Thursday, March 13, 2008

Bout at bay

The illegal weapons trade

Suited and booted

Mar 13th 2008
From The Economist print edition

A notorious arms dealer is arrested in Thailand. Why?

Bout: on the other foot now

A FORMER Soviet military-intelligence officer, stranded in Africa by the collapse of his country, turns to gun-running and builds a lucrative international business. It is the sort of outfit that thrives on pointless wars in failed, dirt-poor places. But it also plays a part in some bigger conflicts. Its list of past customers includes the world's best-known terrorist groups, such as al-Qaeda and Colombia's FARC—and Western governments too. Efforts to round up the man at the centre of this web are frustrated, sometimes by bad luck, and sometimes apparently by squabbles in the rich world between those who want to prosecute and those who protect him.

That, broadly, is the critics' account of the career of Viktor Bout, once a Soviet “military translator” in Africa, fluent in six languages, the founder of numerous controversial freight businesses, and now the inmate of a police cell in Thailand, where he was detained on March 6th in a sting operation. Mr Bout says he was on holiday. An extradition affidavit filed by an agent of America's Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), Robert Zachariasiewicz, says Mr Bout was lured from his home in Moscow to Thailand by people posing as FARC representatives, wanting to buy weapons for a $5m commission. America says it will seek his extradition. On March 10th Mr Bout's British associate, Andrew Smulian, was charged in New York with conspiring to provide material support to a terrorist organisation.

Quite why Mr Bout has now fallen into the clutches of the international justice system is still unclear. Previous attempts to nab him have fallen foul of Western disunity. Clinton-era efforts fizzled out during the Bush administration. Belgian and British attempts to arrest him seem to have been leaked (some blame America for that). Mr Bout appears to have been a useful contractor for American forces in Iraq, and to have trafficked arms to American-backed causes elsewhere. That may have endeared him to the Pentagon, even as the DEA and other agencies were hunting him on other grounds.

Some, such as Louise Shelley, an American academic who researches international organised crime, link Mr Bout's arrest to a broader change in Russia. Semyon Mogilevich, a Moscow-based businessman long wanted by Interpol, was arrested there on January 24th on tax-evasion charges. On March 12th Russia also agreed to extradite to Colombia an Israeli mercenary, Yair Gal Klein, who was arrested late last year in Moscow. He is accused of training FARC guerrillas. But sceptics think any change in Russian co-operation with global law enforcement is cosmetic: “Handing over a couple of ageing arms dealers is a small price,” says one, noting strong Russian involvement in Colombia in the past, such as building a submarine for cocaine smuggling.

It is unclear if Mr Bout will ever reach the dock in America. Some who have followed his career closely think he will use “greymail”: threatening to expose American secrets. The authorities may prefer to have him spill the beans on something else—perhaps his shadowy backers in the Russian arms-export business—than to risk putting him on trial.

Even more puzzling is why Mr Bout ventured to Thailand at all. Mr Zachariasiewicz's affidavit paints a picture of a man both greedy and careless in pursuit of a smallish deal—implausible for those who believe Mr Bout to have been a meticulous planner with a vast fortune.

But the biggest question of all is what Mr Bout represents. In one sense he was a dinosaur: the product of the Soviet collapse and the opportunities it provided in the form of plentiful cheap weapons and aircraft, highly trained men at a loose end, and weak law enforcement. Those conditions are unlikely to be repeated (though a close reading of the DEA affidavit suggests, alarmingly, that Mr Bout thought Bulgaria was the ideal place in which to trans-ship advanced surface-to-air missiles).

If true, his alleged activities could also portend a future in which global criminal entrepreneurs disguise illegal businesses (such as drug- and gun-running) within legal ones (air freight), playing off Western governments and their agencies against each other, and using offshore companies and weak legal systems to keep their activities impenetrable. It is easy to imagine such villainy staying ahead of the stumbling efforts of national criminal-justice systems. At least for a time.

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