Victor Bout, the Russian arms trafficker whose clandestine sales of weapons of war to some of the bloodiest regimes and rebels in Africa were exposed by the United Nations, had another secret client: he sold millions of dollars of arms to the Taliban in Afghanistan.
According to Belgian intelligence documents obtained by the Center for Public Integrity, Bout earned $50 million in profit for selling weapons to the Taliban in the late 1990s. Another European intelligence source independently verified the sales, and intelligence documents from an African country in which Bout operates — obtained by the Center — claim that Bout ran guns for the Taliban “on behalf of the Pakistan government.”
The intelligence documents were produced before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States that triggered the U.S. war in Afghanistan against the Taliban, Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda network. They do not specify the type or amounts of weapons sold to the Taliban, other than that they were from stocks of the former Soviet Union.
The Center’s findings — part of a larger investigation into the commerce of war by its International Consortium of Investigative Journalists to be published later this year — establish no direct links between Bout and bin Laden. But the Taliban’s ties to al Qaeda would have enabled weapons shipped to Afghanistan to make their way to bin Laden’s forces. Peter Hain, the British Foreign Office Minister for Europe who has led the international effort to expose criminal networks behind the conflict diamonds and small arms trade in Africa, said in an interview that the danger posed by Bout was clear in his supply of weapons to the Taliban “and to its ally, Osama bin Laden.”
The source of the Taliban and bin Laden’s weaponry has been the subject of much interest and speculation since the Sept. 11 attacks. The German news magazine Der Spiegel reported on Jan. 7, 2002, that Vadim Rabinovich, an Israeli citizen of Ukrainian origin, along with the former director of the Ukrainian secret service and his son sold a consignment of 150 to 200 T-55 and T-62 tanks to the Taliban. Spiegel said the deal was conducted through the Pakistani secret service and uncovered by the Russian foreign intelligence service, SVR, in Kabul, the Afghan capital. A Western intelligence source told ICIJ that Rabinovich’s weapons had been airlifted by one of Bout’s airfreight companies from his base in the United Arab Emirates.
Rabinovich, who has denied the allegations, told the Kiev newspaper Ukrayinska Pravda that he was the victim of a smear campaign by unspecified political forces in the Ukraine who were using him as a scapegoat. “If something disappears in Ukraine, something is stolen or vanishes, Rabinovich is guilty. If there is no water in Ukraine, it is Rabinovich’s fault,” he said. The Ukrainian Parliament, which twice debated the allegations, urged prosecutors to open a criminal probe.
A spokesman at Pakistan’s embassy in Washington, D.C., who refused to be named, denied that Pakistan served as a conduit for weapons shipped to the Taliban, saying that Pakistan abided by the Dec. 19, 2000, U.N. arms embargo imposed on Taliban-controlled Afghanistan and actively promoted interdiction. The weapons allegedly supplied by Bout and Rabinovich were delivered before the sanctions were in place.
Attempts to reach Bout for comment in the United Arab Emirates were unsuccessful.
U.N. monitors have accused Bout of shipping contraband weapons to rebel movements in Angola and Sierra Leone and to the rogue regime of Charles Taylor in Liberia. Bout and his associates operate, or have operated, in Angola, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of Congo, Equatorial Guinea, Kenya, Liberia, Libya, Congo-Brazzaville, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, South Africa, Sudan, Swaziland and Uganda, according to reports by the United Nations, the U.S. State Department and non-governmental organizations. Intelligence documents obtained by ICIJ and interviews conducted with many of those following the global trade in arms further support the allegations against Bout.
“The murder and mayhem of UNITA in Angola, the RUF in Sierra Leone and groups in the Congo would not have been as terrible without Bout’s operations,” Hain told the ICIJ in an interview. He called Bout “Africa’s chief merchant of death.”
Bout’s empire today is a maze of individuals and companies, which employ some 300 people and own and operate 40 to 60 aircraft, including the largest private fleet of Antonov cargo planes in the world, according to the ICIJ investigation. Bout has long-standing ties to Afghanistan, but his links to the Taliban have been a closely guarded secret.
The 35-year old native of Tajikistan, who uses several aliases, started out in the trade in Afghanistan when his air force regiment was disbanded during the breakup of the former Soviet Union. A 1991 graduate of Moscow’s Military Institute of Foreign Languages, Bout is reportedly fluent in six languages.
In March 1995, Bout and Frenchman Michel-Victor Thomas founded Trans Aviation Network Group (TAN), according to U.N. and intelligence reports. Between 1995 and 1997, the company’s operating base was Ostend in Belgium, an airport frequently cited by human rights groups for hosting companies and individuals involved in arms trafficking. TAN also opened offices in Sharjah, United Arab Emirates.
At first, most of the shipments from Ostend were intended for Afghanistan, according to local monitors’ reports. Many went to groups opposing the Taliban. One Boeing 707, with a crew from Switzerland and registered in the Democratic Republic of Congo, was “partially financed by Afghan generals,” the Belgian intelligence report said.
Bout’s company delivered at least 40 tons of weapons from Ostend to Afghanistan, but Bout left Belgium after details of the shipments were reported in the local media, including that he paid $10,000 to the pilots for each trip. The Belgian intelligence document noted that pilots got an extra $1,000 “per landing.”
Bout’s contacts with the Taliban extend to August 1995, when the Taliban was in opposition to President Burhanuddin Rabbani’s government in Kabul. One of Bout’s planes flying from Albania via Sharjah and transporting small arms and military equipment to Rabbani was intercepted by a MiG-21 and forced to land in Taliban-controlled territory, according to the ICIJ investigation.
The Ilyushin-76 belonged to Aerostan, a company based in Tatarstan, but was leased by Transavia, one of Bout’s companies operating out of the United Arab Emirates. Transavia had started flying cargo flights to Kabul, Kandahar and Jalalabad in May 1995 at the behest of Afghani traders in the emirates, according to the French news agency Agence France Presse.
Bout, together with Russian diplomats, tried to negotiate the release of the detained crew in Kandahar, but was not successful. A year later, on Aug. 16, 1996, the seven Russian crewmembers disarmed their guards and took off in the Il-76 for Sharjah, according to press reports. A source later told the Washington Monthly he believed even though this deal went sour Bout took advantage of the situation by establishing contacts with the Taliban.
Intelligence agencies suspect that more recent arms supplies were transported on an airline run by one of Bout’s business associates. The airline, Flying Dolphin, operated scheduled flights from the United Arab Emirates into Taliban-ruled Afghanistan between October 2000 and Jan. 21, 2001, according to reports in the UAE media.
Flying Dolphin is owned by Sheikh Adbullah bin Zayed bin Saqr al Nayhan, a former UAE ambassador to the United States and member of the ruling family in Abu Dhabi who has been described by the United Nations as a “close business associate of Bout.” According to the Dec. 20, 2000, U.N. report, Zayed’s company is registered in Liberia, but its operations office is in Dubai.
The United Nations gave Flying Dolphin permission in October 2000 to operate weekly flights from UAE to Kandahar on condition that no cargo would be allowed on the plane, just passengers’ personal belongings.
Flying Dolphin said it had decided to introduce the service in response to demand from Afghans living in the Gulf region. About 500,000 Afghans live in the United Arab Emirates, whose government was one of only three that had granted diplomatic recognition to the Taliban. Flying Dolphin halted the weekly service after the United Nations imposed tougher sanctions on the Taliban in January 2001.
According to the United Nations, almost all of Bout’s companies operate out of the United Arab Emirates. Companies registered in Swaziland, the Central African Republic, Liberia and Equatorial Guinea use Sharjah airport as an “airport of convenience.” In early 2001, Bout relocated from Sharjah to neighboring Ajman, where he set up office in the Chamber of Commerce and Industry building.
The United Arab Emirates is a major financial center and crossroads for east-west trade. With its large volume of transiting cargo, its bank secrecy laws, and its bustling free trade zones, it is a perfect base for arms dealers.
Bout’s career in the arms trade in Africa took off in 1995 after he registered Air Cess in Liberia. Five years later, in March 2000, the United Nations started naming individuals and companies involved in the shady world of arms and diamonds dealing in Africa, even publishing their addresses and telephone numbers. Bout was among those most frequently cited.
A U.N. panel investigating arms embargo violations against UNITA in Angola identified 37 flights between July 1997 and October 1998, with weapons all belonging to Bout. The aircraft, with false end-user certificates and flight schedules, were all registered in Liberia. Bout has since been accused by the United Nations of violating sanctions against the Revolutionary United Front in Sierra Leone, UNITA in Angola and Charles Taylor’s regime in Liberia.
Although intelligence documents reveal that Bout “is under investigation in a number of western countries” and that “Interpol has opened a file on him,” Bout continues to operate freely, shuttling between the United Arab Emirates, Russia, Central Asia and Africa’s war zones. While he was under investigation by a U.N. panel, he even ferried Pakistani U.N. peacekeepers to East Timor.
An Interpol spokesperson refused to comment on Bout, but the ICIJ has learned that at least one warrant for his arrest was issued by the Central African Republic, which however, never formally notified Interpol. In March 2000, Bout was sentenced in absentia to two years in prison by a tribunal in the capital of Bangui after an aircraft belonging to him used the markings of the state-owned airline on a flight to Gabon. However, for unknown reasons, the United Nations said Bout was absolved of the charges by a Bangui court on June 28, 2000.
At a U.N. conference on the illicit trade in small arms and light weapons in July 2001, the international community for the first time agreed in principal to curb the illicit trade in weapons. However, the “program of action” is not legally binding and was watered down by China, Russia, and the United States — the three largest weapons producers. China and Russia have historically opposed global regulations on arms trafficking. The United States opposed measures that would control private gun ownership and bar sales to friendly guerrilla movements.
Lisa Misol, an arms expert at Human Rights Watch, said too little is being done to bring arms traffickers to justice. “We’re happy for improved monitoring and publication of findings,” said Misol. “But that’s clearly not enough to tackle the problem if no one’s willing to do something with the information.”