WASHINGTON — Accused of a 15-year run as one of the world’s biggest arms traffickers, Viktor Bout is thought to be a consummate deal maker.
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Times Topic: Viktor Bout
Apichart Weerawong/Associated Press
Now his future may hang on whether he can strike one last bargain: trading what American officials believe is his vast insider’s knowledge of global criminal networks in exchange for not spending the rest of his life in a federal prison.
Justice Department officials were relieved on Aug. 20 when a Thai appeals court approved the extradition of Mr. Bout (pronounced boot), a Russian, from Bangkok, where he has been incarcerated since 2008. But they are wary of declaring victory in a long diplomatic wrangle with Russia until Mr. Bout actually arrives to face charges in Manhattan, a development that could be days or weeks away.
Immersed since the early 1990s in the dark side of globalization, Mr. Bout has mastered the trade and the transport that fuel drug cartels, terrorism networks and insurgent movements from Colombia to Afghanistan, according to former officials who tracked him. And he is believed to understand the murky intersection of Russian military, intelligence and organized crime.
“I think Viktor Bout has a great deal of information that this country and other countries would like to have,” said Michael A. Braun, chief of operations at the Drug Enforcement Administration from 2005 to 2008, when the agency was engineering the sting operation that led to Mr. Bout’s arrest in Bangkok two years ago.
“It’s a question of whether he sees his wife and kid again someday, after 10 or 15 or 20 years,” said Mr. Braun, now with Spectre Group International, a private security firm. “I think there’s potential for a deal.”
Mr. Bout, who has lost about 70 pounds while imprisoned in Thailand, has shown no inclination to cooperate with investigators. In interviews, he has portrayed himself as an honest businessman who would transport whatever he was paid to carry, whether disaster relief supplies or attack helicopters. On his Web site he calls himself “a born salesman with undying love for aviation and eternal drive to succeed.”
He has labeled as “ridiculous” American charges that he agreed to sell shoulder-fired missiles to D.E.A. agents posing as members of a Colombian leftist guerrilla group known as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC. “I have never traded in weapons,” he said in a statement released Friday. His wife, Alla, who has visited him in Bangkok with their teenage daughter, Elizabeth, has told reporters he traveled to South America “for tango lessons.”
But if the bravado falters when Mr. Bout faces prosecutors in New York, he has plenty to tell, said Douglas Farah, co-author of a 2007 book about him, “Merchant of Death.”
“He knows a great deal about how weapons reach the Taliban, and how they get to militants in Somalia and Yemen,” Mr. Farah said. “He knows a lot about Russian intelligence as it’s been restructured under Putin,” he added, referring to Vladimir V. Putin, the Russian prime minister.
Rumors in Bangkok have suggested that the Russians and the Americans engaged in a bidding war over the American extradition request, with Russia offering Thailand cut-rate oil and Americans offering military hardware.
Both sides have denied such bargaining. Thai officials say they must process a second United States request for extradition on a separate indictment for money laundering before Mr. Bout can be put aboard the American jet that arrived last week to pick him up.
The legend of Mr. Bout, 43, a former Soviet Air Force officer and gifted linguist who speaks English, French, Arabic and Portuguese, may have outgrown even the facts of his career, the basis for the 2005 movie “Lord of War.” Operating a web of companies, at times calling himself Viktor Bulakin, Vadim Aminov or other pseudonyms, he rose in the global arms underworld after the Soviet collapse freed aging aircraft and huge weapons supplies.
“What you have in Viktor Bout is a prime figure in the globalization of crime,” said Louise I. Shelley, director of the Terrorism, Transnational Crime and Corruption Center at George Mason University. “He epitomizes the new type of organized crime, in which the person is educated, has international ties and operates with the support of the state.”
By the mid-1990s, Mr. Bout’s growing private air force had come to the attention of Western intelligence agencies. By 2000, when Lee S. Wolosky became director for transnational threats at the National Security Council under President Bill Clinton, Mr. Bout’s web of companies was turning up in country after country, Mr. Wolosky said.
“My colleagues who worked on Africa noticed that he was popping up in each conflict they were trying to resolve: Sierra Leone, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Angola,” said Mr. Wolosky, now a lawyer in New York. “He had a logistics capability that was matched by very few nations.”
Mr. Bout developed ties with such notorious figures Charles Taylor of Liberia, bedded down next to his plane in African war zones and sometimes took payment in diamonds, bringing his own gemologist to assess the stones. His arms escalated the toll of the fighting. “Wars went from machetes and antique rifles to A.K.’s with unlimited ammunition,” Mr. Farah said.
Former American officials say they worked on a plan to grab the arms dealer and deliver him to either Belgium or South Africa to face criminal charges, a procedure known as “rendition to justice.” Before they could act, the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks made Mr. Bout a lower priority.
Mr. Wolosky said he and his colleagues were astonished to learn from later news reports that Mr. Bout’s companies were used as subcontractors by the American military to deliver supplies to Iraq in 2003 and 2004, earning about $60 million, by Mr. Farah’s estimate.
“I read those reports with shock,” Mr. Wolosky said. “Personally, I attributed it to the disorder of the Iraq war effort.”
In Afghanistan before 9/11, Mr. Bout had long supplied Ahmed Shah Massoud, the ethnic Tajik warlord who spent years fighting the Taliban. Later, he supplied the Taliban, said former American officials, who believe his only real allegiance was to money.
In 2007, Mr. Braun, then the D.E.A. operations chief, said he was asked by Bush administration officials about prosecuting Mr. Bout. The agency lured him into a trap in which the agency said he agreed to sell surface-to-air missiles and other military gear to agency informants posing as FARC operatives.
At a meeting in a Bangkok hotel in March 2008, according to court records, Mr. Bout scribbled price estimates and doodled an aircraft, telling his ostensible customers “that the United States was also his enemy.”
“It’s not, uh, business,” Mr. Bout said on tape, the records say. “It’s my fight.”