Trapping the Lord of War The Rise and Fall of Viktor Bout
Part 3: The Respected 'Mister Vik'
According to Farah and Braun, Bout bought a house in the Liberian capital Monrovia near Taylor's official residence, where he was a frequent visitor and where Taylor's servants respectfully called him "Mister Vik." The dictator, who would send rebel units on raids into neighboring, resource-rich Sierra Leone, allegedly paid Bout with looted blood diamonds. Bout apparently brought his own gemstone experts to the meetings with Taylor to check the stones.
Bout must have known that he was violating UN arms embargos with his shipments to Liberia and Angola, because he made sure that his pilots always took along spray paint to paint over the call signs on their aircraft so that they couldn't be identified.
Bout's empire reached its zenith around the turn of the millennium, when Belgian reporter Dick Draulans was allowed to accompany him into the Congolese heart of darkness. Bout was there to drum up business with Jean-Pierre Bemba, the notorious rebel leader (and later vice president). He provided Bemba with combat helicopters. But this wasn't enough for the rebels, who complained that there was something missing in the cargo: alcohol. Bout, sensing that the situation threatened to spin out of control, dispatched one of his pilots to fly over enemy lines at night. A few hours later the man, dripping with sweat, returned with a few cases of beer.
"It was typical Bout," says Draulans, "clever, customer-oriented, jovial." The reporter says that he never saw a different side to Bout during their trips together. The Russian never drank, was faithful to his wife and never lost his cool -- a businessman from head to toe. His three Russian bodyguards, says Draulans, were "like characters in a Rambo film, always carrying machetes."
Odious Business Partners
Only once did the Belgian experience the arms dealer in a sentimental mood. Bout was developing a sort of Marshall Plan for Africa. He said he wanted to attract investors, protect the virgin rainforests from clearing and the elephants from poachers. He, Viktor Bout, claimed to be determined to help Africa. He said he had already flown potential investors from Dubai to Central Africa, "to the heavenly landscape where I would like to live with my wife and daughter." But Draulans wasn't convinced, partly because of the nature of Bout's business partners. Taylor and Bemba, who were already considered serious war criminals at the time, are now behind bars and face charges of war crimes in trials before international courts.
The year 2001 marked a turning point in Bout's career. Two men, working independently of each other, had made it their mission to track him down. One of Bout's aircraft, which had been chartered for a UN humanitarian mission, was identified as the same plane that had been filmed several weeks earlier with weapons being unloaded from it.
One of Bout's pursuers, Johan Peleman, is self-taught when it comes to the arms trade. In the mid-1990s Peleman, an expert on medieval literature, was working for a charitable peace organization headquartered in a Franciscan monastery in Antwerp. While conducting his research, the idealist stumbled upon information about Bout and his airlines, which always seemed to be on the scene in war zones. "I was shocked that politics, ideology or moral considerations didn't play the slightest role in Bout's operations," Peleman says. "He was supplying weapons to both Congolese rebels and the then president of Zaire, Mobutu, who he ultimately flew out of the country into exile."
Peleman's tenacity eventually convinced UN experts, to whom he had sent his detailed reports on flight movements and dubious ultimate buyer certificates. In 1999, the UN hired Peleman as a researcher. His new job gave him access to satellite images and bank accounts. In a report on Angola that Peleman submitted to the UN Security Council in late 2000, the Russian was mentioned for the first time in connection with the illegal arms trade.
Lee Wolosky couldn't be more different from the chain-smoking outsider Peleman. Wolosky, an American lawyer and political careerist, operated within the system. Whereas Peleman pursued his mission with emotion and a deep sense of outrage, Wolosky was consistently coolheaded and approached his work with the razor-sharp intelligence of a Harvard graduate and Russia expert. He served at the White House as the director for transnational threats on the National Security Council staff.
In 2000, the Bout file, a hodgepodge of information that was only a few pages thick, landed on Wolosky's desk. The case fascinated Wolosky, who later said: ''Bout represented a post-Cold-War phenomenon for which there was no framework to stop. No one was doing what he was doing. And there was no response. We needed to build a response."
While doing his research for the administration of then US President Bill Clinton, Wolosky focused on Africa and, more importantly, on Afghanistan. Bout supplied the Taliban and, in doing so, began walking a tightrope in that part of the world, says Wolosky. He says that Bout's fingerprints were everywhere.
But by mid-2001, Bout could no longer travel where he pleased. Many of his planes and companies were being monitored and his operating range seemed to have been reduced. Wolosky hoped to obtain an international warrant for Bout's arrest, but his only supporters were the Belgians, who limited their charges to money laundering. Bout had fled to Russia, which was unwilling to extradite him on those charges.