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On the Trail of a Man Behind Taliban's Air Fleet

Authorities say Victor Bout supplied combatants in hot spots around the world. The elusive entrepreneur is free in Moscow.

May 19, 2002|By Times Staff Writers

The files on Victor Bout in government agencies around the world brim with accounts of how he hunted game with rebel leaders, threw beer parties on jungle landing strips and consorted with dictators to build his business empire. For a decade, his armada of aircraft has hauled almost anything for a price: fish, coffee, relief supplies, flowers, and heads of state and their wives.

International authorities say the 35-year-old Russian also operates the world's largest private weapons transport network, carrying military goods as small as Kalashnikov assault rifle rounds and as large as helicopter gunships. Bout's businesses have been blamed for arming civil wars throughout Africa, despite international embargoes.

"Victor Bout is like the Donald Trump or Bill Gates of arms trafficking," said a U.S. Defense Department official. "He's the biggest kid on the block."

Now a Times investigation has uncovered evidence that companies tied to Bout helped the Taliban build an air fleet that secretly delivered weapons, equipment and recruits during a crucial period in the late 1990s. The hard-line Islamic regime bought air freighters from the firms and disguised some of them in the colors of Afghanistan's national airline so that cargo could be delivered without attracting notice. The deals were arranged while the Taliban battled opposition forces for power and the ruling mullahs' patron, Osama bin Laden, launched his holy war against Americans.

The revelations provide significant new details of how the Taliban and Bin Laden's Al Qaeda terrorist organization imported armaments wielded in combat against American soldiers. Both militant groups drew from the same arms caches, according to U.S. officials tracing munitions found after last year's fighting. The accounts also provide a close-up view of how weak arms-trafficking laws and poor international coordination can hamper the war on terrorism.

American authorities say Bout--with operations scattered from the United Arab Emirates to the United States--embodies a new class of global enablers with the resources to serve terrorists. Though not affiliated with any known faction, Bout is considered a "transnational threat" by the U.S. government, posing danger through his worldwide reach.

Over the last three years, the United Nations has publicly condemned him. The White House worked quietly to build a case against him. The U.S. secretary of State urged South Africa's president to prosecute Bout. A ranking British Foreign Ministry official denounced him in Parliament. Belgium is seeking his arrest.

But Bout has been a master of fast exits. He left Belgium and South Africa soon after police opened investigations into his flights. As American and British officials tried to establish the nature of his dealings with the Taliban, Bout slipped out of the Emirates.

He remains a free man in Moscow, sheltered by a Russian government skeptical of the allegations against him. He declined repeated interview requests through intermediaries during the last several months. In late April, his lawyer, Victor Burobin, quoted Bout as saying, "I haven't committed any crimes." Earlier, Bout told a Moscow radio station that he had not "entered any contacts with Taliban or Al Qaeda representatives."

To put together a picture of Bout and his operations, The Times conducted interviews with more than 75 military, diplomatic and government officials in Afghanistan, the U.S., the Emirates, Russia, Europe and Africa, as well as with air industry workers and Bout associates in those nations. Afghan officials corroborated their accounts with a thick stack of documents from the deposed Taliban government.

The chronicle of Bout's rise in Africa and his clandestine work in Afghanistan is a narrative that is still unfolding, a tale of nations pitted against one resourceful man.


Billing Himself as an Average Ivan

Victor Bout's known biography is spare. A native of Tajikistan, he is a Soviet military veteran fluent in at least five languages.

In an interview with a Russian newspaper, Bout portrayed himself as a hard-working, misunderstood and much-slandered businessman, an average Ivan Ivanov of unpretentious roots, the son of a car mechanic and a bookkeeper who went to a school for military translators and emerged from the army with the rank of lieutenant before going into the air cargo trade.

The financing of his aviation network remains murky. But he found a gold mine in surplus weaponry. Russia's discarded stockpiles "have tremendous value to warring countries in Africa and anywhere you need guns," said Jonathan Winer, a former deputy assistant secretary of State for international enforcement in the Clinton administration. "It's capitalism, comrade."

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