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On the Trail of a Man Behind Taliban’s Air Fleet

By Times Staff Writers

The files on Victor Bout in government agencies around the world brim with accounts of how he hunted game with rebel leaders, threw beer parties on jungle landing strips and consorted with dictators to build his business empire. For a decade, his armada of aircraft has hauled almost anything for a price: fish, coffee, relief supplies, flowers, and heads of state and their wives.

International authorities say the 35-year-old Russian also operates the world’s largest private weapons transport network, carrying military goods as small as Kalashnikov assault rifle rounds and as large as helicopter gunships. Bout’s businesses have been blamed for arming civil wars throughout Africa, despite international embargoes.

“Victor Bout is like the Donald Trump or Bill Gates of arms trafficking,” said a U.S. Defense Department official. “He’s the biggest kid on the block.”

Now a Times investigation has uncovered evidence that companies tied to Bout helped the Taliban build an air fleet that secretly delivered weapons, equipment and recruits during a crucial period in the late 1990s. The hard-line Islamic regime bought air freighters from the firms and disguised some of them in the colors of Afghanistan’s national airline so that cargo could be delivered without attracting notice. The deals were arranged while the Taliban battled opposition forces for power and the ruling mullahs’ patron, Osama bin Laden, launched his holy war against Americans.

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The revelations provide significant new details of how the Taliban and Bin Laden’s Al Qaeda terrorist organization imported armaments wielded in combat against American soldiers. Both militant groups drew from the same arms caches, according to U.S. officials tracing munitions found after last year’s fighting. The accounts also provide a close-up view of how weak arms-trafficking laws and poor international coordination can hamper the war on terrorism.

American authorities say Bout--with operations scattered from the United Arab Emirates to the United States--embodies a new class of global enablers with the resources to serve terrorists. Though not affiliated with any known faction, Bout is considered a “transnational threat” by the U.S. government, posing danger through his worldwide reach.

Over the last three years, the United Nations has publicly condemned him. The White House worked quietly to build a case against him. The U.S. secretary of State urged South Africa’s president to prosecute Bout. A ranking British Foreign Ministry official denounced him in Parliament. Belgium is seeking his arrest.

But Bout has been a master of fast exits. He left Belgium and South Africa soon after police opened investigations into his flights. As American and British officials tried to establish the nature of his dealings with the Taliban, Bout slipped out of the Emirates.

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He remains a free man in Moscow, sheltered by a Russian government skeptical of the allegations against him. He declined repeated interview requests through intermediaries during the last several months. In late April, his lawyer, Victor Burobin, quoted Bout as saying, “I haven’t committed any crimes.” Earlier, Bout told a Moscow radio station that he had not “entered any contacts with Taliban or Al Qaeda representatives.”

To put together a picture of Bout and his operations, The Times conducted interviews with more than 75 military, diplomatic and government officials in Afghanistan, the U.S., the Emirates, Russia, Europe and Africa, as well as with air industry workers and Bout associates in those nations. Afghan officials corroborated their accounts with a thick stack of documents from the deposed Taliban government.

The chronicle of Bout’s rise in Africa and his clandestine work in Afghanistan is a narrative that is still unfolding, a tale of nations pitted against one resourceful man.

ORIGINS

Billing Himself as an Average Ivan

Victor Bout’s known biography is spare. A native of Tajikistan, he is a Soviet military veteran fluent in at least five languages.

In an interview with a Russian newspaper, Bout portrayed himself as a hard-working, misunderstood and much-slandered businessman, an average Ivan Ivanov of unpretentious roots, the son of a car mechanic and a bookkeeper who went to a school for military translators and emerged from the army with the rank of lieutenant before going into the air cargo trade.

The financing of his aviation network remains murky. But he found a gold mine in surplus weaponry. Russia’s discarded stockpiles “have tremendous value to warring countries in Africa and anywhere you need guns,” said Jonathan Winer, a former deputy assistant secretary of State for international enforcement in the Clinton administration. “It’s capitalism, comrade.”

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Alexander Sidorenko, a decorated former Soviet paratrooper, recalls Bout working as a trade representative in Luanda, Angola, when the Soviet empire collapsed in 1990. Bout joined him, leasing and buying planes until the two men split in 1994. “If he had a hobby, it was money,” Sidorenko said.

By the late 1990s, Bout had gained a reputation for toughness and nerve.

“Bout was always ready to work under any risk,” said Valery Spurnov, general director of SpAir Aviation in Yekaterinburg and a former Soviet civil aviation official. Bout spirited off reconditioned Antonovs, “which were nothing more than piles of scrap metal,” Spurnov said. One aged plane, said another Russian aviator, had been junked and slated for display as a monument in the Smolensk Rocket and Artillery School before Bout revived it as a transport.

What separates Bout from his competitors, Western authorities said, is the size of his network. As of April, U.S. officials had linked to Bout at least 60 planes, a private cargo wing dwarfing all others in the Third World, registered from Aruba to Cambodia.

The State Department says Bout’s companies have 300 employees. His pilots, mostly Ukrainians and Russians, reportedly have been paid up to $10,000 for each hazardous run into war zones. Several Antonovs have crashed, including two that were shot down on African flights in the early 1990s, killing all aboard, Spurnov said.

Short-lived Bout firms have operated on four continents. Among their names: Transavia, Air Pass, Centrafrican, San Air, CET, IRBIS and Air Cess, the flagship that U.S. officials say Bout has entrusted to his older brother, Sergei.

“He’s a wheeler-dealer who operates very effectively in a part of the world where scrutiny is poor,” said Alex Vines, a British arms expert for the United Nations.

His planes were frequently transferred from one of his companies to another and from country to country. One plane, for example, was registered in Swaziland but owned by a South African company. Others were registered in Liberia but based in the Emirates.

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Bout’s primary arms work is transport, U.S. and U.N. officials say, but they say his operation also brokers weapons from stockpiles across Eastern Europe.

A U.N. report cited one spate of 38 Air Cess flights to Africa from the Bulgarian port of Burgas, home to several weapons factories. The arms cargoes fetched a total of $14 million, the report said.

“When you supply to an embargoed country, the price goes up,” said Johan Peleman, a Belgian arms expert who has spent seven years tracking Bout for the U.N. and a research institute in Antwerp.

Bout acquired mansions, a Porsche, a Mercedes and a Range Rover, according to investigators and acquaintances. He co-owned an apartment in an exclusive Moscow district and reportedly had an estate on the Belgian coast near Ostend, a house in South Africa and a gated residence in the emirate of Sharjah, his main air hub since the mid-1990s.

Stout, with a trim mustache, Bout projects charm and swagger, intimates say. In Sharjah, where his firms competed with several dozen Russian air cargo firms plying Asian and African routes, he was a man apart, cultivating the powerful and cinching deals others nervously turned down.

While rivals scraped to stay in business, Bout hobnobbed with royalty on the “sheikly wedding circuit,” one Western diplomat said. In the devout Islamic emirate, where liquor is banned, associates said his office bar was fully stocked.

He could be generous, as Vladislav Ketov, a noted Russian bicyclist, discovered when he was stranded in Sharjah during a trip around the world. Bout paid for a ticket home to Russia, and over the next five years, sent $50,000 for Ketov’s altruistic projects.

In return, Ketov offered to paste the Air Cess logo on his bike. “But he modestly declined my offer, saying, ‘My company doesn’t need much advertising,’” Ketov said.

AFRICA

Governments and Rebels Allegedly Among Clients

U.S. and U.N. officials say Bout and other arms suppliers airlifted thousands upon thousands of assault rifles, grenade and missile launchers and millions of ammunition rounds into Africa. Clients of Bout’s companies, U.S. and U.N. officials say, included rebels or governments in Sierra Leone, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Liberia, Tanzania, Burkina Faso, Uganda and Sudan. In Libya, he developed a working relationship with Col. Moammar Kadafi, they say, and in Angola, Bout’s ventures armed both insurgents and army regulars.

The first hint of Bout’s work came to U.S. officials in distant snatches of Russian picked up in 1995 intercepts of African phone conversations. Thumbing through transcripts, U.S. officials noticed a name repeated in chatter about weapons shipments in the Great Lakes region of Central Africa.

The pronunciation varied, matching alternative spellings used on five Russian passports that the U.N. alleges Bout has carried. Sometimes, he was Bout; at other times, he was Butt, Boutov, Budd or Bouta.

At the time, Bout seemed a minor player in the continent’s tribal and power struggles. But as months passed, “we started seeing his fleet in all parts of Africa,” a U.S. official said.

The U.N. has accused him of violating embargoes in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Angola. The African conflicts covered by the sanctions are not wars in the conventional sense but anarchic slaughter. Toting Kalashnikovs and rocket-propelled grenade launchers, teenage fighters spray hundreds of rounds at a clip. Civilians have died by the tens of thousands. Missiles have been fired at planes carrying relief supplies.

In Congo, formerly Zaire, where a 31/2-year war has claimed 2 million lives, Bout’s work so pleased Jean-Pierre Bemba, leader of the rebel Congolese Liberation Movement, or MLC, that he joined the Russian supplier on hunting trips, U.N. investigator Peleman said.

A Bout firm serviced and chartered aircraft for Libya for several years, U.S. officials said. Bout also provided assistance when Kadafi negotiated the release of six European hostages held in the Philippines by Abu Sayyaf, an Islamic rebel group whose leader had trained in Libya. Libya hired a plane provided by Bout to deliver the freed captives, and Kadafi later portrayed the intervention as a humanitarian act that warranted an end to international sanctions against his regime.

Performing such errands “got [Bout] in good standing with heads of state, and it was good for business,” said Lee S. Wolosky, who was the National Security Council’s Bout specialist until last July.

Since the end of the Cold War, thousands of private arms brokers and transporters have entered a munitions trade once the exclusive domain of nations. The Wassenaar Arrangement, a 1996 pact by 33 nations in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the former Soviet bloc, promised to restrict and monitor the flow of large conventional weaponry such as tanks and fighter jets.

But brokers and transporters of rifles and other small weapons easily bypass even the toughest national laws by staying on the move.

A U.S. push in 1998 for standardized laws in Europe was rebuffed by countries with deeply rooted arms-brokering industries, including Russia, most of Eastern Europe, Spain, Portugal and Belgium.

U.N. efforts to impose arms embargoes have been similarly frustrated. By the late 1990s, U.N. officials acknowledged that their sanctions were porous and dispatched experts to learn how munitions continued to get through.

Juan Larrain, a former Chilean diplomat who heads the U.N.'s Angola panel, said Bout has stood out, “implicated in so many conflicts around the world.”

The U.N. and the U.S. imposed bans on military aid to the Taliban in 2000. When a U.N. team was asked last year to examine how weapons entered Afghanistan, Bout’s name surfaced again.

Bout catered to the opposition Northern Alliance, flying in tons of ammunition when it ruled in the mid-1990s, former alliance officials said. He stopped working for the alliance when the Taliban seized power in Kabul in September 1996.

“He was working for us,” said Abdul Latif, Bout’s main arms contact in the alliance. “And then he was working for the Taliban.”

AFGHANISTAN

Alliance Contact Brought Suitcases of Cash

Whenever the Northern Alliance found its stock of ammunition running low, Latif said, he would bring suitcases stuffed with cash to Bout. Between 1992 and 1996, when the alliance governed Afghanistan, Bout-leased Ilyushins carried tons of ammunition to troops fighting the Taliban and other factions, former alliance officials said.

Bout’s arms prices were “very expensive,” said Ahmed Muslem Hayat, a former aide to the defense minister. “One shell for tanks was $60. And from Russia, officially, they were $10.”

The alliance had to deal with Bout, Hayat said, because the Russian government would not sell arms to them, preferring not to take sides in the Afghan civil war. But the Russians also did not interfere with Bout, who holds Russian citizenship. His flights “did not violate international laws,” said veteran Russian diplomat Zamir Kabulov.

On Aug. 3, 1995, Bout’s furtive business was outed by the Taliban.

A Taliban MIG fighter forced down a Bout-leased Ilyushin carrying 3.4 million Kalashnikov rounds as it neared the Taliban stronghold of Kandahar. Taliban soldiers seized the munitions and took the seven-member crew hostage.

The Russian government sent Kabulov, who at times was accompanied by Bout or his brother Sergei, to negotiate for the crew’s release.

After waiting a year, the prisoners laid plans for a break. In August 1996, Kabulov said, Bout arranged with Iranian air traffic controllers for a clear air corridor to the Emirates. According to Russian accounts, the crew overpowered guards and flew the Ilyushin to freedom.

Shortly afterward, U.S. officials say, a Bout firm started doing business with the Taliban.

A 25-year-old Taliban mullah met in a Sharjah hotel room with representatives of cargo firms owned by Bout and an Emirates businessman to obtain supplies for the fundamentalist Islamic movement, said a former official of Ariana Afghan Airlines, who was present at the meeting. Ariana is the national carrier of Afghanistan.

The mullah, Farid Ahmed, and other Taliban officials were seeking planes, tires, spare parts, engines, oil, hydraulic fluid--all essential for starting up their own air cargo operation. Ahmed was there representing the Taliban leadership, Ariana and Afghan aviation officials said.

They were soon scouring air cargo offices at the Sharjah airport, shopping openly because the Emirates was one of only three nations that recognized the Taliban. The other nations were Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.

Sergei Mankhayev, general manager of Republic Air Co. in Sharjah, said a Taliban broker stunned him with a shopping list of “civilian aircraft and spare parts” and a second list of “weapons, ammunition and MIG combat aircraft,” along with several dozen armament varieties, from grenade launchers to ground rockets. Mankhayev and other aviators said they refused the business.

But Ahmed found reliable suppliers in companies owned by Bout and the Emirates’ Sheik Abdullah bin Zayed al Saqr al Nahyan, described by the U.N. as “a business associate of Victor Bout.”

Between 1998 and 2001, Ahmed bought five planes from two companies, Vial and Air Cess, that authorities say were controlled by Bout. A Belgian official said Bout had power of attorney over Vial, a Delaware firm later cited in the Belgian arrest warrant for Bout.

Bout founded Air Cess in Liberia, say U.S. and U.N. officials. These officials say that at some point in the 1990s, Bout transferred its daily operations to his brother Sergei. A man contacted by The Times who identified himself as Sergei Bout declined to discuss details of his business.

Spurnov, the Russian air executive, said Victor Bout also provided pilots to the Taliban. Spurnov said about 50 of his pilots were hired by Bout companies in the late 1990s. Spurnov said some told him of repeated runs hauling green crates, standard containers for Eastern European-made ammunition and weapons, into Afghanistan. The flights, he said, continued even after 1995, when Russian aviation companies were notified by their government that they could no longer fly into Taliban-controlled territory. But the rule didn’t apply to Bout because his companies were licensed in Sharjah.

Five more planes were sold to the Taliban by Flying Dolphin and Santa Cruz Imperial, which were owned by Bin Zayed, a former Emirates ambassador to Washington. Santa Cruz Imperial has been accused by the U.N. of trafficking arms to Angola.

The sheik angrily insisted in an interview that “he had no clue” why Afghan records detail sales of five of his Antonovs to the Taliban. He said he knew Ahmed and Bout but never worked with them. He said his former “Russian partners” owned the planes. He said he parted with the men five years ago, but he would not name them.

Ahmed, working in the same cargo terminal as Bout’s Air Cess, remained a visible figure in Sharjah until shortly after the Taliban’s collapse last November.

He had little to say when reached by The Times last month at a Dubai phone number.

“I am not Taliban,” he said, adding that “the Russian companies helped us, yes, but only in fixing the planes.” And, “I have nothing to do with guns.”

He then turned the phone over to a companion who insisted, in quick succession, that Ahmed was unavailable, living in Sharjah, in Kabul--and, finally, unknown to him altogether.

THE TALIBAN AIRLIFT

Planes Had Key Role in Arming the Movement

Five of the planes sold to the Taliban--all Antonov 12s--became important tools in the covert arming of the movement’s forces.

“It was special aircraft,” said an Afghan air force brigadier who recalled watching the planes in action. And their purpose “was secret,” he added.

The Antonov-12s had been registered as civilian planes but were in reality the property of the Taliban air force. As they took custody of the Antonov-12s, Taliban officials ordered some of the planes camouflaged in the colors of Ariana Airlines.

The Taliban’s new acquisitions flew in tons of heavy artillery and assault rifles, said the brigadier, a senior military intelligence official who served with the Taliban until he was dismissed in a purge in 2000.

“They directly brought the military equipment to Kabul and Kandahar,” he said.

On several occasions, the brigadier said, he watched the Antonov-12s being unloaded at an air base in Kabul, the capital. He said he saw heavy artillery, Kalashnikovs, aerial bombs and Russian BM-21 Hurricane rocket batteries.

A U.S. defense official said that American forces have since retrieved BM-21s from Taliban and Al Qaeda storehouses in Afghanistan and are working to trace their provenance.

On other trips from the Emirates and Pakistan, the brigadier said, the planes brought “armed Taliban.” The Antonovs shuttled back and forth several times a night, he said, ferrying as many as 800 to 1,000 recruits to Kabul and Kandahar.

The airlift made possible by the plane sales kept the Taliban supplied as the Islamic movement worked to tighten its grip on the nation. Within months, the Taliban took the strategic northern enclaves of Mazar-i-Sharif and Taloqan. By 1999, it controlled about 90% of Afghanistan.

All of the planes were placed on the civil air registry at the command of the Taliban aviation minister, Mullah Aktar Mohammed Mansour, who also ran the Taliban air force. Mansour was reportedly killed in an American airstrike last October.

Mansour’s cowed underlings did not object. “From the legal point of view we should not have done it,” a senior Afghan official said. “But what could you do? The minister ordered it, and we had no choice.”

All the Afghan officials interviewed by The Times declined to be identified in print. Having endured the Taliban’s five-year rule, many said they fear terrorist reprisals for speaking out. But they decided to answer questions, some said, to distance both the airline and the Afghan government from the Taliban scheme.

The officials allowed The Times to review documents left behind by the mullahs. The records show the serial numbers for each of the 10 planes sold by Bout’s and Bin Zayed’s companies and the dates they entered the Afghan civil air registry. In addition, two other planes purchased during this period could not be linked to Bout or Bin Zayed.

Among the documents was a detailed protocol, signed by both Aviation Ministry and Ariana officials, outlining their plan to paint some of the air force turboprops as Ariana planes.The file also included false Ariana ID cards for four Taliban pilots.

The goal was to fly to destinations outside Afghanistan without interference, an Ariana official said. Another official said he was told by the Taliban “that if it did not go under the color of Ariana, maybe Sharjah airport would have to get special permission” from Emirates air officials to permit military landings.

The plan worked, according to Afghan officials who were aware of the flights and air industry workers who saw the turboprops on Sharjah’s runways.

Afghan officials said five remaining planes were actually sold to Ariana, and they too might have been used to ferry weapons.

Dr. Ghanem Hajri, the director-general of the Sharjah Airport Authority, insisted that no military cargo went out on Afghan-bound flights. The planes carried only “general cargo,” he said, and were “thoroughly checked and rechecked by our security services.”

The secret fleet ended up decimated by American bombs. On a military runway in Kabul, two blackened, shredded Antonov-12s lie in piles of metal scraps, angry sculptures rusting in the sun. The tail and wing fragments still bear Ariana’s blue and white colors.

THE CHASE

Activities in Africa Focus of U.S. Meeting

In late summer 2000, soon after the Taliban took possession of the last of the Antonovs sold by Bout and Bin Zayed’s firms, six National Security Council, diplomatic and intelligence officials gathered in the executive building next to the White House.

They knew nothing about the Afghan airplane acquisitions. But they had learned a lot about Victor Bout’s activities in Africa. They knew that Bout had talked openly on the telephone about weapons shipments, and they had tracked the runway movements of planes he controlled, according to sources familiar with the meeting.

In a high-ceilinged suite, the officials laid out their facts to the NSC’s counter-terrorism director, Richard Clarke. After 20 minutes at the conference table, Clarke had heard enough. His marching orders were terse.

“Get me a warrant,” he said.

President Clinton had raised the issue of unfettered arms trading in an earlier speech at the United Nations. A directive he signed afterward made the mission clear: Suppliers who catered to criminal enterprises had to be confronted before they linked up with terrorists.

Stopping Bout, Clarke told aides, could be a lesson in how to stop others.

Knowing the international options were limited, the U.S. turned to a “campaign to disrupt Bout and his assets,” a former NSC official said. The strategy was to urge nations where Bout had operations to file charges against him and shut him down.

In return, the U.S. promised to back them up with the full force of its intelligence and diplomatic machinery.

First, the Americans focused on South Africa. Bout had shown up there in 1997, flying planes out of Pietersburg Gateway airport. He had left in 1998, after police had begun investigating his activities. But U.S. officials felt that the South Africans could still target him under an anti-mercenary law.

Secretary of State Madeleine Albright brought up the subject with President Thabo Mbeki during a visit that September. Mbeki said he wanted to work with the United States.

But optimism fizzled when Jan D’Oliveira, a top South African prosecutor, said he could not make a case.

“If someone says that Victor Bout landed at a certain point, can you connect it with a certain offense?” D’Oliveira said later. The Emirates seemed more promising. The British wanted help in their own Bout strategy: an attempt to publicly shame him and drive him from the Emirates. A top Foreign Ministry official, Peter Hain, denounced Bout as a “merchant of death” in Parliament speeches.

But Western diplomats discovered how difficult it was to stir the Emirates to action.

Bout had an influential partner in Sharjah, Sultan Hamad Said Nassir al Suwaidi, advisor to the ruler of Sharjah. A 1998 Emirates document obtained by The Times says he was a co-owner with Bout of Transavia. The royal aide did not respond to attempts to interview him.

Emirates bureaucrats also proved frustrating.

“As long as [Bout] complies with the norms and regulations here, he is most welcome,” said Hajri, Sharjah’s airport administrator.

Clarke, who had close ties with senior officials in the Emirates, took on the task of high-level contacts with the Persian Gulf nation. U.S. officials discussed Bout during a White House visit by Emirates Foreign Minister Sheik Hamdan bin Zayed al Nahyan. The Emirates said they needed hard evidence.

The U.S. did not always oblige. For example, the Emirates offered to crack down on Bout’s assets if the Americans would provide specifics about his bank accounts. But the U.S. did not want to compromise intelligence sources, a former federal official said.

After President Bush took office, Clarke authorized State Department officials to ask the Emirates to take specific measures to pressure Bout.

Emirates officials recently informed the U.N. that Air Cess and Transavia had been de-registered and that the Bout brothers no longer had visas to enter the nation.

After Sept. 11, said one Emirates official, “we decided we don’t need this guy’s money and we don’t need him going back and forth in the UAE.”

AMERICA

Obstacles to Obtaining a Warrant on U.S. Soil

Bout’s American pursuers also explored whether the warrant Clarke wanted could be produced at home. Federal law enforcement agencies were uncovering evidence that Bout had interests in several U.S. cities.

But Justice and Treasury departments saw some of the same hurdles that had surfaced in the Emirates. Proving a criminal case would be difficult.

In theory, the U.S. had a stronger law than most. The 1996 Arms Export Control Act mandated that all weapons brokers with U.S. operations had to register with the State Department. Under the act, munitions sales were allowed only to national governments or others specifically approved by the U.S. government.

American dealers who violate the law anywhere in the world can be prosecuted. So can foreign nationals who break the law while conducting business within the U.S.

To charge Bout, authorities would have to prove that he had operations here, then find clear evidence of crimes.

In 2000, San Air General Trading was established in Plano, a Dallas suburb. San Air’s agent was Richard Chichakli, a Syrian-born U.S. accountant from nearby Richardson who had met Bout while he managed Sharjah’s free-trade zone from 1993 to 1995.

Bout’s name did not appear on the corporate papers. But two Russian associates, based in the Emirates, were listed as directors. Federal agents pored over the company’s phone records, learning that callers from Plano were in frequent communication with Bout’s enterprises abroad. But there was no evidence of wrongdoing. The Texas branch of San Air is now defunct.

In a recent interview, Chichakli said he “set [San Air] up for Victor,” who aimed to build a factory to manufacture plastic parts for the Russian planes central to his business. But the U.N. arms allegations, which also mention him as a Bout financial advisor, made it impossible to proceed, Chichakli said.

Bout applied for a visa in summer 2000 at the U.S. Embassy in Abu Dhabi, listing the Plano corporate address as his destination. Authorities learned that Bout also intended to shop in Florida for high-tech telecommunications equipment regulated by the federal government, a former U.S. official said.

The officials hoped that investigators might catch their quarry in the act of violating the anti-brokering law or committing other crimes. They were unaware until later that Bout’s visit was held up by consular officials who discovered that he was on an embassy watch list. Bout never reapplied.

“It would have been a good thing to let him come and watch what he did,” the former official said.

And abroad, the failure to share information took a toll.

In February 2001, U.S. officials tried to persuade a Belgian prosecutor to file money-laundering charges against Bout. The meeting at the U.S. Embassy in Brussels went nowhere. The prosecutor would not say where his investigation was going. And the Americans, also reluctant to disclose sensitive information, could not help him.

SEPT. 11

Intelligence Reports Alarmed Authorities

After months of dead ends and missed opportunities, the shock of Sept. 11 rekindled the American campaign against Bout.

U.S. authorities were alarmed by intelligence reports that Bout crews serviced Ariana planes in Sharjah. They knew that the Taliban had allowed Bin Laden to charter Ariana planes, but they were unsure of Bout’s connection to the airline. “Except for the maintenance work, we lost the trail after 1996,” one official said.

“In the post 9/11 atmosphere,” a former NSC aide said, “that was enough to dramatically escalate interest.” NSC officials pressed federal investigators for a renewed effort.

U.S. military analysts found vast Al Qaeda and Taliban munitions caches ringing the runways at Kandahar airport. Finding the source has become a high priority.

Weeks after the terrorist attacks, a Kenyan mine owner approached the FBI in Brussels hinting that he could offer information about Bout’s ties to the Taliban and Al Qaeda. The FBI flew the mine owner, Sanjivan Ruprah, to Washington three times. A U.S. source familiar with the meetings said Ruprah failed to impress.

But Belgian authorities arrested him in February on suspicion of conspiring to print counterfeit Congolese currency. Ruprah became the first Bout associate to be taken into custody.

Days later, the Belgians moved against Bout. A federal prosecutor issued an arrest warrant, alleging that Bout headed a complex scheme to launder African weapons profits. Interpol followed with a worldwide alert.

This was the action the Americans had urged during their visit the year before. According to Belgian law enforcement officials, the police investigation into Bout led to the discovery of a massive flow of money coursing through two Bout-controlled firms: Air Charter Center, a Brussels aviation firm, and Vial, the Delaware firm that sold Antonovs to the Taliban.

A Belgian law enforcement official said that “several hundred million in Belgian francs” moved into bank accounts across Europe. The funds, a U.S. official said, allegedly came from Angolan weapons profits.

U.N. investigator Peleman uncorked a bottle of champagne after he learned about the warrant.

But Bout, it turned out, was still beyond the reach of the law.

The U.S. had assumed that he would be in the Emirates if a warrant came down. Instead, he was in Moscow, where authorities would not arrest him on the basis of an Interpol alert.

After years of shying away from publicity, Bout was suddenly accessible. He swept into a Moscow radio station defending himself as a simple dealer in “supply transportations.”

A flurry of news accounts suggesting that he had dealings with the Taliban and Al Qaeda were “monstrous,” he said. He belittled his American pursuers. They seethed in Washington. “There was a lot of egg on faces when Bout went on the radio,” a U.S. official said.

In Brussels, a dispirited Belgian diplomat recalled America’s promises to help bring Bout to justice. “I think we will need a little pressure from Washington” for Bout’s extradition, he said.

But even as some NSC and State Department officials argued that Bout was a priority, Russia was also a key ally in the war against terrorism. A tug of war over Bout might damage that new relationship.

“We are very limited in what we can do,” a U.S. official said.

The Russian Interior Ministry has looked into the Belgian charges. “If there were evidence, I think Interpol would offer it,” diplomat Kabulov said. He added, “This country is probably the safest place for him now.”

But Bout was still rumored to be on the move.

In late February, Greek intelligence received a tip that he was flying through the Athens airport on a commercial jet. Greek police later told their Belgian counterparts that agents filed onto the jet with arrest papers, but the passenger they sought was not aboard.

“Perhaps he was on another stage of the voyage,” said Jos Colpin, an official with the Belgian public prosecutor’s office in Brussels. “But with Bout, who ever knows?”

*

Times staff writers John Daniszewski, Stephen Braun, Judy Pasternak and Maura Reynolds and special correspondent Sergei L. Loiko contributed to this report, as did researchers John Beckham, Janet Lundblad and Robert Patrick. It was written by Braun and Pasternak.


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