U.S. and European law enforcement officials say they have scored an important advance in their efforts to disrupt what some officials describe as the biggest weapons-trafficking network in the world, responsible for supplying the Taliban and terrorist groups from al Qaeda in Afghanistan to the Abu Sayyaf in the Philippines, as well as rebel forces in Africa.
For the past three years, U.S. intelligence agencies have covertly been trying to thwart the sprawling arms empire of Victor Bout, a former Soviet military officer whose operation is based in the United Arab Emirates, according to U.S. and European officials. Bout's network is unique, U.S., British and U.N. investigators said, because of its ability to deliver sophisticated weapon systems virtually anywhere in the world.
A suspected top associate of Bout's is under arrest in Belgium, and investigators say he is providing fresh, inside information on how the arms network functions. While Bout has long been suspected of supplying weapons to the Taliban, U.S. and European officials said intelligence gathered in recent months in Afghanistan and elsewhere has provided new details about his flights and deliveries in the months before the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States. The intelligence suggests he was flying weapons into Afghanistan more recently than had been believed, according to U.S. and U.N. officials familiar with the material.
Bout specialized in breaking arms embargoes around the world, according to four separate U.N. Security Council reports on weapons trafficking that were issued between December 2000 and last month. His activities were also described in interviews with U.S., British and U.N. investigators. He traffics almost exclusively in weapons bought in the former Soviet bloc, chiefly Bulgaria and Romania, according to these officials.
U.S. and European officials said the suspected top associate of Bout, Sanjivan Ruprah, was arrested in Belgium earlier this month on charges of criminal association and using a false passport.
Before the arrest, Ruprah, a Kenyan, had secretly been in contact with U.S. officials in recent months, providing them with information about Bout, according to U.S. officials and Ruprah's attorney. The U.S. officials said they were given no warning Ruprah was about to be arrested by the Belgians.
U.S. officials also said they had made no deal with Ruprah. They said that since the arrest, Ruprah has divulged more information about Bout's suspected arms pipeline to the Taliban, which ruled Afghanistan until last November, and al Qaeda, which the Taliban had sheltered there.
Ruprah was especially valuable to Bout, U.S. and U.N. investigators said, because he was tied to the illicit diamond trade in West Africa and arranged for Bout to be paid for his weapons deliveries with diamonds from Sierra Leone, Congo and Angola.
Al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations have used an underground network that stretches across Africa to trade in diamonds, weapons and other valuable commodities.
Last year both Bout and Ruprah were placed on a U.N. list of individuals banned from international travel because of their ties to Liberia and the Sierra Leone rebel movement known as the Revolutionary United Front, or RUF.
Johan Peleman, a Belgian weapons expert who has investigated Bout for several years on behalf of the United Nations and has spoken regularly to Ruprah in recent months, said Ruprah was knowledgeable about Bout's financial dealings, especially in the diamond trade. Belgium is interested because Bout's financial network was based in Antwerp, the center of the world diamond trade.
Ruprah's attorney, Luc de Temmerman, said in a written statement that his client engaged only in legal activities in Africa. While acknowledging that Bout and Ruprah knew each other, he said they were not in business together.
The U.N. reports said Bout originally based his operations in Ostend, Belgium, in 1995, and moved to the UAE in 1997 when Belgian officials began investigating his air freight operations.
The reports, compiled independently by separate groups of U.N. investigators monitoring U.N. embargoes, document Bout's shipments of hundreds of tons of arms to UNITA rebels in Angola, the government of President Charles Taylor in Liberia and several factions involved in the civil war in Congo. All are under U.N. weapons bans. Ruprah was identified in U.N. reports as a key intermediary between Bout and Taylor. A December 2000 report said Ruprah was issued a Liberian diplomatic passport in the name of Samir M. Nasr, and was identified as Liberia's deputy commissioner for maritime affairs.
Ruprah helped arrange for three flights to Liberia in July and one in August 2000, the report said, delivering two combat-capable helicopters, surface-to-air missiles, armored vehicles, machine guns and almost a million rounds of ammunition. The weapons originated in Bulgaria.
U.S. and U.N. investigators say they believe Bout has also run guns for the radical Muslim Abu Sayyaf guerrilla movement in the Philippines and has flown weapons for Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi.
"Victor Bout, as the largest player in the world in the illicit air logistics business, is a critical aider and abettor to criminal and terrorist organizations, rogue heads of state and insurgencies -- whoever is able to pay," Wolosky said.
According to a U.N. Security Council report issued in April 2001, Bout is 35 years old. Born in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, he is a graduate of Moscow's Military Institute of Foreign Languages and speaks six languages fluently, according to the report.
The report also describes Bout as a former air force officer who holds at least five passports. Investigators said Bout was known as the "Lone Wolf" because he operates by himself. They describe him as short, stocky and usually sporting a bushy mustache.
Telephone calls and faxes to Bout's offices in the UAE went unanswered. An associate of Bout's there said all of Bout's employees in the Emirates had left. The associate said he no longer knew where they were. Bout's brother Sergei, based in Islamabad, Pakistan, also did not return phone calls.
Bout has refused to talk to U.N. investigators or reporters.
He has a fleet of about 60 aircraft, including large Russian cargo planes, according to investigators. His operation is tied together by a complex web of overlapping airlines, charter companies and freight-forwarding operations that give him a global reach. His main company is registered as Air Cess.
In an effort to confound investigators, Bout continually changed the registration of his aircraft from one African country to another, all the while basing his air operations in Sharjah, one of seven emirates that make up the UAE.
Bout's alleged dealings with the Taliban and al Qaeda are the subject of an ongoing, classified U.S. operation that began in early 2000. "There was a concerted effort at the tail end of the Clinton administration, continued into the Bush administration, to put him out of business," said one former U.S. official.
U.N. and U.S. officials said Bout cut a deal with the Taliban in 1996 in UAE, one of only three countries in the world that recognized the regime.
The deal called for Bout's Air Cess to supply and service Afghanistan's Ariana Airways and the Afghan air force, both of which used Soviet-era aircraft. Another company that Bout had an interest in, Flying Dolphin, provided charter flights from Dubai to Afghanistan, the sources said, and soon there were several flights a week from Dubai to the Taliban stronghold of Kandahar.
U.N. investigators say they now believe many of those flights were loaded with weapons. When U.N. sanctions shut down Ariana in November 2000, Flying Dolphin obtained a U.N. waiver, for reasons that are not clear, and continued flying the Dubai-Kandahar route until being shut down by the United Nations in January 2001. "Bout undoubtedly did supply al Qaeda and the Taliban with arms," Peter Hain, Britain's minister of European affairs and lead investigator into Bout's global arms trade, told the Associated Press on Feb. 19.
A 1998 Belgian intelligence report on Bout's activities, obtained by The Washington Post, says he made $50 million in Afghanistan, selling heavy weapons to the Taliban. However, Peleman and other investigators said they had doubts that Bout had earned that much money from the Taliban and al Qaeda, in part because Bout also supplied weapons to anti-Taliban leaders, some of whom were his close friends.
Nonetheless, the United States launched an effort to disrupt Bout's arms trading, trying to freeze his assets and pressuring other nations, especially the UAE, to expel him. U.S. officials said they were limited in what they could do because they believed Bout had violated no U.S. laws. One of Bout's companies, Air Cess Inc., based in Miami, was dissolved on Sept. 19, according to public records, and its telephone number no longer works.
In late 2000 the Clinton administration asked the UAE at an "extremely high level" to shut down Bout's operation, a former U.S. official said. UAE officials reponded that they had no evidence of criminal wrongdoing by Bout.
When President Bush took office, the Bout project received less attention, U.S. officials said. Then came the Sept. 11 attacks. "Suddenly, he was back on our radar screen in a very significant way," a senior U.S. official said. "His importance suddenly loomed very large."
Source: The Washington Post Company (2002)
Viktor Bout's File
Consider these photo pages:
Ilyushin 18s at Sharjah, april 2000.
Antonov 8s and 12s at Sharjah, april 2000.