What does Viktor Bout know? FP spoke with analyst and author Douglas Farah about the surprise arrest of the world’s most notorious arms dealer, his ties to everyone from Colombian narcoterrorists to the U.S. government, and how he might get off the hook—again.
Foreign Policy: What are the extent of the ties between Viktor Bout, the Russian arms dealer who was recently arrested in Thailand, and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), whose commander, Ral Reyes, was just killed by the Colombia military?
Douglas Farah: [My coauthor Stephen Braun and I] have documented Bouts dropping of weapons to them in 1998/1999 at a time when he was delivering weapons to the Peruvian government. To the best that we could determine, he was not in direct contact with the FARC. It was the Peruvian drug traffickers who were asking him to drop the weapons on his way into Peru. That is the only sort of concrete bit of information we have on his contact with the FARC. It was about 10,000 AK-47s, and it was crucial for the FARC to get those weapons at the time because they were taking a hammering militarily and the weapons really improved their firepower.
FP: So, the documents that were found at the FARC camp recently showed no further evidence of any connection between Bout and the FARC?
DF: No. The [U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA)] operation [against Bout] was a pure sting operation. They pretended to be FARC but the FARC wasnt actually involved, and the DEA told me they hadnt even seen the documents at the time of the arrest. As far as I know, theres nothing in the documents that links back [to Bout]. And if you look at the complaint they filed, its clear that the sting operation had been underway for months before the hit on Ral Reyes.
FP: What does Viktor Bout know? Now that he has been captured, what kind of information do you think he could give the United States?
DF: Well, its huge. He could give a lot of information about Russian intelligence structures or the Russian weapons industry. He could probably give a lot of information on a lot of different non-state actors that are still active that he armed, from Hezbollah to the Islamic Courts Union in Somalia and others, if he chose to talk. I doubt that will be the case, though. Hes staunchly committed to Russia and it would be hard to turn him at this point. [If he did start talking,] he could embarrass a lot of people, primarily the Russians. He would certainly get to the United States and Britain, without any question.
FP: Youve alleged that the United States has used Bout to fly cargo shipments to places like Iraq and Afghanistan. Has that stopped now?
DF: The last time we were able to document a Bout airline flight into Iraq was January of 2007. So to the best of my knowledge, that did stop. Theres no hard evidence that the U.S. government was affording him protection. But one of the reasons [the DEA] set up the whole separate operation to ensnare him was precisely because they can argue in court that any past associations dont have anything to do with these particular charges. Theres no mitigating circumstance for what he was doing here. Whereas if they had been trying to get him on current charges or charges that had to do with gun-running around the time he was going into Iraq, he would have had a much clearer shot at that defense.
FP: How do you think Bout will play it? Youve suggested that he wont be interested in cutting a deal with the United States, so how do you think hell handle his arrest? And how and where might he be prosecuted?
DF: I think hes going to work extremely hard to get out while hes in Thailand. If hes going to make an exit, that would be the place to make it from. If he were to end up in the United States, Im sure he would play and this is obviously just my speculation the card of what the Americans give him and how much money he got from them. But I would guess that hes not overly worried, because I dont think he believes hes actually going to end up in the United States. Between his Russian friends and his money and his other contacts, he can probably get out of this somehow.
[If not,] he could be prosecuted in the United States and face up to 15 years for attempting to aid a designated terrorist organization. Thats the charge against him that he was knowingly dealing with people that identified themselves repeatedly as members of the FARC, and repeatedly asked for the weapons on behalf of the FARC. The question is, is Thailand going to keep him and try to try him first on different immigration and weapons-buying charges before they extradite him or not? Apparently if he were convicted in Thailand it would be 10 years. But I know from talking to the DEA that they are very confident that they will get him extradited in the not-too-distant future.
FP: Do you think that this arrest will put Bout out of business?
DF: It will hurt his organization considerably, yes. It will have a short- and maybe mid-term effect on people trying to acquire large quantities of really sophisticated weapons. Ultimately, they will be able to acquire them elsewhere but it will probably cost them more and they will probably have to operate through a less efficient system. Youll have a lot of people vying for his turf or his market share, and one of them will be his brother, Sergey, who will try to maintain what is left of the organization. But it would take a long time for anyone else to be able to reach the level of efficiency and global reach that Bout had.
FP: Finally, what would you ask Viktor Bout if you met him?
DF: [Laughs] What would I ask Viktor Bout if I met him? I guess what would interest me enormously, because we know nothing about it, is the incident of his very narrow escape from being captured in Athens in 2003, I think it was. Operation Bloodstone. I would ask him what happened there, and then I would ask him about his motivation: how the hell he got to be where he is, to do what he did. But would he answer anything truthfully? Thats the question [laughs].
Douglas Farah is an investigative consultant with the NEFA Foundation and the coauthor of Merchant of Death: Money, Guns, Planes, and the Man Who Makes War Possible (New York: Wiley, 2007), a profile of Viktor Bout.