It looks like the luck of Viktor Bout, one of the world's premier weapons traffickers, has finally run out. The surprise decision Friday of a Thai appellate to overturn a lower-court decision and allow Bout's extradition to stand trial in the United States on charges of trying to sell weapons to Colombian guerrillas means he should finally get his day in court.
Unfortunately for him, the purported buyers for his surface-to-air missiles, unmanned drones, and sophisticated anti-tank systems -- who he thought were from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, better known as the FARC, a designated terrorist organization -- were informants of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
His arrest in Bangkok in March 2008, where he met with the informants to seal the deal, set off tremors in many high places, particularly in Russia. The immediate reaction of the Russian foreign minister and other officials, who denounced the decision and equated it with an attack on the Russian state, shows the importance they place on keeping Bout from talking in open court. Why? What are the Russians so afraid of?
Bout's importance was not just that he exploited the gaping holes in the new world economic order to reportedly move hundreds of thousands of weapons and millions of rounds of ammunition to obscure corners of the world to fan conflicts involving unspeakable human rights atrocities. Nor is it that he was simultaneously able to reap millions of dollars in profits by flying for the United States government, the United Nations, the British government, and other legal entities.
What made Bout unique was his ability to merge private profiteering with state interests in the new globalized world of unfettered weapons flows. Dubbed the "Merchant of Death," Bout, often under the protection of his Russian superiors in the military intelligence structure, created a one-stop shop for weapons that could be delivered virtually anywhere in the world. His access to former Soviet arsenals, aircraft, and crews would not have been possible without state protection.
It was this quantum leap in the ability to provide rag-tag and violent groups like the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) in Sierra Leone and Charles Taylor in Liberia that drew the attention of U.S. and European intelligence services in the mid-1990s. As rebels launched their campaigns of mass amputations and systematic rape to take over lucrative diamond fields, they used weapons purchased through Bout and often paid with commodities.