Immediately after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, President Bush declared that the rest of the world had to decide whether it was with us or against us. But it turns out that in the new world order, you can be both -- and make a boatload of money in the process.
Take Viktor Bout, a Russian air-transport magnate and the world's premier gray- market arms provider. Every year, warlords, gangsters, militiamen and terrorists kill tens of thousands of people in wars that are only sporadically reported to the outside world. They do their butchery using weapons obtained and delivered, to all sides of these conflicts, by Bout and his ilk. These are the real weapons of mass destruction in the post-Cold War world, taking lives and shattering communities from the slums of Baghdad to the jungles of Colombia, from the streets of Beirut to the impoverished diamond-mining hamlets of West Africa.
No ideology and few moral considerations guide Bout. His new class of global entrepreneurs operates under virtually no international constraints, reaping hundreds of millions of dollars for themselves and corrupt officials in what's left of the military and intelligence services of the former Soviet bloc, whose vast, uncontrolled arsenals are the source of most of the lethal cargo. While the conduct of private contractors such as Blackwater USA -- the American security company back in the news last week after its officers were involved in a deadly Baghdad shootout -- come under some scrutiny and government control, not even such minimal accountability is required of the world's foremost weapons merchants.
These arms entrepreneurs almost always escape international sanctions because they don't work for any one state but have proved useful to many. Worse, much of what they do is not illegal, and the penalties for breaking the few laws that may apply are minuscule and entirely unenforceable.
Consider a July report from the Government Accountability Office that tens of thousands of weapons purchased by the U.S. military and destined for delivery to Iraq remain unaccounted for. Actually, they're not just "unaccounted for." Bout may have swiped some of them. According to a 2006 Amnesty International report, Aerocom, a Moldovan-registered company linked to Bout, obtained a U.S. military contract in 2004 to fly 200,000 AK-47 assault rifles and millions of rounds of ammunition from Bosnia to Iraq. The day before the first Aerocom flight that August, the Moldovan government canceled its air-operations certificate, making any flights illegal. Bout was already on a U.N. and Treasury Department blacklist and was wanted by Interpol; Aerocom had been publicly cited in U.N. reports for illicit weapons trafficking. The flights took off nonetheless, but there are no records showing that they ever actually landed in Iraq. In other words: An international outlaw using unlicensed aircraft took control of U.S. government-purchased weapons -- which then disappeared.
Bout has many companions in the rogues' gallery of arms merchants, such as Monzer al-Kassar, who was arrested in June in Spain and indicted on charges of seeking to sell weapons, including surface-to-air missiles, to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), a notorious drug-dealing militia. But two things make Bout unique: his airlift capacity and his easy access to stores of weapons that include the ubiquitous AK-47, attack helicopters and surface-to-air missiles. By the mid-1990s, this former Soviet air force officer had amassed more than 60 aircraft -- a fleet larger than the air forces of many NATO nations. Most of the airplanes were plucked from the former Soviet air fleet; scores of aircraft, from biplanes to super cargo carriers, had been left to rust on airstrips for lack of fuel and maintenance.
This combination of access and mobility lets Bout offer door-to-door service to his well-paying customers. He spreads death and destruction with impunity, aiding and abetting our enemies, including radical Islamic terrorists.
Peter Hain, a senior British cabinet minister, dubbed Bout "Africa's merchant of death" because of his exploits in arming dictators, including Charles Taylor in Liberia and Sam "Mosquito" Bockarie in Sierra Leone, as well as most sides of the bloody conflicts in Angola and Congo. In the late 1990s, when he was allegedly arming the Taliban, other Islamist groups, the FARC and Libya's Moammar Gaddafi, Bout joined Osama bin Laden as one of the Western intelligence services' top-tier targets. Interpol has issued a "red notice" for his arrest, but he lives openly in Moscow, seemingly under the protection of the government of Russian President Vladimir Putin. He was not on the agenda in the July summit between Bush and Putin.
Amazingly, Bout's activities have been painstakingly documented in a series of public reports issued by the United Nations over the past seven years. The CIA and the National Security Agency, in collaboration with British and Belgian intelligence, have listened to his telephone conversations, charted his movements and gotten satellite photographs of his aircraft sitting on remote African airstrips or lined up wing-to-wing at his headquarters in Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates.
But 9/11 changed Bout from an international pariah into a potential asset for U.S. intelligence services, and he quickly sensed the shift in his fortunes. Through an associate, he secretly contacted the CIA numerous times about providing weapons, helicopters, trucks and communications to the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance, according to U.S. documents and officials. Another associate bragged to reporters that Bout's planes had flown in Special Forces and CIA operatives early in the war, a credible story because Bout's pilots were among the only ones who knew Afghanistan's terrain and had maps of abandoned airstrips they had secretly used for years. Bout was also apparently providing weapons to the Taliban -- buttering his toast on both sides.
After the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, Bout's air-freight services were used by the U.S. military and by Halliburton, its subsidiary KBR, Federal Express and other contractors, according to flight records and U.S. military and civilian officials who monitored the flights. In the process, Bout raked in millions of dollars, even though Bush signed an executive order in July 2004 that made it illegal to do business with the Russian and his companies. In May 2005, the Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control froze the assets of Bout, three of his associates and 30 of his companies, again making it explicitly illegal to do any business with him. But while the Treasury and State departments, as well as parts of the Pentagon, tried to shut off Bout's access to U.S. tax dollars, portions of the military and intelligence communities kept feeding him business -- for almost two years after such contacts became a direct violation of a presidential directive.
What has made it possible for Bout to develop his stunning ability to deliver weapons wherever there is money to be made? The new generation of global arms merchants has mastered the art of outwitting the slow-moving law enforcement and intelligence services trying to put them out of business. And in fact, much of what Bout has done is not illegal.
In a global system that's still designed to regulate the Cold War, pre-Internet, pre-9/11 age, Bout is the prototype of the 21st-century entrepreneur. He sheds company names, moves aircraft registrations offshore and shuffles his businesses to new locations, with new bank accounts, at the drop of a hat. Law enforcement and intelligence agencies find his faint footprints long after he has moved on -- if they even bother to look for his footprints, that is, which they often don't.
That's because, for all his well-documented and unsavory activities, Bout and his cohorts also provide services to the United Nations, as well as governments and militaries around the world. When there was a need to airlift aid to tsunami victims in 2004, Bout's planes were there, flying relief to Indonesia. Need to move U.N. peacekeepers around Africa? Bout can do it -- and did, in Rwanda, Congo and elsewhere. Need to move enough weapons, tents, ammunition and food for an invading army in Iraq? Bout's ever-changing mosaic of airlines is willing to run the risks and land in conditions that are impossible for newer, U.S.-made aircraft. In Iraq, his aircraft flew hundreds of flights, delivering ammunition, generators, spare parts and mail.
But the cost is enormous. Over the past year, Bout's aircraft have been discovered delivering weapons to the now-ousted radical Islamic regime in Somalia, the Hezbollah militia in Lebanon, pro-Russian factions in Georgia and to many other worrisome players in strategically important hot spots. Bout is brazen about aiding and abetting our enemies while collecting our money.
The Marine Corps has a saying: "If you want it bad, you get it bad." With Bout and his ilk, we are getting the worst by allowing him to prosper under the illusion that he is a necessary evil. Ask the amputees in Sierra Leone, the child soldiers in Congo and the abused women of Taliban-era Afghanistan what the true cost is.