"Normal" Places We Go / Miscellaneous

The Mysterious Antonov of Umm Al Quwain

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.

viktor-bout-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.

viktor-bout-ilyushin-il-76

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.

viktor-bout-plane

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4 thoughts on “The Mysterious Antonov of Umm Al Quwain

  1. 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?

  2. 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)

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