The McDonald’s of arms trafficking

We profile Viktor Bout, the “Merchant of Death” who made a fortune supplying arms to some of the bloodiest conflicts on earth – but who really longed to take pictures of butterflies.

"If Viktor Bout did not exist, a thriller writer would have invented him," says The Guardian. For more than a decade, this "Merchant of Death" has made a fortune supplying arms to some of the bloodiest conflicts on earth, promising to deliver "to anyone, anywhere at almost any time", while evading the combined forces of Interpol, the UN and half a dozen intelligence agencies. Last week, his run finally came to an end when he was arrested at a five-star Bangkok hotel following a lengthy sting operation.

A former Russian military officer, Bout speaks six languages fluently and has "as many aliases as an AK-47 has rounds". Many of his associates believed him to be a genius. Certainly, he seemed to spring from nowhere. "Sort of like Jesus," says one US official. Given the misery Bout's wares have wrought, the analogy is crass. But it underlines the skill with which he has muddied the waters both of his past and of his "ever-morphing" series of front companies, says The Observer.

Bout's rise was based not just on his ability to procure the kind of weapons his clients needed, but on running a real and reliable business. Unencumbered by any ideology, save that of profit-making, he was happy to hire his fleet of transport planes to "anyone who paid", often equipping both sides in a war using the same flights to drop off weapons to different combatants most famously in Afghanistan. His network, as The New York Times observes, was "The McDonald's of arms trafficking".

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Bout's story is a classic post-Cold War entrepreneurial tale. Believed to be 42, he was born in Tajikistan and educated at the Military Institute of Foreign Languages in Moscow (traditionally a KGB breeding ground). He took advantage of three converging factors following the collapse of the USSR: the availability of clapped-out Soviet airforce planes, a stockpile of weapons guarded by disgruntled servicemen, and the rising global demand for arms.

"Smart and opportunistic", he put all three together and opened for business in Belgium in the mid-1990s. By 2000, he had a fleet of 50 to 60 planes and was cornering the market in transportation to inhospitable terrains. In the early days, much cargo was legitimate: Bout shipped flowers, chickens, and even UN peacekeepers. But the arms trade was more lucrative. Beginning in Africa, he fuelled the bloody wars of Sierra Leone, Liberia and Angola.

Yet despite becoming a wanted man, he operated with impunity from his new base in the UAE probably because he boasted most Western governments on his Rolodex of clients, says The Sunday Times. The bottom line, as one European intelligence officer told The Observer, was that Bout was too useful. "Everyone needs him at some point."

In the end, the US drug-enforcement agency got him. Bout flew into Thailand to conclude a weapons deal with a Colombian guerrilla group. It was a trap. "The game is over," he said as he was led away. Maybe not, says the Canadian Globe & Mail. It is not yet clear where Bout will stand trial, or what he will be charged with. But he has the wherewithal to cause massive embarrassment. Bout was undoubtedly engaged in a good deal of "dirty work". The question is, whose?

But he really longed to take pictures of butterflies

Viktor Bout was glamorised by Hollywood in the 2005 movie Lord of War, but the notable thing about this enigmatic gunrunner was his professed normality, says the FT. A squat man with a hang-dog face, he has always denied illegality appearing on a Kremlin-backed English language channel last year to denounce UN charges against him as a "witch hunt". Many believe he owes his immunity from prosecution to the Russian state. He seemed to enjoy a regular life in Moscow, says the Canadian National Post. A "dedicated father" and a vegetarian, he was often seen driving his son to violin lessons. He told The New York Times in 2004 that longed to be a wildlife photographer.

Intercepted emails show that Bout's arms-sales profits ran to billions, yet, as far as he was concerned, it was just business. Selling arms is "no different" to selling pharmaceuticals, he said. "Killing isn't about weapons. It's about the people who use them." Certainly, he had no qualms about advertising his business: it had a well-honed PR arm, which regularly sent potential clients magazine articles about his activities.

But equally, says the FT, Bout was a master at disguising his operations, constantly changing the names of his companies as well as his aircrafts' "tail numbers, call signs and nation of registration". Bout's arrest was greeted with relief by anti-arms-trade campaigners, but they also know that it will have little impact, says The Guardian. Bout continued operating, due to a huge regulatory loophole: in the absence of an international arms trade treaty, "other unscrupulous dealers will simply fill his shoes".