POLO SHIRTS, khaki pants, droopy eyes, mustache à la Carlos Santana—his look is more suburban dad than global gun-runner. Yet Viktor Bout did not earn the moniker “merchant of death” for nothing. On December 8th the Russian arms-dealer returned to Moscow after a decade in prison in Illinois, in a prisoner exchange for Brittney Griner, an American basketball star held in a Russian penal colony. Who is he?
The precise details of Mr Bout’s life are murky. According to official records, he was born in 1967 in Tajikistan, then part of the Soviet Union. He attended the Military Institute of Foreign Languages in Moscow. He then went to Africa, serving for two years in Mozambique as part of the Soviet air force and as an army translator in Angola. Mr Bout’s linguistic talents—he speaks English, French and Spanish and reportedly Farsi, German, Portuguese, Urdu, Xhosa and Zulu, too—and contacts in Africa laid the foundation for his turn to arms dealing.
With the collapse of the Soviet Union, Mr Bout spotted an opportunity to sell vast stores of leftover Soviet weapons to dictators and warlords across Africa, Asia and South America. Many had benefited from Soviet patronage during the cold war and now presented a ready market. America paid little notice at first: “a few planeloads of arms going to an African country just didn’t make the cut” as a priority, an official at the State Department told his biographers, Stephen Braun and Douglas Farah.
From a base in Sharjah, in the United Arab Emirates, Mr Bout served unsavoury tyrants such as Mobutu Sese Seko in Congo and Charles Taylor in Liberia. He sometimes played opposing sides against each other. In Afghanistan, for instance, Mr Bout supplied Ahmad Shah Massoud, an anti-Taliban rebel, before offering his services to the Islamist group.
To play his trade Mr Bout managed a fleet of roughly 60 cargo planes. That provided cover: he always denied selling guns, and instead claimed to be in the freight-shipping business. “I exclusively deal with air transportation,” he said in 2002, the same year Interpol issued a warrant for his arrest. Indeed he moved non-contraband too, in observance of the freight-industry maxim to “never fly empty”. Among such deliveries were flowers from South Africa, frozen chicken and humanitarian supplies to countries hit by the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004.
After he drew the attention of Western authorities, he hunkered down in Moscow, making only rare forays abroad. But in 2008 he made a poor choice: he flew to Thailand, where he was caught in a sting by American operatives posing as members of FARC, a Colombian rebel group. He was extradited to America, and in 2012 sentenced to 25 years’ imprisonment on charges of conspiring to kill Americans and aiding a terrorist organisation.
Mr Bout’s exploits were mythologized even before his arrest. In 2005 Nicolas Cage played a charismatic arms-dealer loosely based on him in “Lord of War”, a Hollywood film. In Russia his imprisonment was cast as a miscarriage of justice, reflecting anxieties about what Mr Bout might divulge to his captors. Rumors abound that the ex-prisoner’s knowledge of military secrets, or his connections to Russian intelligence, made the Kremlin eager to secure his return. ■