Written by Peter Landesman and Originally Published in The New York Times on August 17, 2003
Victor Bout, by most accounts the world's largest arms trafficker, had agreed to meet me in the lounge of the Renaissance Hotel in Moscow, a monolithic post-Soviet structure populated by third-tier prostitutes and men in dark suits. Bout's older brother, Sergei, waited with me, as did Richard Chichakli, a Syrian-born naturalized American citizen who lives in Dallas. Sergei helps run Bout's many air-cargo companies. Chichakli, an accountant, calls himself a former business associate of Bout and his ''friend and brother.''
As we waited, Chichakli tried to discourage me from pressing Bout about his connections, suggesting that there were some things I didn't want to know. ''They'll put you on your knees before they execute you,'' he said. Then he nodded toward the doorway. ''Here he comes. Does he look like the world's largest arms dealer to you?''
Bout, who is 36, six feet tall and somewhat expansive in girth, nimbly made his way through the crowded lounge. He didn't shake my hand as much as grip it, with a firm nod. Icy blue eyes like chips of glass punctuated a baby face. We sat on one of the lounge's dingy couches, and he placed a thick folder of papers on his lap.
''Look, here is the biggest arms dealer in the world,'' Chichakli said, half mocking me and half mocking Bout. Bout opened his blazer. ''I don't see any guns,'' he said with a shrug. Then Sergei raised his arms. ''None here either.'' (Both spoke excellent English.) ''Maybe I should start an arms-trafficking university and teach a course on U.N. sanctions busting,'' Victor Bout said. The brothers looked at each other and laughed.
No one in the lounge seemed to be paying attention to Bout. Behind us sat four Israeli men who may or may not have been listening. Chichakli, who says he speaks Hebrew, said they were waiting for a phone call to confirm a deal for diamonds.
Bout leaned forward. ''I woke up after Sept. 11 and found I was second only to Osama.'' He put his hand on the papers. The truth, he said, was much bigger than his personal story. ''My clients, the governments,'' he began. Then, ''I keep my mouth shut.''
Later he said, ''If I told you everything I'd get the red hole right here.'' He pointed to the middle of his forehead.
The world of the arms trafficker often feels like the script of a bad Hollywood thriller come to life. At times you are tempted to laugh at the B-movie dialogue and cloak-and-dagger intrigue. But the political and financial stakes are high. And, as a Western intelligence agent in Moscow told me, this isn't celluloid, and the dangers are of a much more complicated sort.
In the summer of 1999, faced with multiple conflicts in West and Central Africa, the National Security Council authorized electronic surveillance of government and militia leaders in war zones like northeast Congo, Liberia and Sierra Leone. Every morning, N.S.C. officials cross-referenced transcripts of overheard telephone conversations with American satellite imagery and with field reports by British spies on the ground. The documentation was massive, without obvious patterns, until, finally, astute analysts noticed that every conflict had something in common: Victor Bout.
The name surfaced in various permutations, and always in one of three contexts: airplanes, diamond transport or weapons shipments. Gayle Smith, the N.S.C.'s top Africanist, whose staff uncovered the Bout connection, sent an e-mail message to her fellow N.S.C. members: ''Who is this guy? Pay close attention to this. He's all over the place.''
An answer was provided by a C.I.A. aviation expert from Langley, who showed up at the White House with covert photographs shot at various African jungle airstrips between 1996 and 1999. The photos, according to a former White House official who studied them, show different Antonovs and Ilyushins, Russian cargo planes built to land on (and escape from) almost any surface. In the pictures, the planes' bellies are open. African militiamen in fatigues are off-loading crates of weapons. One photo shows a younger Bout standing before one of the planes. The White House official said the planes were traced to Bout.
''Bout was brilliant,'' Gayle Smith said recently. ''Had he been dealing in legal commodities, he would have been considered one of the world's greatest businessmen. He's a fascinating but destructive character. We were trying to bring peace, and Bout was bringing war.''
C.I.A. and MI6 agents on the ground in Africa first picked up Bout's scent in the early 1990's, when his fleet of planes began crisscrossing the continent. In the early days, they transported gladiolas; later, frozen chickens and then diamonds, mining equipment, Kalashnikov assault rifles, bullets, helicopter gunships and even, Bout says, U.N. peacekeepers, French soldiers and African heads of state. The names of the men Bout came to count as his personal friends and customers included Massoud, Mobutu, Savimbi, Taylor, Bemba. It was not until the summer of 2000 that the N.S.C. realized it had stumbled on not only the most prolific arms trafficking operation in Africa, the Middle East and Afghanistan but probably the best connected (and protected) private-weapons transport and brokering network in the world.
Smith and others took their information to Richard C. Clarke, then the chief of counterterrorism for the N.S.C. ''Get me a warrant,'' Clarke responded.
But because Bout's reputed crimes were committed outside United States borders, the N.S.C. had no U.S. law to use on him. Instead, the N.S.C. initiated an operation that drew on the resources of intelligence agencies in at least seven countries and sparked cabinet-level diplomacy on four continents. Belgium issued its own warrant for Bout's arrest a year later -- not for arms trafficking but for crimes related to money laundering and diamond smuggling. In the end, the pursuit failed. Victor Bout is still at large, a fugitive from international justice. But unlike Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein, he lives in plain sight -- in Moscow, under the apparent protection of a post-Communist system that has profited from his activities as much as he has.
He has also evaded journalists, U.N. investigators and watchdog organizations like Human Rights Watch. Until now, the only publicly available photo of him was secretly taken by a Belgian journalist in March 2001 on an airstrip in Congo. His only statements have been brief denials of his role in arms trafficking. He walked out of a CNN interview in March 2002. That same month, six weeks after a Los Angeles Times article connected Bout to shipments of arms and recruits to the Taliban and Al Qaeda, he released a statement in which he described himself as a father, husband, entrepreneur -- and a scapegoat. Since then, he has been silent.
Though Bout denies his involvement in arms trafficking, he has been persistently and publicly linked to weapons shipments, charges supported by paper and money trails, confessions, eyewitness accounts and multiple intelligence reports. The longer Bout has remained out of the reach of international law, the bigger his legend has grown. In many ways, he is now the public face of a giant international criminal structure.
In the eight months between the time I first asked Bout for an interview and when he finally granted it, I came to understand the general shape of the political and criminal twilight that conceals the commerce of arms trafficking. In June, I laid out some of what I believed in a letter. Two days later, Bout called and asked me to come to Moscow.
'Flowers, that's where it all started,'' Chichakli said. It was midnight, and we had moved on from the hotel lounge to an Italian restaurant in downtown Moscow full of people drinking vodka and eating pasta and pizza. Bout ordered a carrot juice and an arugula salad. ''He's a vegetarian,'' Chichakli said. ''He's an ecologist. He believes in saving the rain forest.''
Bout nodded. ''I've been given a chance to reinvent myself.'' It was not immediately clear why he had chosen to see me. He seemed intrigued by his legend, yet wanted simultaneously to fan it and diminish it.
Over the previous 10 years, he explained, whenever he accompanied one of his planes into the remote jungles of Africa, he spent time photographing wildlife and studying isolated African tribes. ''In the middle of nowhere, you feel alive, you feel part of nature.'' His favorite authors, he told me, were the New Age novelists Paulo Coelho and Carlos Castaneda. ''What I really want to do now is to take one of my helicopters to the Russian Arctic north and make wildlife films for National Geographic and the Discovery channel.'' When Chichakli leaned forward, I noticed that the label on his tie said ''Unicef.'' He gestured toward Bout. ''He gives Unicef money.'' We all laughed; I suspect for different reasons.
Chichakli began rehearsing Bout's career for my benefit. He struck his first business deal in 1992, when he was 25. He bought three Antonov cargo planes for $120,000 and then brokered their services for long-haul flights from Moscow, leasing the planes both ''wet'' (with a crew) and ''dry'' (plane only). His maiden voyage was to Denmark.
''I never had investors,'' Bout said. But where does a 25-year-old Russian get that kind of start-up money? I asked. ''It was never difficult finding money,'' he said, refusing to say more.
In 1993, he moved his operations to the United Arab Emirates, a critical trade and transportation hinge between Asia, Africa and Europe. Newly rich Russians eager to spend their dollars had begun to flock to Dubai to shop duty-free. ''They bought everything from pencils to cars to electronics to Ikea furniture,'' Bout said. ''I saw a gap in the transport market and flew it all back for a premium.'' Business really started to boom when he began filling his planes with South African gladiolas. ''Vic bought a day-old flower for $2 and sold it in Dubai for $100,'' Chichakli said. ''Twenty tons per flight. It's better than printing money.''
Bout made his base the emirate of Sharjah, with its notorious ''airport of convenience'' for planes registered in countries like the Central African Republic and Liberia. It was here that he met Chichakli, who was the founding director of Sharjah's free-trade zone. (Chichakli says he is a nephew of the former president of Syria and the son of a former Syrian under secretary of defense; he also did a stint in the U.S. Army and ''trained in aviation and intelligence,'' he told me. He agreed that he seemed overqualified for his work as a Dallas C.P.A.)
By 1996, Bout was running the biggest of the emirate's 160 air-cargo companies, employing 1,000 air and land crew members. ''The idea was to create a network of companies in Central Africa, Southern Africa and the Emirates. I wanted to make a cargo and passenger airline like Virgin Atlantic.''
By 1997, Bout's operations had expanded to an abandoned airfield in Pietersburg, South Africa. He built a refrigeration facility in South Africa to freeze and store chickens, which cost a little over $1 a kilo in South Africa and sold for $10 in Nigeria. He talked openly about his early commercial exploits but was more reserved when it came to his personal life. ''It's painful to have your private life exposed,'' he said.
He was born, the record shows, to Russian parents in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, on Jan. 13, 1967. A voracious reader of Russian classics, he attended the Soviet Military Institute for Foreign Languages in Moscow and then went to a Russian military college, earning a degree in economics. He speaks six languages fluently. (He told me he learned most of them ''traveling.'') He served in a military aviation regiment until 1991. Two of those years he spent in Mozambique, at the end of that country's civil war.
Bout is said to have been working for the K.G.B. in Angola when the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991. Bout insists that he never had any connection with the K.G.B. and that he had only spent a couple of weeks in Angola. ''My mother cried when the newspapers connected me to the K.G.B.,'' he said. He was eager to show me a statement on what he said was the letterhead of the Federal Security Services -- formerly the K.G.B. -- dated October 2002. It says that the agency ''has no information regarding Mr. Bout's connections with the K.G.B.,'' a statement that means little in a country where anything, especially a document, can be bought.
Reflecting on his travels, Bout said he saw firsthand in Angola, Congo and elsewhere how Western donations to impoverished countries, often in the form of state-of-the-art industry, lead to the destruction of social and ecological balance, mutual resentment and eventually war. Philanthropy creates addiction, he said. ''Once countries give money, they control you.'' He admired the isolated Pygmy tribes he visited during his jungle runs, he said, because they lived in perfect harmony with their environment, immune from conflict and diseases like AIDS.
He also spoke glowingly of Congo's late president, Mobutu Sese Seko, and of Ahmed Shah Massoud, the Afghan Northern Alliance commander, both of whom he said he knew intimately. He was attracted to Mobutu's common sense and Massoud's integrity. Combined, they would have made the perfect leader. They also made fine customers.
Starting in 1995, Bout expanded his air-freight operations to Ostend, Belgium, and later to Odessa, Ukraine. Eleven years earlier, Ostend had been a transit point for weapons in the Iran-contra operation, leaving behind a comfortable precedent and logistical mechanisms for arms traffickers. So did Belgium's lax arms-trafficking laws. From Sharjah and South Africa, and now from Ukraine and Ostend, Bout did indeed tap into what Africa and the Middle East needed. But it wasn't gladiolas and frozen chickens.
Most people think that controlling arms shipments is merely a matter of international diplomacy. That may have been true during the cold war, when traffickers were often subcontractors of the superpowers, feeding the proxy conflicts Washington and Moscow wanted fought. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the exclusive club of arms brokers metastasized. Some brokers still work at the behest of governments and intelligence agencies. But most are now entrepreneurial freelancers who sell weapons without regard for ideology, allegiance or consequence. They have only one goal in mind: profit.
''Victor Bout is a creature of the Yeltsin era, of disorganized crime, who adapted to live in the era of Putin and more organized crime,'' according to Jonathan M. Winer, deputy assistant secretary of state for international law enforcement in the Clinton administration. In the wake of the cold war, to adapt meant to exploit the chaos. The Soviet Army's massive arsenal ended up in the hands of former Soviet republics. Desperate for hard currency, they sold off weapons the same way they sold off other resources and products they inherited from the defunct Soviet empire. ''Who owned what and who ran the fire sale was a free-for-all,'' Winer said.
Of all the republics outside of Russia, Ukraine got the most -- and most lethal -- weapons, enough conventional firepower, by many accounts, to sustain a million troops. The Ukrainian government made a public show of transferring its vast nuclear arsenal back to Russia. But between 1992 and 1998, it has been reported, $32 billion of large- and small-scale Ukrainian weaponry and ammunition, as well as other military property, simply disappeared.
''The Ukrainian military was turned into a tool for revenue by a generation of politicians who took advantage of the factories and used them to manufacture and ship weapons for money to anyone who wanted them,'' Winer said.
Representatives from Iraq, Iran, Somalia, Yemen, the Taliban and Pakistan came calling. So, perhaps, did North Korea, by way of Pakistan, and Al Qaeda, through the Taliban. ''Whatever country has the worst governance but the best infrastructure becomes a honey pot,'' Winer said. ''In the 1980's, it was Central America. After the fall of the Soviet Union, it became Ukraine. There's concentrated power, resources in very few hands, no oversight, no separate functioning judiciary, a huge porous border, huge inherited military facilities, lots of airstrips, a bunch of old planes. Ukraine is the epicenter for global badness. It's worse than Pakistan. It's a one-stop-shopping infrastructure for anyone who wants to buy anything.''
Ukraine became the deepest and most reliable source of supply in the arms-trafficking underworld. What was missing was a way to move and sell the product. That's where Victor Bout and others came in. And the world was soon awash in weapons.
Last February, months before I met with Bout, I went to Kiev. The year before, Ukraine's president, Leonid Kuchma, had been caught personally directing illicit weapons sales. From 1998 to 2000, Kuchma's bodyguard, a former K.G.B. employee and Ukrainian intelligence officer named Mykola Melnychenko, had bugged the presidential office and then turned over tapes to an opposition member of Ukraine's Parliament. The tapes caught Kuchma apparently approving the sale of four world-class radar systems to Saddam Hussein for $100 million and ordering the director of Ukraine's intelligence agency to ''take care of'' a Ukrainian journalist who had been following the government's connections to illegal arms sales. Two months after that conversation, the journalist, Georgy Gongadze, vanished. His headless, acid-scorched corpse was found in a forest glade two months later. He was one of at least three Ukrainian journalists and five members of Parliament who died in the last few years under mysterious circumstances.
Before I left for Ukraine, I met with Melnychenko, who had taken refuge in the United States. He agreed to meet me at the information booth at Grand Central Terminal, and we moved on to the bar at Michael Jordan's restaurant to talk. A pale, nervous man, he seemed an unlikely candidate to try to topple the tyrannical Ukrainian president by himself. Had anyone put him up to the bugging, I asked? He shrugged: ''I'm an officer. I wanted to stop the crime.'' Asked if he knew Victor Bout, he at first said no, then yes and later, in a phone conversation, no again. Recently he said, ''I don't know him in person, but I know a lot about him.'' He told me that he is frequently warned by the United States about assassination plots against him.
Whether Melnychenko worked independently or for the K.G.B. or for the C.I.A. (I was told all three), the tapes are real, and ''Kuchmagate'' -- as the Ukrainian press has dubbed it -- provides a glimpse of the anatomy of the arms-trafficking underworld, of which state-sponsored arms trafficking is just one thread.
Arms traffickers inherited not only the Soviet Union's cold-war weapons supply but also its fully operational systems of clandestine transport, replete with money channels, people who understood how to use them and, most important, established shipping pipelines -- what Robert Gelbard, assistant secretary of state for international narcotics and law enforcement under President Clinton, calls ''the tubing.'' ''The tubing can carry different kinds of things,'' he told me, ''drugs, humans, money -- or weapons.'' Victor Bout was master of the tubing.
''By 2000, Victor Bout had become the McDonald's of arms trafficking -- he was the brand name,'' said Alex Vines, an arms investigator for Human Rights Watch who first picked up signs of Bout's operation in 1995. A conversation with a Kenyan diamond trader and mine operator named Sanjivan Ruprah offers insight into Bout's techniques. Ruprah was arrested in Belgium in February 2002, accused of money laundering, and later released. ''I met Victor to discuss airlifting a hundred tons of diamond mining equipment from South Africa to Kananga in the Congo to start a new diamond mine,'' Ruprah said by e-mail. (He said he was traveling in Africa, but wouldn't say in which country.) Ruprah told U.S. investigators that in June 2002 he told Bout that the embattled Liberian president, Charles Taylor, was losing the fight for the Liberian north and asked him to arrange for an emergency delivery of weapons. In an interview with U.S. officials, Ruprah described how Bout offered to quickly fill Taylor's shopping list in exchange for a promise of future business in Liberia. Ruprah said that Bout told him he had a way around the U.N. embargo. Bout told him he had end-user certificates, required for any legal sale of weapons to a legitimate government. False certificates, which is what Bout had, can be bought from corrupt governments for as little as $50,000. Djibouti is a popular false destination; so is Peru, according to one well-known arms trafficker.
Bout told me the deal simply didn't happen. ''How do you think a plane can fly to Liberia, which is under U.N. embargo, without being tracked?'' he said. To illustrate, Chichakli opened his laptop and started a program that charts the myriad air-traffic control centers a plane is required to contact as it flies through one country's airspace into another's. For the sake of argument, they asked me to suggest an itinerary. ''From where?'' Bout asked. I said Ostend, Belgium. Chichakli typed in the airport code for Ostend, OST. ''To where?'' Bout said. I suggested Monrovia, the war-ravaged capital of Liberia. Bout and Chichakli looked at each other. They hesitated. ''Monrovia, let's see,'' Chichakli said. ''Do you know the code, Victor?'' Bout shrugged, ''I have no idea.'' I watched as they tried to look as if they were struggling, typing in various permutations. Sergei finally gave them the code, ROB, for Roberts International in Monrovia.
Arms traffickers use what looks like legitimate business activity to disguise the smuggling. Weapons shopping lists are quietly passed through webs of people who fill orders, often for cash on delivery. Usually, the first link in the chain is military; bribes are paid to officials and officers to look the other way, or soldiers are paid to play warehouse stock clerks. Sometimes crates of weapons are labeled perishable fruit. Or waiting air crews switch cargo at ''refueling'' stops. A pilot might fly into an airport under one registration number and fly out under a different one. Or he might start off on an openly planned flight from, say, Ostend to Peru, then double back and dogleg south to a war zone in West Africa. Payments are wired from a buyer's shell company into a seller's shell, often in money-laundering havens like the Isle of Man or the Caymans or Dubai, or money is wired to quasi-legitimate cargo companies. Sometimes weapons are simply traded for bags of cash or sockfuls of diamonds.
''Bout's procurement and logistics network is fully integrated, which made him so attractive and so successful,'' said Lee S. Wolosky, former director of transnational threats at the N.S.C. under both Clinton and Bush, who directed the U.S. campaign against Bout. ''Weaponry is harder to both get a hold of and to transport than women and drugs. There is really no one in the world who has put it all together the way he has.''
Often, traffickers simply assume that authorities won't bother to check their cargo. In late September 2001, two weeks after the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, a Hungarian trading company in Budapest filed a request to ship Ukrainian cargo to an American firm based in Macon, Ga. No one had ever heard of the Ukrainian company with the vanilla name -- ERI Trading and Investment Company -- and for good reason. A Hungarian bureaucrat making a random inspection of the cargo discovered that the shipment included 300 Ukrainian surface-to-air (SAM) missiles and 100 launchers. SAM's are light, mobile and easily hidden, and American agents later feared that they were going to be distributed to terrorists near America's major airports. (The cargo wasn't permitted to take off; the American buyer was arrested in June.)
When I was alone with Bout and his brother, I put on the table a copy of an invoice for another weapons deal, obtained from European intelligence sources. The invoice, on the letterhead of San Air General Trading, one of Bout's Sharjah-based companies, was for two Russian MI-8T ''helicopter gunships,'' four missile launchers and three bomb launchers, all for $1,900,000, plus spare parts for an additional $90,000. The weapons were ostensibly for delivery to Ivory Coast, but in reality, the sources said, the destination was Liberia. Bout picked it up, stared at it and coolly declared it a forgery. ''Anyway, MI-8T's aren't gunships; they're cargo helicopters.'' After an uncomfortable silence, he added, ''Though they can be outfitted with rockets and the proper guns to make them into gunships.''
U.S. officials have connected Bout to both Alexander Islamov, a notorious Russian arms dealer, and Leonid Minin, a Ukrainian version of the same. I asked him if he had flown cargo for them. ''These are my clients,'' he said. ''But who cares? It's not my business to know what's on board. It's not the captain's job to open the crates and know what's inside.'' (In fact, a pilot considers it an almost religious duty to know what his plane is carrying.) Then he changed his tack, abandoning his half-hearted denial that he moved weapons. O.K., he said, the point isn't whether or not he delivers weapons; the point is, what's wrong with it? ''Illegal weapons?'' he said. ''What does that mean? If rebels control an airport and a city, and they give you clearance to land, what's illegal about that?'' After all, he said, rebels become governments, which have a right to defend themselves. What Bout didn't say was that the people receiving the weapons are often under U.N. arms embargo. Or they are rebels slaughtering their way into power.
''The problem is the system,'' Bout argued. ''Arms is no different than pharmaceuticals. Actually, pharmaceuticals can be more dangerous than arms.''
Sergei was nodding in agreement. I said that coming from the mouth of a self-professed ecologist, humanist and admirer of Pygmies, that sounded at best like a cold rationalization. ''Look, killing isn't about weapons,'' Bout replied impatiently. ''It's about the humans who use them.''
Bout fell silent. His wit and his insider's perspective on international geopolitics suddenly coalesced into the cynical visage of a drug dealer peddling crack in a schoolyard. He was just a businessman selling his wares. Who was he to be the arbiter of good and evil?
On that, he was technically correct. He was different from a drug pusher in one crucial way: what he was doing might be repugnant and contributing to savagery, but it didn't necessarily make him a criminal. There is simply not a lot of law -- American, international or otherwise -- on arms trafficking. Since the mid-1990's, not one U.N. arms embargo has resulted in the conviction of an arms trafficker. The U.N. has no power to arrest. Interpol depends on the cooperation of local authorities. Astonishingly, despite having the toughest arms-trafficking laws in the world, the U.S. has not prosecuted a single case of arms trafficking. This is true partly by design. ''Governments create rules that allow arms deals to happen,'' said Lisa Misol, an arms researcher for Human Rights Watch. ''And traffickers rely on the fact that countries don't consider arms shipments originating somewhere else their problem.''
In other words, the most repugnant kind of commerce is usually not illegal. And if arms trafficking is not illegal, how can it be stopped? Why should it be stopped? When confronted by images of child soldiers in Liberia, the question seems naïve, if not specious. But when it comes to weapons sales, the notion of ''national interest'' becomes a hall of mirrors. The top arms manufacturers -- and the U.S. sells more weapons than the rest of the world combined -- have a vested interest in keeping their product on the move, legally or otherwise. And aren't there also simply times when a government decides it's in its best interest, and its citizens' best interest, to let traffickers traffic? Governments are reluctant to restrain arms traffickers who might serve their own geopolitical or national-security interests in the future. ''It's the disposal problem,'' said Jonathan Winer. ''What do you do with people after you've trained them to be killers, traffickers, smugglers and criminals in the cause of a just war? Ask Manuel Noriega. He'd know.''
In Africa, by all accounts, Bout sold and delivered to anyone who could pay. But Afghanistan was different. He said that he helped arm only the Rabbani government, which was then clinging to power. ''I took sides because I knew what the Taliban was,'' Bout told me. ''Rabbani and Massoud were the only hope. I had a major pact with the Rabbani government. We sustained them. My aircraft was the last one out of Bagram air base before the Taliban came.'' In the mid-1990's, he flew four shipments a day into government-controlled Jalalabad, he said: weapons (probably from the former Soviet republics) and TV's and radios from Dubai.
In August 1995, 13 months before the Taliban took Kabul, Taliban aircraft intercepted one of Bout's Sharjah-based planes loaded with ammunition for the government. The MIG's forced the plane down in the Taliban stronghold of Kandahar. What happened next has become arms-trafficking folk lore. The plane and its cargo were seized, and the crew of seven imprisoned at the airport for over a year. Eventually, the story goes, the crew members overpowered their captors, started up Bout's plane, took off under heavy fire and escaped back to Sharjah.
Bout tells a different story about the escape. He flew to Kandahar a few times over the course of that year to negotiate his crew's release, he told me, but not alone. He was accompanied by officials from the Russian government. The negotiations failed. (The story up to this point has been reported.) The reality of the plane's escape, he went on, is more interesting than the lore and more politically fraught. ''Do you really think you can jump in a plane that's been sitting unmaintained on the tarmac for over a year, start up the engines and just take off?'' He paused. ''They didn't escape. They were extracted.''
By a Western government, I asked? ''No,'' Bout said, clearly agitated. Was it a Russian government operation? At first Bout didn't answer. Then he said: ''Until now you've been digging in a big lake with small spoons. There are huge forces. . . .'' He broke off midsentence. Then he explained that this incident revealed too much about the triangulated relationship between him, governments and his rogue clients. He said he was protecting himself and me.
Before September 2001, Russia was arming Massoud and the Northern Alliance with tons of weaponry, the former N.S.C. official told me. Many of the deliveries were made by Bout. ''Bout wanted to play a more clean game, to arm the American allies,'' Johan Peleman, a U.N. arms investigator, said. Bout flatly refused to discuss any such relationship.
Bout flew U.N. peacekeepers to East Timor and Somalia, and possibly to Sierra Leone. (''The U.N. always goes for the cheapest contracts,'' Peleman said.) In 1994, during the Rwandan genocide, Bout said, the French government asked him to help implement Operation Turquoise to halt the fighting and facilitate aid shipments to refugees. Bout told me that he flew in 2,500 elite French troops. He also told me that he extracted Mobutu from Congo.
''Bout is encouraged by Western intelligence agencies when it's politically expedient,'' a British arms investigator said.
The governments and rebel groups Bout supplied knew enough not to antagonize him, Gayle Smith, formerly of the N.S.C., told me. ''You wouldn't want to be on his bad side. He's wily; he's hard to catch. He was always several steps ahead. He would acquire anything and move it anywhere for anyone. While Victor Bout might be running arms to your opposition, you know he'll also ferry arms against a U.N. embargo for you.''
In February, I went to the Ukrainian port city of Odessa to meet a pilot I was told had flown planes into Liberia for Bout. As a major transport link between Europe and the Middle East, Odessa is the central smuggling tube in Europe and a favorite port of call for pilots and traffickers of all stripes.
The pilot was waiting for me in an icy wind at the top of the Odessa steps made famous in Eisenstein's film ''Battleship Potemkin.'' We nodded to each other, and I followed him to an empty cafe. He talked in a low voice, describing how planes sometimes landed and took off amid raging gunfire. The hulls of those planes were known to often be sheathed in lead to deflect bullets. He nodded at Bout's name. He said pilots earned $10,000 per shipment. He had quit a few months before after being strafed by machine-gun fire one too many times. Half an hour after we met, the pilot led me out and brusquely said goodbye.
He had reason to be nervous. Even hard-core arms traffickers shun the country. Earlier in the year, I met with the notorious Sarkis Soghanalian in the balmy Jordanian port city of Aqaba, where he spends his days sitting by the sea before an array of satellite and cellphones. A ziggurat-shaped Armenian-American with Arafat stubble and sausage-link fingers, he is both a longtime ally of American intelligence and an occasional target of law-enforcement agencies. Soghanalian was well known for, among many other things, being Saddam Hussein's major supplier of weapons during the Iran-Iraq war years. When I asked him for advice on navigating the former Soviet Union in general and Ukraine in particular, he shook his head and said he never did business there. ''No one can be trusted. They only work for money there.''
A U.S. government adviser in Kiev told me, ''Odessa's an open sewer and criminal outlet.'' Eight hundred shipping containers are off-loaded at the port every day. Among other contraband like cigarettes and bootleg pharmaceuticals and CD's, weapons are smuggled in and then transferred from ship to ship or ship to plane. ''We've had a hundred seizures of radioactive material over 10 years,'' the adviser said ''But we don't know what we're getting because we don't know what we're missing.''
In one sense, Odessa is merely the gateway to a weapons source potentially even more valuable. Fifty miles up the Dniester River from Odessa, in neighboring Moldova, the breakaway province of Trans-Dniester falls under the overlapping control of Ukrainian and Russian organized crime syndicates, a Bolshevik-style administration, the Russian Army and a private corporation named Sheriff. The Russian-speaking Trans-Dniestrians fought Romanian-speaking Moldova to a stalemate in a vicious war for independence in 1992, carving out a 250-mile-long wedge of land along Moldova's border with Ukraine. Its 600,000 people are destitute and isolated.
Frozen in a state of neither war nor peace, with zero international presence or accountability, there might be no other place on earth that better represents the overlapping interests of governments, organized-crime syndicates and arms traffickers like Victor Bout. Odessa is only 50 miles of good road away. ''Trans-Dniester is patrolled by the Odessa mafia,'' Eduard Hurvitz, Odessa's former mayor, told me. The enclave is so lawless that the United States Embassy in Chisinau, Moldova's capital, discourages its personnel from going there, and staying there overnight requires the ambassador's permission.
''We're a bastard child born unofficially, but we believe we're an official state,'' Vladimir Bodnar, Trans-Dniester's minister of defense, told me. Bodnar and I were sitting in the Parliament Building in Tiraspol, Trans-Dniester's grim and sparsely populated capital. The city is peppered with valorous Soviet statuary, including a colossal monument to Lenin outside the Parliament Building. Across the street was a gas station with a sign showing an outsize five-point sheriff's badge, the logo of the Sheriff Corporation, said to be controlled by Trans-Dniester's ex-Communist president, Igor Smirnov, a former Russian factory manager. Sheriff owns many businesses in Trans-Dniester. U.S. officials have linked Russian organized-crime groups to the smuggling of radiological materials and have little doubt that the trail leads back to Trans-Dniester.
Before the Soviet Union's collapse, Tiraspol was home to the Soviet 14th Army, which left behind 40,000 tons of weaponry, the largest arsenal in Europe. Russia had only begun to repatriate that weaponry by the time Trans-Dniester grabbed its quasi-independence. The lightly armed Trans-Dniestrians -- and the various criminals who controlled the territory -- refused to let the Russians leave with the remains. Or so Moscow says. Others disagree. ''The Russians could pull out tomorrow,'' said Mark Galeotti, an adviser to British intelligence on Russian organized crime. ''Smirnov is a puppet in the hand of Russian intelligence,'' said Ion Stavila, Moldova's deputy minister of foreign affairs.
At last count, stored in a complex of bunkers and berms and guarded by a skeleton crew of Russians are enough explosives to make two and a half Hiroshima bombs, tens of thousands of Kalashnikov assault rifles, millions of rounds of ammunition and huge numbers of antitank missiles, grenades and Scudlike rockets. Trans-Dniestrian factories may still produce weapons.
But Trans-Dniester is more than just the Wal-Mart of arms trafficking. Experts are concerned that terrorists -- or ambitious middlemen -- could find more sophisticated and dangerous things to buy. The Soviet military couldn't guarantee that all of the nuclear weapons had been removed. And hundreds of canisters of cesium-137, used by Soviet scientists to test the effects of nuclear war on plants, are unaccounted for. According to Russian documents I obtained, one 14th Army officer warned the Moldovans that in 1992 24 Alazan rockets in Trans-Dniester had been tipped with radioactive warheads. An adviser to British intelligence confirmed that some of the cesium is still inside Trans-Dniester.
In Moscow, over a drink, I asked Bout if he had been to Trans-Dniester. He shook his head no and shuddered. But British agents, who have tracked weapons from Trans-Dniester to the Balkans and beyond, have documented Bout's involvement there for years. ''It's clear that Ukrainian weapons Bout trafficked came through Trans-Dniester,'' Galeotti said. Not just things that have disappeared out of arsenals. Sophisticated surface-to-air missile systems to the Middle East. Vehicle-mounted and artillery systems. ''Large, high-tech kits. Flatbeds' and trainloads' worth. Bout's fingerprints are all over them.''
On the evening of my third day with Bout, the phone in my hotel room rang. A voice said, ''I understand we have things to talk about.'' At first I was taken aback, even amused, by the melodrama. But the voice was coldly sobering. ''Tomorrow, 1700 hours,'' the caller said. ''Go to the McDonald's on Pushkin Square. Buy two cups of coffee and sit at a table. I'll find you.'' Then he hung up.
At 5 p.m. I went to the McDonald's. It was vast, multitiered and crowded with Russian teenagers. Techno-pop was playing loudly. It was the perfect place for a private conversation.
I put two coffees on a random table and waited. At 5:02, I looked left and right into the crowd, then turned back. A man in his early 40's was in the seat across from me. ''Thank you for the coffee,'' he said.
The man didn't identify himself, but his knowledge of arms trafficking and its various players was expert. He told me that Bout was merely the public face of something much larger and that I was just getting through the surface and that to go further was very dangerous.
He alluded to two assassinations that had taken place 10 days before. Both victims were executives of a huge air-defense contractor involved in export of antiaircraft weapons and other systems.
He said to imagine the structure of arms trafficking in Russia like a mushroom. Bout was among those in the mushroom's cap, which we can see. The stalk is made up of the men who are really running things in Russia and making decisions. Looking from above, he said, you never see the stalk.
Earlier, in Kiev, Grigory Omelchenko, the former chief of Ukrainian counterintelligence, had said that traffickers like Bout are either protected or killed. ''There's total state control.''
Said E.J. Hogendoorn, the former U.N. arms investigator: ''There was the sense that there were bigger and murkier forces involved in this. Bout's being protected by highly influential people.''
I began to understand why Bout was both eager to talk and reluctant. Cornered by multiple governments, selling off his assets and hounded by the press, he wanted to complain that he had merely become the fall guy for a criminalized -- and quasi-legal -- political structure much larger and more significant than Victor Bout. But if he revealed too much, he said, he would be perilous.
Between the summers of 2000 and 2001, Western intelligence agencies targeted Bout with listening devices. Agents eavesdropped on his phone conversations. The stakes were raised even further in early 2001, when the N.S.C. was shown materials that led it to believe Bout had sold planes to Ariana Afghan Airlines, the national flagship airline that had been taken over by the Taliban. U.S. intelligence was reporting daily Ariana flights from the Emirates to the Taliban stronghold of Kandahar, and U.S. officials said that these aircraft may have been delivering weapons, gold and jihadis. Though there was no evidence connecting Bout to actual weapons sales to the Taliban or Al Qaeda, the U.S. government became convinced that Bout was at least servicing the planes -- enough to make him an Al Qaeda accomplice. ''What we saw led us to think that Bout had something to do with terrorism,'' Lee Wolosky told me. ''It was handled by the part of the White House associated with terrorism. There were enough indicators that set off alarm bells. The U.S. government decided to act on that basis.''
The question was, act how? The U.S. government had no legal architecture to fight an arms network that operated across international borders in the political twilight. ''Big arms are the province of individual countries,'' Jonathan Winer said. ''But no country is configured to deal with it because its jurisdiction stops at the border.''
Said Lee S. Wolosky, the former director of transnational threats at the N.S.C.: ''Bout represented a post-cold-war phenomenon for which there was no framework to stop. No one was doing what he was doing. And there was no response. We needed to build a response.''
The N.S.C. consulted with officials in the British, South African and Belgian governments to find a way to shut Bout down and apprehend him. Intelligence agents tracked Bout's planes from Sharjah. Arms shipments were interdicted at airfields in Moldova, Slovakia and Uganda. Officials from the United Arab Emirates offered to capture Bout in Sharjah and hand him over to U.S. officials. At one point, an elite detachment was in place to make the arrest.
With Bout now under close surveillance, however, the White House made the last-minute call to pursue a classic narc strategy instead. It wanted to wait to see if Bout could take them higher up the arms-trafficking food chain.
In February 2001, the U.S. government sent a delegation to Brussels to ask prosecutors there to cooperate with their operation against Bout. The Belgians refused without explanation. Within a week of the meeting, the head of the U.S. delegation learned that Bout knew about the meeting. (Belgium did issue a warrant against Bout in February 2002, for money laundering in connection with diamonds. Bout was in Sharjah at the time, but fled to Russia before he could be apprehended.)
According to Clinton administration N.S.C. officials, from its first days the Bush administration didn't see transnational crime as a national-security issue, and it didn't share their fixation on Victor Bout. Condoleezza Rice instructed the N.S.C. to work the Bout problem diplomatically. ''Look but don't touch'' is how one former White House official put it to me.
After Sept. 11, Rice called off the Bout operation altogether. Moscow was not to be pressured on arms trafficking in general and Victor Bout in particular. The reasoning, according to a source who talked to Rice, was that they had ''bigger fish to fry.'' (Rice refused to comment for this article.)
My last night in Moscow, Bout drove me to a restaurant outside the city that specializes in wild game. He ordered a dish of roasted vegetables. After days of discussing his life's work and the charges against him, he appeared relaxed, as though he felt he had sufficiently justified himself and set the record straight. He had done neither, or course, but he seemed relieved to have talked. After a few vodkas, he turned philosophical. ''It's easy to make war, to play the political game,'' he mused. ''But to be at peace within yourself. . . .''
After dinner, we drove down a dirt track into the woods to a walled compound. Inside was an expensive private club for banya, the traditional Russian sauna. Bout told me that when Russian men negotiate or prepare for difficult conversations, they share a banya. They are naked, and after the heat, they are defenseless and cannot hide anything. ''If you don't have a good marriage or you want that kind of thing, then you can have the girl upstairs,'' he added.
Inside the hot box it was 170 degrees. A man in a towel pounded Bout and me with eucalyptus leaves. Then we submerged in an icy dunking pool. We repeated the cycle twice more. Afterward, we sat on a couch, and he talked about literature and his admiration of the Pygmies. He spoke of Massoud, his brilliance and dependability. But he also thought Massoud was naïve, and this was why he was dead. There was a television suspended in a corner showing a wildlife channel. We sat for an hour, watching animals in the African veldt hunting and devouring one another.
Sitting there naked except for a narrow strip of towel, Bout seemed the personification not of the world community's inability to stop him but of its reluctance. Bout the trafficker seemed diminished in comparison to the larger hidden system. If he was indeed the public face of arms trafficking and if he couldn't be caught, or stopped, what, I wondered, does this say about the mammoth volume of amoral transport around the world, and the huge profits at stake for individuals and governments alike?
I remembered something Richard Chichakli had said that morning: ''Victor is the most politically connected person you have ever seen, but he's not here to change the world.''