The New York Times reports:
A Russian businessman regarded by the United States as one of the world’s most notorious arms dealers was arrested in Thailand on Thursday as part of an American-led sting operation. He was promptly charged in the United States with conspiracy for trying to smuggle missiles and rocket launchers to rebels in Colombia.
The businessman, Viktor Bout, 41, is suspected of supplying weapons to the Taliban and Al Qaeda and of pouring huge arms shipments into Africa’s civil wars with his own private air fleet. He was arrested by the Thai authorities at a hotel in Bangkok in an operation in which undercover investigators posing as rebels from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, sought to purchase millions of dollars in arms.
Federal prosecutors in New York said they would seek the extradition of Mr. Bout (pronounced boot) and an associate, Andrew Smulian, who was also detained in Bangkok on Thursday, to stand trial in the United States on a charge of conspiracy to provide material support to a foreign terrorist organization. Although American officials said Thailand appeared to be eager to be rid of Mr. Bout, it was not known when he would be brought to the United States.
Michael J. Garcia, the United States attorney for the Southern District of New York, said that Mr. Bout “was apprehended in the final stages of arranging the sale of millions of dollars of high-powered weapons to people he believed to represent a known terrorist organization, the FARC.”
“Today’s arrest marks the culmination of a long-term D.E.A. undercover investigation that spanned the globe,” Mr. Garcia said, “and it marks the end of the reign of one of the world’s most wanted arms traffickers.”
The FARC is a leftist insurgency that has been fighting Colombia’s government for decades and is believed to finance its activities in part through cocaine trafficking. The FARC has been identified in the United States criminal code as a foreign terrorist group, and aiding such a group is a crime.
The arrest was set in motion by the United States Drug Enforcement Administration, which alerted the Thai authorities that Mr. Bout was traveling to Thailand, said Police Col. Petcharat Sengchai of the Crime Suppression Division in Bangkok, who led the arresting team.
A criminal complaint unsealed in Manhattan said the plans for a meeting with Mr. Bout in Thailand had taken shape after earlier meetings, most of them conducted by Mr. Smulian, with informants posing as FARC members in the Netherlands Antilles, Denmark and Romania.
The conversations were secretly recorded by drug enforcement agents. The actual size of the deal was not made clear from the documents released by the government, but the complaint indicated that Mr. Bout planned to charge a $5 million delivery fee to transport the surface-to-air missiles and armor-piercing rocket launchers to South America.
American officials have publicly identified Mr. Bout as a rogue weapons smuggler who profited mainly from arms dealing that fueled bloody conflicts in Africa. He was said to have built a shadowy network of air cargo companies in the Middle East, Africa, Eastern Europe and the United States.
Mr. Bout was born in what is now Tajikistan and educated at the Military Institute of Foreign Languages in Moscow. He is said to have begun in the arms trade after his air force unit was disbanded with the breakup of the Soviet Union.
A mythology grew up around Mr. Bout in the 1990s, but in 2002 he appeared abruptly on a Moscow radio station, insisting that he was innocent and that he had never had contact with Taliban or Qaeda representatives. He said the accusations against him “resemble more a script for a Hollywood thriller.”
“I can say only one thing: I have never supplied or done anything, and I have never been in contact with either Taliban representatives or Al Qaeda representatives,” Mr. Bout said.
Mr. Bout’s career is said to have contributed to the character of the fictional arms trafficker depicted in the Nicolas Cage film “Lord of War.” American officials said he controlled the largest private fleet of Soviet-era cargo aircraft in the world.
Over the years, Mr. Bout used his companies and associates to operate an arms bazaar, selling guns, ammunition, even tanks and helicopters in deals that Treasury officials said inflamed conflicts in Afghanistan, Angola, Congo, Liberia, Rwanda, Sierra Leone and Sudan.
In July 2004, the Treasury Department froze Mr. Bout’s assets under American jurisdiction and in April 2005 took the same step against 30 companies and four people linked to Mr. Bout.
In 2007, the agency froze assets of an additional seven companies and three people who officials said acted with Mr. Bout to supply arms to Congo. In response to an American request, the United Nations placed most of the companies and people identified as linked to Mr. Bout on its own sanctions list.
Representative Ed Royce of California, the senior Republican on a House Foreign Affairs panel on terrorism and nonproliferation, said that despite international efforts to tamp down violence in Africa, Mr. Bout “was pouring fuel on the fire.”
“In U.N. report after U.N. report, Viktor Bout was cited as the chief sanctions buster, supplying arms to anyone who would pay,” Mr. Royce added.
Richard A Chichakli, 49, an American citizen who is a friend of Mr. Bout’s and who has been accused by the Treasury Department of being his business associate, disputed the government’s contention that Mr. Bout was a worldwide weapons trafficker.
Mr. Chichakli denies being in business with Mr. Bout and left the United States after his assets were frozen in 2005. He said in a telephone interview that the allegations about Mr. Bout’s arms dealing were overstated. “Things snowball when they start talking about him,” he said. “There are certain parts that are true. But the way they portray the man, it has nothing to do with reality. Out of a fish they make a blue whale.”
He expressed surprise and skepticism about the details in the criminal complaint, in part because Mr. Bout had been keeping a low profile in recent years.
“I’m surprised to see him involved in something like this,” he said. “When people are trying to say certain things about you, and you are trying to show the opposite, you should not get involved in something like this.”
Since 2006, he said, Mr. Bout had lived outside Moscow and owned a small factory that made building tiles. Mr. Chichakli said he did not know when Mr. Bout had left Russia on his latest trip. One security analyst said Mr. Bout had been in Thailand since January, regularly changing hotels.
The complaint against Mr. Bout and Mr. Smulian suggests that the investigation began in earnest in November 2007 and centered on an unidentified paid informer described in the complaint only as “CS-1,” for confidential source No. 1, who had known Mr. Bout since the mid-1990s and knew he was an arms dealer.
The informer sent e-mail messages to Mr. Bout through Mr. Smulian asking for a meeting about a possible deal, referring to Mr. Bout as “Boris” and weapons as “farming equipment.” In a Dec. 3, 2007, e-mail message, Mr. Smulian told CS-1, “Spoke to Boris, and anything is possible with farming equipment.”
On Feb. 22, the complaint said that Mr. Bout, who was believed to be in Russia, agreed to meet with the supposed FARC members in Thailand during the first week of March to complete the arrangements for the deal. Later, one undercover source told Mr. Smulian: “Get ready for travel.”
With Thursday’s arrest Mr. Bout, already the principal character of one book, “Merchant of Death,” by Douglas Farah and Stephen Braun, may well find himself the subject of another, said Michael A. Braun, the chief of operations for the Drug Enforcement Administration, at a news conference in New York. “And I can tell you that it will read like the very best work of Tom Clancy,” he said. “Only in this case, it won’t be fiction.”
Sunday, March 09, 2008
The New York Times reports: