From today's Sunday Times:
Insight: Jovial airman is armourer of terror
There was nothing very remarkable about the corpulent businessman who arrived at Ostend airport in 1995 with a request to the Belgian authorities to set up an air freight company. He introduced himself as Victor Anatolevic Bout, a former Soviet air force officer operating a legitimate air cargo business in Africa.
Within a year of his arrival in Belgium, Bout had settled in well. He bought a comfortable £275,000 home near Ostend and made his offices at the airport the European headquarters of his flagship company, Air Cess. But the professional life of the suave and jovial airman — who spoke several languages and is married with a violin-playing daughter — was anything but straightforward; nor did it go unnoticed for long.
Investigators who have spent the past five years examining Bout’s murky business activities soon found that behind the seemingly legitimate facade and the charming exterior was a “merchant of death”.
Using his Soviet military and intelligence connections to obtain weapons from bankrupt eastern bloc arms factories, Bout rapidly turned Ostend airport into one pivot of a worldwide arms-trafficking business that fuelled the bloodiest wars in Africa.
Now an even more sinister link has emerged. Investigators have established that as well as supplying some of the most vicious armies in Africa in return for diamonds, Bout was the chief supplier of arms and equipment to the Taliban and Osama Bin Laden’s Al-Qaeda network in Afghanistan.
Managing a fleet of planes from Ostend and later the United Arab Emirates, Bout is thought to have shipped weaponry to the Taliban from contacts in Ukraine, Russia and Bulgaria. According to one United Nations source, Bout’s cargo planes were also used to help smuggle opium out of Afghanistan on their return.
Some of the most damning evidence of Bout’s connections to the Taliban and Al-Qaeda has been collected by MI6, which has run a campaign to monitor and disrupt his activities.
Days after September 11, MI6 officers informed the government that they had clearly established Bout’s role in arming Al-Qaeda, according to a senior official. Even after the tightening of UN sanctions on Taliban-controlled Afghanistan at the beginning of last year, western sources believe secret flights by Bout-associated companies continued into the country.
Equipping the Taliban is estimated to have made Bout a personal profit of more than £30m.
After mounting local and international pressure, Bout moved out of Belgium in 1997 but his operations continued. He established a new base in the Gulf emirate of Sharjah. Last year, he moved on to the neighbouring emirates of Ras al Khaimah and Ajman.
He is also believed to own a number of properties in Kigali, the capital of Rwanda, and in neighbouring Uganda, but some informed sources say he may be lying low in Moscow.
Last week, though, the net began to tighten: Belgian authorities struck what they hope will be a death blow to Bout’s arms deals by rounding up a number of his key associates in a major criminal investigation into counterfeit currency. They have followed this by issuing an international arrest warrant for Bout, which will certainly restrict his movements.
Whether it will lead to his ultimate arrest is harder to figure. Seldom photographed and with multiple aliases, he is an elusive figure, with powerful contacts in unstable regimes across the world who would be eager to protect their armourer.
Details of his background are sketchy. Believed to have been born either in Smolensk or Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan, on January 10, 1967, Bout initially trained as a navigator.
Some reports claim he went on to become a KGB officer. Others believe that it was through his wife Alla that the lowly airman rose to prominence. According to reports from South Africa, her father “Zuigin” is said to have held high rank in the Soviet security forces, possibly even acting as deputy chairman of the KGB.
Either way, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Bout was one of several former military personnel to have spotted an opportunity to market stockpiles of redundant armaments to rebel factions across Africa.
Initially, it was a small-scale affair. When Bout first arrived in Ostend he owned one Ilyushin cargo plane. Today he controls some 60 aircraft, including the largest private fleet of Antonov cargo planes in the world, and is thought to employ some 250 people.
Bout has often disguised his arms trafficking empire behind other, more legitimate activities: Air Cess once carried UN peacekeepers from Pakistan to East Timor. But his gun-running in Africa and Afghanistan have been terribly destructive.
In breach of embargoes imposed by the UN, his fleet of big-bellied Soviet-era cargo planes supplied weapons to rebels in Sierra Leone, the unsavoury Unita forces in Angola, and the extremist Hutu militia responsible for the Rwandan genocide.
Bout’s involvement in Afghanistan began with supplying weapons to the Taliban’s opponents, the Northern Alliance. But after one of his aircraft was held hostage by the Taliban, he agreed to switch sides and by 1996 his aircraft and Ariana, the Afghan carrier, were operating up to four flights a day into Taliban-held territory.
As well as conventional arms, shipments are thought to have included cyanide and other toxic chemicals bought in Germany, the Czech Republic and Ukraine, according to Dr Ravan Farhadi, the Afghan permanent representative to the UN. Al-Qaeda was purchasing the chemicals directly for use in experiments, he said.
But Bout himself pours scorn on his reputation as a merchant of death. Last year, in a chance encounter with a Belgian journalist, he claimed he was simply misunderstood. “I was suspected of trafficking arms every day, to all corners of the world,” he lamented. “But that would have been impossible.”
It will take a somewhat more convincing defence to satisfy western governments as the hunt for Al-Qaeda’s armourer intensifies.
Insight: Stephen Grey, Jon Swain, Jon Ungoed-Thomas, Gareth Walsh in London; Nick Fielding in Kabul