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

Blood from Stones

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Viktor Bout to Be Extradited to Stand Trial
Well, it is a day I had long predicted would never occur, but I have never been happier to be wrong. A Thai appeals court today ruled the Russian weapons merchant Viktor Bout could be extradited to stand trial in the United States.

Bout not only supplied the Taliban and the FARC in Colombia, both designated terrorist organizations. He also helped arm some of the most murderous regimes and groups in Africa (Charles Taylor, Mubut Sese Seko the RUF, UNITA etc.) and the genocidal regime in Sudan. These actions are detailed in my book, with Stephen Braun, Merchant of Death: Money, Guns, Planes and the Man Who Makes War Possible (Wiley 2007).

Bout should be extradited in about a week, although the Russian government has already made clear it will do what it can to slow the process even further. There is, under Thai law, no further appeal allowed of this ruling.

Bout's extradition request is based on an elaborate and successful operation by the DEA's Special Operations Division, where informants posed as representatives of the FARC seeking to buy weapons to fight in Colombia, and specifically to kill Americans. Bout took the bait and arrived in Bangkok March 2008 with a laptop full of pictures of the toys he could deliver to them, including unmanned drones, RPGs and the promise of surface-to-air missiles.

When he finished his presentation and sales pitch he was arrested by Thai police, having said more than sufficient to build a case. He then spent the next 2.5 years fighting extradition to the United States, where similar cases, using similar tactics, have led to quick convictions.

Bout must be understood in the context in which he emerged as a singularly important purveyor of weapons. A gifted linguist and a businessman far ahead of his time, he married an aging Soviet air fleet with access to virtually abandoned stocks of weapons in Soviet bloc and built an empire as a one-stop shop for virtually anything. His ties to Soviet military intelligence, his personal skills in negotiating with some of the world's most brutal thugs, all helped him along the way.

His business sense, and willingness to fly anything licit and illicit (gladiolas, frozen chicken, food relief, AK-47s and RPGs), made him a pioneer in his field.

But he was enabled by a weak or non-existent international legal structure that allowed much of his activity, no matter how morally reprehensible, to remain legally in a gray area. Governments (particularly the U.S, British and French) and the United Nations used his aircraft long after it was known who he was and what types of business he was engaged in.

In the end, although more firmly attached back to the Russian intelligence structure, his willingness to deal with anyone cost him his freedom.

But only because an unusually dedicated, small group of men and women, stretching from the end of the Clinton administration to the Bush and Obama teams, made it happen.

The DEA, NSC, State Department, intelligence community and Pentagon all have members in that tenacious group that simply refused to let the matter go. A tip of the hat to that cadre, many whom I have had the privilege of knowing, for the commitment it took to make this day happen. It took more than a decade, but in the end it seems one of the really bad actors on the international stage, responsible for escalating the carnage in wars the world over, will finally stand trial thanks to your efforts.
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