bout did not seem surprised.
He was searched, handcuffed, sat down,” said Pasquarello. “I came in and introduced myself. One of his first comments was, ‘The game’s over.
It sounds like something out of a movie, but Pasquarello says there was nothing about this operation that seemed cliche or even had precedent.
“Bout was just stone-cold,” he said. “He showed no emotion at all.” Pasquarello says that in his 29 years with the DEA, “I’d never seen a reaction like that.
Upon his arrest, Bout was a pudgy, mustachioed man in a track suit. His thick brown eyebrows and heavily-lined face only added to his mercenary image.
Now, as he finally stands trial in US district court, he is thin and elegantly dressed in a deep blue suit.
If convicted -- Bout has been indicted on four counts, including wire fraud, conspiracy to provide support to a foreign terrorist organization and intent to kill Americans -- he could get life in prison.
To those who know Bout, however, his preternatural calm is utterly in character. For 15 years he was the largest single supplier of black-market weapons in the world. He has armed nearly every conflict that has coincided with his tenure, often supplying to both sides of one war, working with street thugs, dictators and Western governments. Bout has no political, economic, social or theological agenda, and at the time of his arrest, he was worth at least $6 billion. His associates have described him as clean-living and personable.
Never violent, ever.
We talked to some Russians in prison,” said Douglas Farah, co-author of the 2007 Bout biography “Merchant of Death.” “They said he was an a--hole, that he didn’t pay them -- but no indications of a hidden, violent side.”
When his trial resumes tomorrow in downtown Manhattan, the world will learn more about the global underground arms network and about Bout himself.
Who is Viktor Bout? That depends on whom you ask. If you’ve seen the 2005 thriller “Lord of War,” in which Nicolas Cage plays an arms dealer based on Bout, you might have some idea. The film disgusted Bout: “I feel sorry for Nicolas Cage,” he said, according to Farah. “It’s a bad movie.”
According to a Web site that seems to be either written or endorsed by Bout himself, he is “a born salesman with undying love for aviation and eternal drive to succeed,” a private citizen and victim of a worldwide conspiracy overseen by the UN.
According to the indictment unsealed by the US government in February 2010, Bout, since the 1990s, has “carried out a massive weapons-trafficking business by assembling a fleet of cargo airplanes capable of transporting weapons and military equipment to various parts of the world . . . The arms that Bout has sold or brokered have fueled conflicts and supported regimes in Afghanistan, Angola, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Liberia, Rwanda, Sierra Leone and Sudan.
That’s a conservative list. “The damage he has done to the world is enormous,” Farah said. “It’s incalculable. He didn’t create wars, but he certainly made them more lethal than they ever would have been.”
Consider the list of weaponry that Bout offered to those undercover DEA agents posing as members of Colombia’s FARC rebel army:
About 100 surface-to-air missiles; 20,000 AK-47s; 740 mortars; 350 sniper rifles; 20,000 fragmentation grenades; 10 million rounds of ammunition; 5 tons of C-4 explosives, and an unknown quantity of ultralight planes and unmanned aircraft.
He could provide attack helicopters and anti-personnel mines on a moment’s notice,” said Farah. “He wasn’t a terrorist, but he armed them.”
Very little is known about Bout. He alternately claims to have been born in Tajikistan and Turkmenistan, but Interpol believes he was born in Smolensk, Russia. Bout has said he grew up poor, but it’s rumored that his father was a member of the KGB. Nothing is known of his childhood.
Sometime in the late 1980s, Bout graduated from Moscow’s Military Institute of Foreign Languages; it’s estimated he can speak at least eight fluently.
Bout then attended what’s known as “School 47,” a training ground for KGB agents.
Bout has always denied he was a member, although everyone who has studied or investigated Bout has concluded that his nascent career as an arms dealer in the mid-1990s -- after the Cold War, the former Soviet Union had an abundance of weaponry and very little money -- was backed with a $120,000 investment from retired KGB members. At the very least, he was acquainted with future President Vladimir Putin. Bout was 25 years old.
He began acquiring both civilian and military aircraft and transporting arms to Africa, where there was high demand and little to no oversight. Sometime around 1995, between gun-running and sit-downs with dictators, Bout met his future wife, Alla, possibly in Mozambique. (It’s believed Bout may have been married once before.)
Bout and Alla moved to South Africa in 1997, and Alla embarked on a career as a fashion designer; her company is based in the United Arab Emirates. Bout bought a $3 million mansion in Johannesburg, South Africa, which he converted into a compound. According to Farah, he built 15-foot, barbed-wire walls, and employed an around-the-clock security team -- 26 guards and five attack dogs -- at a cost of $12,000 a day.
The couple lived there with their daughter and Alla’s mother for three months, until a day when the mansion’s doors were blown open by grenades, Bout’s mother-in-law was pistol-whipped and armed invaders stole $6 million.
Bout moved the family to the UAE, and no suspects were ever arrested. To this day, Alla, who appears in court every day with their teenage daughter, insists her husband has never done anything illegal, that he is “the salt of the earth.”
Perhaps the greatest myth about Viktor Bout, and others in his line of work, is that they are rogues, lone operators who live in the shadows, consorting only with thugs and terrorists. In truth, by the late 1990s, the French and British governments were hiring Bout, whose vast fleet of aircraft and understanding of international law meant he could drop and pick up anything or anyone, at any time, anywhere in the world.
Kathi Austin, a former UN arms-trafficking expert and executive director of the Conflict Awareness Project, was in eastern Congo in 1994-95. “I was investigating violations of the US arms embargo against the Rwandan genocidaires,” she said. The name Viktor Bout began to surface.
He wasn’t then the big fish that he later grew into,” Austin said. “He was an arms entrepreneur who was competitively working the area.”
Even the UN knowingly contracted with Bout, hiring him to run humanitarian food and aid drops into the war-torn Congo, long after he become a free agent, no longer beholden to his ex-KGB investors.
His weapons came from everywhere, and he never flew an empty mission. Farah reports that, upon realizing there was a growing consumer market in Russia, Bout flew out guns and flew home with refrigerators and IKEA furniture, selling them at astronomical mark-ups
He’s like a chess player,” Pasquarello says of his nemesis. “He calculates the moves.”
In the early days of the Iraq war, the US hired Bout to run missions, and he may have been doing work for the US in the region through 2005. Austin says that Bout flew at least 140 missions for the US.
“The US didn’t have airlift capabilities, and Bout had a bunch of aircraft sitting around, based in the UAE, where we were staged,” Farah said. “Cutting off Bout meant cutting off the artery of supplies that were keeping our men and women safe. So the first priority wasn’t to figure out whether the planes were legal -- it was to get them to land safely.”
So why would the United States have decided, at least as late as 2007, that the time had come to arrest Viktor Bout?
“There’s never any one answer for these things,” said Andrew Feinstein, author of the new book, “The Shadow World: Inside the Global Arms Trade.” “Maybe they thought he had become something of an easy target -- a little lazy, a little less sharp, low-hanging fruit.
Farah agrees, adding that the US was most likely alarmed by Bout’s possible involvement with al Qaeda.
US intelligence, he says, noticed a similarity between his movement patterns to that of Abdul Qadeer Khan’s, the rogue Pakistani nuclear scientist. “The thinking was [probably] that we should not be quite so benevolent anymore.
Those experts who spoke with The Post all believe Bout will be convicted, but they also agree that in the end, it really won’t matter because there are many successors in the shadows.
Pasquarello doubts there will ever be another like Bout, however: “I’m not sure who would have the caliber of his intellect, business finesse, personality,” he said. “It’s just a brilliant mind.”