Article and Photos by Bernie Debusmann
If you ever find yourself driving in the small, sleepy emirate of Umm Al Quwain, you’ll no doubt soon come across an abandoned old cargo plane, which is currently used as a signboard for a local hotel. But this isn’t just any old abandoned aircraft.
According to the Aero Transport Data Bank, the plane – a Soviet-era Ilyushin Il-76 – was built for military service in 1975, and in the 1980’s entered Soviet military service under registration number CCCP-86715, and later Russian service under the registration number RA-86715.
In the early 1990’s, the plane was sold to a civilian company, Air Cess. This is where the plot thickens – Air Cess was a company that had been formed by Sergei Bout, the brother of notorious weapons trafficker Viktor Bout, who for a time operated part of his business from nearby Sharjah. Movie buffs will know that Viktor Bout was the inspiration for Nicolas Cage’s character in the movie ‘Lord of War’.
In 1998, the plane was re-registered to another company – AirPass – before again being re-registered, this time to Centafrican Airlines, which was supposedly based in the Central African Republic.
Two of these airlines – Air Cess and Centrafrican – were directly linked to Bout’s weapons trafficking activities.
A UN report from 2000 notes that Air Cess (which was based in nearby Sharjah but also registered in Equatorial Guinea) was used to move “large quantities” of weapons – using forged end-user certificates from Zaire and Togo – to UNITA in Angola.
Centafrican, for its part, had in the past been linked to weapons shipments to Liberia.
It’s unclear how exactly the Antonov came to its final resting place in UAQ – some say that the pilots were confused and landed nearby thinking it was elsewhere, others that it was bought specifically to be used as an advertisement.
Whatever the case may be, in the year 2000 Viktor Bout was – wisely – banned from entering the UAE ever again.
On a personal note, as a young reporter in 2011, I covered Bout’s court case in Manhattan, where he was facing charges of offering to supply weapons to FARC guerrillas in Colombia. I expected to find a hardened, thuggish gangster, but instead I found an out of shape, average looking man who seemed wholly disinterested in the court proceedings and in desperate need of a drink.
He ended up losing the case – despite his lawyer’s assertions that he was a political prisoner – and is currently serving a 25 year federal prison sentence.
Fascinating! Great bit of sleuthing.
Lord of War is the only Nicolas Cage movie that is tolerable and we probably owe a thank you to viktor Bout for that
Great to have you back Bernie! That’s so cool that the plane is just sitting out there. Just think about all of the weapons and other stuff that jet must have carried! I wonder if Mr. Viktor is going to serve his full 25 years and what he will do when he gets out?
Having researched this general topic itself before (“gun running”, arms dealing, illicit arms transfers), I find the twists and turns of the business fascinating. The layers of cover, the lack of ideological concerns… Viktor Anatolyevich Bout is a Tajik of Tajikistan of the former Soviet Union.
Unita fought alongside the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) in the Angolan War for Independence (1961–1975) and then against the MPLA in the ensuing civil war (1975–2002). The war was one of the most prominent Cold War proxy wars, with Unita receiving military aid from the United States and South Africa while the MPLA received support from the Soviet Union and its allies.
Viktor is a very interesting figure. A former Soviet military translator Viktor Bout had reportedly made a significant amount of money through his multiple air transport companies, which shipped cargo mostly in Africa and the Middle East during the 1990s and early 2000s (after the collapse of the Soviet Union).
There is a LOT of speculation about Bout. It is fully accepted that he served in the Soviet military. From there it gets very speculative.
He did, for example, graduate from the Soviet Military Institute of Foreign Languages and is fluent in six languages. These include Persian.
Bout’s own personal website states that he served in the Soviet Army as a translator, holding the rank of Lieutenant.
However according to other reputable sources, he is thought to have been discharged in 1991 with the actual rank of Lieutenant Colonel (other sources citing the rank of Major) in the GRU (an arm of the Soviet military that combines intelligence services and special forces). With yet others saying that he was an officer in the Soviet Special Forces, that he graduated from a Soviet military intelligence training program, or that he was a KGB operative.
The problem with all of those speculations is that Viktor was born in 1967. And would have been 23 when the Soviet Union collapsed. A Lieutenant Colonel or Major in the Soviet structure would have been impossible. Personally I believe that his personal website has it correct.
Interestingly, Bout WAS involved with a Soviet military operation in Angola in the late 1980s (in 1985 to 1989 he would have been age 18-22 and likely served as a military translator there). He was in Angola for only a few weeks.
Bout’s web site states that he began an air freight business in Africa around the time of the collapse of the USSR.
Bout’s air freight companies provided legitimate for hire air transport service to the French government, the UN, and the U.S. And has legally shipped everything flowers to frozen chicken to UN peacekeeper troops to French soldiers to African heads of state.
Bout was equally willing to work with Charles Taylor in Liberia, the United Nations in Sudan, and the United States in Iraq, and he may have facilitated huge arms shipments during the 1990s into various civil wars in Africa with his private air cargo fleets. Former British Foreign Office minister Peter Hain called Bout a “sanctions buster” (*) and described him as “the principal conduit for planes and supply routes that take arms from east Europe, principally Bulgaria, Moldova and Ukraine, to Liberia and Angola”.
(*) Bout’s nickname, “Sanctions Buster”, is due to his being implicated of facilitating the illicit dealing of armaments and military supplies in violation of UN arms embargoes in Angola, Liberia, Sierra Leone, and the Democratic Republic of Congo during the 1990s.
Bout’s strategy of constantly moving location, owning numerous companies, and frequently re-registering aircraft made it VERY hard for authorities to make a case against him. (Bout has lived in various countries, including Belgium, Lebanon, Rwanda, Russia, South Africa, Syria, and the United Arab Emirates… he also used illicitly established names of Vadim Markovich Aminov, Viktor Bulakin, Victor Anatoliyevich Bout, Victor But, Viktor Budd, and Viktor Butt).
He has never been charged for the alleged African arms deals to which he owes his notoriety.
Plus, speculations above aside, it is strongly believed that at various times Bout was of help to Russia’s intelligence agencies, and he is alleged to have connections to ranking Russian officials, including former Russian deputy prime minister Igor Sechin. Also, the language institute Bout attended has been definitely linked to the GRU. Bout allegedly worked alongside GRU-affiliated officers. According to a 2002 United Nations report, Bout’s father-in-law Zuiguin “at one point held a high position in the KGB, perhaps even as high as a deputy chairman”.
The story of Bout’s arrest, convictions, protests and appeals are equally interesting and perhaps I’ll cover in a follow-up post.
(BTW, the 25-year sentence was the MINIMUM that the Court could set down)
Interestingly, it was Executive Outcomes that had to finally clean up the remnants of the cold war proxy mess and defeat the US funded UNITA and bring them to the bargaining table. After EO became defunct, Eben Barlow went on to form STTEP which trained the Nigerian government to defeat Boko Haram, which evolved from Al Qaedia and then proclaimed allegiance to ISIS. Again the former EO men had to clean up another American created mess when the Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld regime destabilised Iraq and created the situation for ISIS to exist in the first place.
Although, EO and it’s men were very capable, it would be a tall ask for them to clean up the mess created in Libya and Syria by the EU, NATO, Obama and Hillary as Secretary of State.
Anyway, Justin has done a some nice articles on Executive Outcomes on the Velvet Rocket and also written a couple of great thesis’ called “Coup d’ Etat: An Operator’s Manual” & “Let Slip The Dogs? On The Benefits Of War And Conflict”, both well worth reading if you’re interested in this kind of PMC/gun running kind of stuff.
Couldn’t be done without guys like Bout, right ?
Bout’s U.S. assets were among those frozen in July 2004 under Executive Order 13348.
The Executive Order describes him as a “businessman, dealer and transporter of weapons and minerals” and cites his close association with Charles Taylor.
Just prior to the date of his arrest in Bangkok, Thailand, an Interpol “red notice” was requested by the United States against Bout. The alleged crime was conspiracy to provide material support or resources to a United States, United Nation, and Interpol designated foreign terrorist organization(s).
Bout was arrested in Thailand on an Interpol red notice, and on November 16th, 2010, Viktor Bout was extradited amid STRONG PROTESTS by the Russian Government (strange, Bout being a Tajik… oh yeah, there that GRU thing!).
The Royal Thai Police arrested Bout in Bangkok on March 6th, 2008. The culmination of a sting operation set up by Drug Enforcement Administration agents, Bout had allegedly offered to supply weapons to people he thought were representatives of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) rebels.
After months of delay, the Criminal Court in Bangkok began an extradition hearing for Bout on September 22, 2008.
In February 2009, members of the United States Congress signed a letter to Attorney General Holder and Secretary of State Clinton expressing their wish that the Bout extradition “remain a top priority”.
On August 11, 2009, the Criminal Court ruled in his favor, denying the United States’ request for extradition and citing the political, not criminal, nature of the case (there remains rumored belief of money changing hands).
The United States appealed that ruling. On 20 August 2010, a higher court in Thailand ruled that Bout could, in fact, be extradited to the United States. (Information indicates that the American government at this point was privately threatening to withdraw military aid, military advisers, and even foreign aid from Thailand by this point).
On 16 November 2010 Bout was extradited to the United States; the Russian government called the extradition illegal.
Russia called the Thai court decision in 2010 politically motivated.
Its Foreign Ministry attempted (unsucessful) steps to prevent Bout being extradited to the U.S.; Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov suggested that Bout was innocent.
On 18 November 2010, shortly after Bout’s extradition to the United States, Russian President Medvedev’s aide Sergei Eduardovich Prikhodko (seemingly reversing course) said that Russia had “nothing to hide” in Bout’s criminal case stating, “it is in our interest that the investigation … be brought to completion, and that Boutshould answer all the questions the American justice system has.”
On 18 January 2013, Russian government officials (in reversing back to their original position) announced that “ALL judges, investigators, justice ministry officials and special services agents who were involved in Russian citizens Viktor Bout’s and Konstantin Yaroshenko’s extradition, legal prosecution and sentencing to long terms of imprisonment” would be added to a list of U.S. officials who will be DENIED Russian entry visas in a similar response as the U.S. “Magnitsky Act”, under which certain Russian officials are ineligible to enter the U.S.
The day after his Bangkok arrest, the U.S. Department of Justice charged Bout with conspiracy to provide material support or resources to a designated foreign terrorist organization, conspiring to kill Americans, conspiring to kill American officers or employees, and conspiring to acquire and use an anti-aircraft missile.
Additional charges against him were filed in February 2010. These included illegal purchase of aircraft, wire fraud, and money laundering.
Bout was convicted by a jury at a court in Manhattan on 2 November 2011.
On 5 April 2012, he was sentenced to 25 years in prison (the minimum sentence) for conspiring to sell weapons to a U.S.-designated foreign terrorist group. District Judge Shira Scheindlin ruled that the minimum sentence was appropriate because “there was no evidence that Bout would have committed the crimes for which he was convicted had it not been for the sting operation”.
Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a statement denouncing Bout’s sentence as “a political order”. During the trial, Bout’s lawyers also implied that he was a political prisoner. Bout’s wife Alla said shortly afterwards that the judge conducted the trial in a proper way. Viktor Bout pointed out that if the same standards were applied to everyone, all American gun shop owner — “who are sending arms and ending up killing Americans” — would be in prison.
In September 2013, the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New York upheld Bout’s conviction after rejecting Bout’s contention that he had been the victim of a vindictive prosecution and that there was no legitimate law enforcement reason to prosecute him.
In 2007, Stephen Braun and Douglas Farah published a book about Bout: “Merchant of Death: Money, Guns, Planes, and the Man Who Makes War Possible.”
This was his website, which appears to be closed down:
And this was his FB page, which hasn’t had a post since March, 2016 it appears.
Allow me to share a shorter story unrelated to the man, but about airfreight that he may or may not have been a part of. There’s an old story about a US Military contract job that was to fly some large piece of equipment into an airbase. The contract was exactly that payment was given once the delivery was flown in. No contractor was able to make a good bid, because for the large size of airplane required to deliver the large equipment, they could never get in and out of an airstrip that short. Finally, an operator with Russian equipment happily submitted a bid and was awarded the contract. They flew in, delivered and were gladly paid for services. Getting ready to depart the airbase, they were asked by the US airmen stationed there how they intended to leave. They explained to them that the contract simply stated to fly in the equipment, and the amount paid was large enough to cover the loss of the old plane they used. They abandoned the plane there and got a ride out of the base from the locals, never to be heard from again, and leaving a junky old plane too large to depart the base in their wake.
I’m a poor storyteller, but this has always been one of my favorites,