Viktor Bout may not be a household name like Osama bin Laden, but to some he is considered no less dangerous.
His many aliases:
- Victor Anatoliyevich Bout
- Victor But
- Viktor Budd
- Viktor Butt
- Viktor Bulakin
- Vadim Markovich Aminov
Source: U.S. court documents
Dubbed the Merchant of Death, the former Soviet air force officer is said to have delivered arms that fuelled some of the world's worst conflicts and is linked to the likes of warlords and dictators.
For author and security expert Stephen Braun, one of the "great ironies" surrounding Bout lies in the United States' post-9/11 pursuit of terrorists, which netted some "incredibly small fish" — a number of whom turned out to be innocent.
"And yet we had this guy out there who was [allegedly] creating great havoc, contributing to deaths of tens of thousands of people but because he didn't have any clear terror connotations, because he was Russian origin," he slid under the radar, says the co-author of the 2007 book Merchant of Death: Money, Guns, Planes, and the Man Who Makes War Possible.
About two years ago, the United States trained its sights on jailing Bout, 42, and is now actively pursuing him.
U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration officers, posing as rebels looking to buy millions of dollars in weapons, arrested him at a luxury hotel in Bangkok on March 8, 2008. They hope to nail him on charges of conspiracy, accusing him of trying to sell a large cache of weapons to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.
After working with Thai authorities to collar Bout, however, the U.S. hit a snag: their extradition effort was unexpectedly denied by a Thai judge in mid-August. The Bangkok judge said FARC isn't deemed a terrorist organization in Thailand, as it is in the U.S., and political offences aren't covered by a U.S.-Thai extradition treaty.
Thai and U.S. prosecutors are appealing. If successful, Bout could be sent to the United States, where he faces the possibility of life imprisonment. If not, he could go free.
A real-life Milo Minderbinder
At its height, Bout's alleged arms operation is believed to have employed several thousand people around the world. He is accused of securing arms for Charles Taylor, Liberia's ex-president now on trial accused of war crimes, shipping tons of arms to the conflict-wracked Democratic Republic of Congo and supplying both the government and rebels in Angola.
The Russian began accumulating the armada of old Soviet military planes that became the basis of his alleged operation when the Soviet Union empire was disintegrating in the early 1990s.
"Very smartly, unlike a lot of other folks who were in the arms business at the time, [Bout] saw logistics, as opposed to out-and-out arms deals, as the way to put his imprint on the business," says Braun. "He just became this incredibly dexterous logistics master."
Braun describes him as a real-life Milo Minderbinder, the Second World War war profiteer in Joseph Heller's novel Catch-22 who moves goods in the middle of "incredible scenes of devastation."
"And that's what Bout did. He [allegedly] moved guns wherever they needed to go, weapons systems, all kinds of things, but he also moved frozen chickens, pencils, you name it."
In Afghanistan, his allegiances changed as quickly as the government. After Russia's withdrawal in the 1980s, he allegedly helped the Afghan government, but when it fell to the Taliban, he helped supply them too.
Then when Sept 11. occurred, "he very adroitly switched sides," and one of his aides sent a letter to the U.S. suggesting an arms deal under which Bout would supply millions of dollars worth of arms to the Afghan government-to-be, says Braun. It's unclear whether the government accepted.
Bout even flew United Nations troops at the same time the international body was doing a "name and shame" operation on him, says Braun. He's also believed to have flown charity supplies into Ceylon after the deadly 2004 tsunami.
"He's done a number of flights that one could argue were helpful at various times around the world. But again, to him it's money," said Braun.
Part of the difficulty in tracking him down and identifying his businesses stemmed from the number of shell companies he set up, says Braun.
Origins of the nickname
Former British Foreign Office minister Peter Hain is credited with coming up with Viktor Bout's nickname.
He decided to publicly target Bout — something never done before — after learning details of his alleged role in ferrying weapons into Africa.
In 2001, he rose during a House of Commons discussion and brought up conflicts linked to Bout.
"Victor Bout is indeed the chief sanctions-buster," he said, "and is a merchant of death who owns air companies that ferry in arms and other logistic support for the rebels in Angola and Sierra Leone and take out the diamonds which pay for those arms."
The nickname stuck as the media latched on to it.
Source: Merchant of Death: Money, Guns, Planes, and the Man Who Makes War Possible
While he was a "smart cookie" who evaded capture by switching cellphones several times a day, writing messages in intricate code and avoiding a paper trail, it was inevitable Bout would fall victim to a slip-up, says Braun.
Nick Paton Walsh, the Asia correspondent for Britain's Channel 4 News, who secured the first prison interview with Bout, described him as a charismatic and charming man who's clearly lived an interesting life.
"Face to face, he's somebody you do actually think you might enjoy having a beer with some day," Walsh told CBC's The Current.
The multi-lingual Russian denies the U.S. conspiracy charges, saying he shipped household goods to areas where conflicts broke out, but never illegal weapons, says Walsh.
The reporter says he expects the U.S. to drag out Bout's imprisonment with a lengthy appeal process. "The Americans have finally got him in a jail, and they're going to do their damndest to ensure he doesn't get out again," says Walsh.
Despite the United States determined interest, however, Braun warns that you never really know what Bout's future holds.
"He's got nine lives. And I don’t think he's used them all up yet."