Merchant of Death
Money, Guns, Planes, and the Man Who Makes War Possible

Blood from Stones

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Why Aircraft Matter to Terrorists and Criminal Groups
One of the most overlooked elements in combatting terrorism, organize crime and non-state armed groups is the vital role that aircraft play. An AFP story on the use of aircraft by the FARC, AUC and drug traffickers in Colombia illustrate this point. Without aircraft, it would be impossible for these groups to arm themselves and function as they do. The same is true for the wars that have torn apart sub-Saharan Africa, as well as Sudan and elsewhere. If weapons are the lifeblood of these groups, the aircraft are the arteries through which the blood flows.

That is what makes it so dangerous to patronize people like Viktor Bout and allow his operations to stay in businesss. He may be useful for some things the intelligence communities and militaries of the world increasingly want, as wars and armies-even their core functions-become more privatized. But his planes are also the lifeline of groups, from the Taliban to the FARC and many groups in between, that make the world a more dangerous and less secure place. That is why Peter Hain, the senior British official who chased Bout for years was right when he dubbed Bout "the Merchant of Death." That is what is aircraft routinely carry.

Bout did not rise to prominence because of access to weapons--those connections are relatively easy to come by. He rose to prominence because he has a air fleet bigger than those of many countries, and is willing to rent them to the highest bidder.

So far the United States, its allies and the intenational bodies that regulate aircraft registries have done little to make it more difficult for the Bout's of the world to operate. In many countries of Africa aircraft can be registered online, for a nominal fee, with no inspection at all. Aircraft can and do change registrations as often as some people change underwear. The revolving door makes it hard to keep up without a concerted effort.

The good news is that aircraft are much easier to track than many other vehicles. Each one has to maintain maintenance records, radio records, insurance records etc. That is why it is possible to think about crippling Bout, the FARC and others by going after their aircraft. What is lacking is any notion that it is, in fact necessary, relatively inexpensive and the political will.
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