Viktor Anatolyevich Bout (/buːt/; Russian: Виктор Анатольевич Бут; born 13 January 1967) is a Russian arms dealer. A weapons manufacturer and former Soviet military translator, he used his multiple companies to smuggle arms from Eastern Europe to Africa and the Middle East during the 1990s and early 2000s. Bout gained the nicknames the "Merchant of Death" and "Sanctions Buster" after British minister Peter Hain read a report to the United Nations in 2003 on Bout's wide-reaching operations, extensive clientele, and willingness to bypass embargoes.
Viktor Anatolyevich Bout
13 January 1967
|Other names||Merchant of Death|
Vadim Markovich Aminov
|Political party||Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (2022–present)|
|Criminal charges||Conspiring to kill, acquiring and export missiles, providing material to a terrorist organization|
|Criminal status||Repatriated to Russia as part of a prisoner exchange|
In a US sting operation Bout was arrested in 2008 in Thailand on terrorism charges by the Royal Thai Police in cooperation with American authorities and Interpol. The United States Ambassador to Thailand Eric G. John requested his extradition to the United States, which was eventually mandated by the Thai High Court in 2010. Bout was accused of intending to sell arms to a United States Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) informer pretending to represent the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) for use against American forces in Colombia, but Bout denied the charges and predicted an acquittal.
In 2011 Bout was convicted by a jury at a federal court in Manhattan, of conspiracy to kill American citizens and officials, delivery of anti-aircraft missiles, and providing aid to a terrorist organization; he was sentenced to the minimum 25 years' imprisonment because the crime was due to the sting operation. From 2012 until 2022, Bout was held at the United States Penitentiary, Marion. In 2022, he was released in a prisoner exchange for American basketball player Brittney Griner, who had been incarcerated by Russian authorities for illegally bringing cannabis oil into the country. Bout had served over 14 years in prison before his release in December 2022.
Bout's origins are unclear. United Nations documents and Bout himself both state his birthplace as Dushanbe, Tajik SSR, Soviet Union (now the capital of Tajikistan), and that his date of birth is most likely 13 January 1967, although several other dates are possible. He has an older brother named Sergei Bout.
An ethnic Ukrainian (according to South African intelligence and the British Foreign Affairs Select Committee), Bout became a Russian citizen following the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. According to the UN Security Council Committee on Liberia, Bout holds at least four passports.
Bout served in the Soviet Armed Forces. There is no definite information on his military career except that he graduated from the Soviet Military Institute of Foreign Languages. Bout's training allowed him to become a polyglot and master five foreign languages: Portuguese, English, French, Arabic, and Farsi. He is reported to be fluent in Esperanto, which he learned at age 12 in the early 1980s as a member of the Dushanbe Esperanto club. Bout's personal website stated that he served in the Soviet Army as a translator, holding the rank of lieutenant.
Bout is thought to have been discharged from the Soviet Army upon its dissolution in 1991 with the rank of lieutenant colonel[dubious ], whereupon he started an air freight business. Other sources state he was a major in the GRU, an officer in the Soviet Air Forces, that he graduated from a Soviet military intelligence training program, or an operative of the KGB.
Bout was involved with a Soviet military operation in Angola in the late 1980s assisting the People's Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) in the Angolan Civil War. He has stated that he was in Angola only for a few weeks. During this time in Africa he went on to learn the Xhosa and Zulu languages.
It is believed that Bout as a former member of the Soviet military was perfectly positioned to purchase surplus Soviet-era military equipment, including three Antonov An-12 aircraft, in the years following the collapse of the Soviet Union. According to Bout's personal website, he founded an air freight business, Air Cess, in Liberia in 1995. Air Cess is the only company connected to Bout that has ever officially recognized him as the head. He operated four Antonov An-8 planes in Angola as it was the only country to allow the An-8 to be used in civilian freight at the time. Reportedly, Bout's companies legally provided air freight services to the French government, the United Nations, and the United States, including transporting flowers, frozen chicken, UN peacekeepers, French soldiers, and African heads of state. Around this time, Bout earned the nickname of "Sanctions Buster" due to his implication in facilitating the violation of United Nations arms embargoes in the western African countries of Angola, Liberia, Sierra Leone, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Bout acknowledges traveling to Afghanistan on numerous occasions during the 1990s, but has denied dealing with al-Qaeda or the Taliban. Beginning in 1994, Bout made shipments for the pre-Taliban government of Afghanistan, which later became the Northern Alliance, and knew one of its commanders, Ahmad Shah Massoud. The Central Intelligence Agency described Bout-owned planes as transporters of small arms and ammunition into Afghanistan. In 1995, Bout was involved in negotiations to free Russian hostages during the 1995 Airstan incident.
In 2000, a United Nations report stated, "Bulgarian arms manufacturing companies had exported large quantities of different types of weapons between 1996 and 1998 on the basis of (forged) end-user certificates from Togo", and that "with only one exception, the company Air Cess, owned by Victor Bout, was the main transporter of these weapons from Burgas airport in Bulgaria". This was the first time Bout was formally mentioned in connection with arms trafficking. The weapons may have been destined for use in the Angolan Civil War by UNITA, the opposing faction of the MPLA which Bout had aided during his military service.
Another suspected arms dealer, Imad Kebir, is said to have employed Bout's aircraft during the mid-1990s to transport weapons to Africa from Eastern European states. The cargo supposedly had end-user certificates from Zaire, but the true end-user was UNITA in neighboring Angola. From 1993, UNITA was covered under Resolution 864, a United Nations Security Council embargo prohibiting the importation of arms to Angola.
In Liberia, Bout was suspected of supplying Charles Taylor with arms for use in the First Liberian Civil War, with eyewitnesses claiming that the two met personally.
In 1993, Bout began collaborating with Richard Chichakli. In 1995 the Sharjah International Airport in the United Arab Emirates hired Chichakli to be the commercial manager of its new free-trade zone. Bout began using the UAE's free trade zone, and Chichakli was, at one time, called Bout's "financial manager" by the United States.
Supposedly, Bout had been involved with arms dealings during the Yugoslav Wars, especially with the Bosnian government forces during its uprising against the Milošević government in Yugoslavia. Hasan Čengić, who was the former Deputy Prime Minister and Defense Minister of the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina is allegedly one of his former contacts. They came into contact with each other as they both stayed in Tehran during the 1980s and 1990s. The Slobodna Bosna newspaper claims that Čengić was a business partner of Bout since then, when 200,000 AK-47 rifles went missing in transit from Bosnia to Iraq in May 2006. One of Bout's airlines was the carrier.
After the 2001 United States invasion of Afghanistan, Bout appeared in Moscow and stated that his aircraft made regular flights to Afghanistan, but continued to deny any contact with al-Qaeda or the Taliban—instead supplying the rebel Northern Alliance. Soon after the beginning of the War in Afghanistan, al-Qaeda is said to have moved gold and cash out of Afghanistan. In July 2003, The New York Times interviewed Bout, who stated that "I woke up after Sept. 11 and found I was second only to Osama."
In 2004, Bout and Chichakli allegedly set up Samar Airlines in Tajikistan to conduct money laundering activities and protect assets from authorities, according to an indictment by the U.S. Justice Department in 2010. Bout is suspected of supplying weapons to numerous armed groups in Africa in the 2000s, particularly in the Democratic Republic of the Congo during the Second Congo War. He may have employed some 300 people and operated 40 to 60 aircraft.
Bout's network allegedly delivered surface-to-air missiles to Kenya to be used to attack an Israeli airliner during takeoff in 2002.
Bout was reportedly seen meeting with Hezbollah officials in Lebanon during the run-up to the 2006 Lebanon War, while some sources claim he was actually in Russia when the meeting took place.
Records found in Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi's former intelligence headquarters in Tripoli, shortly after the overthrow of the Gaddafi government in 2011, indicated that in late September 2003, British intelligence officials told then-Libyan intelligence chief Musa Kusa that Bout had a "considerable commercial presence in Libya" and aimed to expand his interests there.
In 2007, the Los Angeles Times reported that the U.S. government and its contractors paid Bout-controlled firms roughly $60 million to fly supplies into Iraq in support of American forces, describing Bout as a "linchpin" for American supply lines in Iraq.
Bout's strategy of constantly moving locations, owning numerous companies, and frequently re-registering aircraft made it hard for authorities to make a case against him. He has never been charged for the alleged African arms deals to which he owes his notoriety. During Bout's reported operations, he is believed to have lived in various countries, including Belgium, Lebanon, Rwanda, Russia, South Africa, Syria, and the United Arab Emirates. In 2000, Bout was charged in the Central African Republic with forging documents and was convicted in absentia, but the charges were later dropped.
Belgian authorities requested that Interpol issue a notice for Bout on charges of money laundering. In 2002 an Interpol red notice on Bout was issued. Bout's website states that because he failed to appear in court a Belgian warrant (not the Interpol notice) for his arrest was issued but later cancelled. The site has a document in Dutch to support the claim that the Belgian case against him was dismissed due to his lack of a fixed residence, and because the case could not be prosecuted in a timely fashion.
Bout's U.S. assets were among those frozen in July 2004 under Executive Order 13348, which describes him as a "businessman, dealer and transporter of weapons and minerals" and cites his close association with Charles Taylor.
US sting operation, arrest, and extraditionEdit
At the beginning of 2008, a US DEA paid informer, claiming to represent the Colombian rebel group FARC, supposedly independently of the CIA, negotiated with Bout for the supply of 100 9K38 Igla surface-to-air missiles and armour-piercing rocket launchers to be parachuted in by Bout to agreed landing spots in Colombia. The imposters invited Bout to Thailand to meet their leader. He was charged with terrorism offences that included conspiracy to acquire and use an anti-aircraft missile, conspiracy to provide material support or resources to a designated foreign terrorist organisation, conspiracy to kill US nationals, and conspiracy to kill United States officers or employees. The US military was attacking the Colombian rebel group as part of Plan Colombia. None of the alleged crimes were committed in the US.
On 6 March 2008, Bout was arrested in Bangkok, Thailand, by the Royal Thai Police based on an Interpol red notice requested by the United States based on conspiracy to provide material support or resources to a designated foreign terrorist organization. After months of delay, the Criminal Court in Bangkok began an extradition hearing for Bout on 22 September 2008. In February 2009, members of the United States Congress signed a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expressing their wish that the Bout extradition "remain a top priority".
On 11 August 2009, the Bangkok Criminal Court ruled in his favor, denying the United States' request for extradition and citing the political, not criminal, nature of the case. The United States appealed that ruling. On 20 August 2010, a higher court in Thailand ruled that Bout could be extradited to the United States.
On 16 November 2010, Bout was extradited from Thailand to the United States amid protests by the Russian government, who deemed it illegal.
Russia called the Thai court decision in 2010 politically motivated. Russia's Foreign Ministry took steps to prevent Bout being extradited to the U.S. Russia's foreign minister Sergei Lavrov suggested that Bout was innocent.
On 18 November 2010, shortly after Bout's extradition to the United States, former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev's aide Sergei Prikhodko said that Russia had "nothing to hide" in Bout's criminal case stating, "it is in our interest that the investigation ... be brought to completion, and [Bout] should answer all the questions the American justice system has."
On 18 January 2013, Russian government officials announced that "judges, investigators, justice ministry officials and special services agents who were involved in Russian citizens Viktor Bout's and Konstantin Yaroshenko's legal prosecution and sentencing to long terms of imprisonment" would be added to a list of U.S. officials who will be denied Russian entry visas in response to the U.S. Magnitsky Act, under which certain Russian officials are ineligible to enter the U.S.
It is thought that Bout was of help to Russia's intelligence agencies, and he is alleged to have connections to ranking Russian officials, including former deputy prime minister Igor Sechin. The language institute Bout attended has been linked to the GRU. Bout allegedly served alongside the GRU-affiliated Sechin in Mozambique in the 1980s, although both men deny this allegation. 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".
U.S. prosecution and convictionEdit
They will try to lock me up for life. But I'll get back to Russia. I don't know when. But I'm still young. Your empire will collapse and I'll get out of here.
Bout in a 2012 interview with The New Yorker
The day after his Bangkok arrest, the U.S. Department of Justice charged Bout with conspiracy to provide material support or resources to a designated foreign terrorist organization, conspiring to kill Americans, conspiring to kill American officers or employees, and conspiring to acquire and use an anti-aircraft missile. Additional charges against him were filed in February 2010. These included illegal purchase of aircraft, wire fraud, and money laundering.
Bout was convicted by a jury at a federal court in Manhattan on 2 November 2011. On 5 April 2012, Bout was sentenced to 25 years in prison, the minimum sentence for conspiring to sell weapons to a U.S.-designated foreign terrorist group. US District Court Judge Shira Scheindlin ruled that the minimum sentence was appropriate because "there was no evidence that Bout would have committed the crimes for which he was convicted had it not been for the sting operation".
Russia's Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a statement denouncing Bout's sentence as "a political order". During the trial, Bout's lawyers implied that he was a political prisoner. Bout's wife Alla said shortly afterwards that the judge conducted the trial in a proper way. Bout claimed that if the same standards were applied to everyone, all American gun shop owners "who are sending arms and ending up killing Americans" would be in prison.
In June 2013, a co-conspirator of Bout's, U.S-Syrian citizen Richard Ammar Chichakli, was extradited to New York on charges that he conspired to buy aircraft in violation of economic sanctions.
In September 2013, the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New York upheld Bout's conviction, after rejecting his contention that he had been the victim of a vindictive prosecution and that there was no legitimate law enforcement reason to prosecute him.
In 2014, former U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft's law firm represented Bout, seeking a new trial to overturn his conviction. As of 2022[update], Bout had been scheduled for release in August 2029.
In June 2020, a Reuters article highlighted that following the charging of U.S. Marine Corps veteran Paul Whelan, Moscow was exploring the possibility of a prisoner swap exchanging Whelan for Bout and a pilot named Konstantin Yaroshenko. Yaroshenko was released in exchange for U.S. Marine Corps veteran Trevor Reed in April 2022.
In May 2022, a Forbes article claimed the Biden administration had offered Bout in exchange for the release of Women's National Basketball Association player Brittney Griner. Griner had been detained by customs officers in Sheremetyevo International Airport for being in possession of drugs illegal in Russia, for which she faced 5–10 years in prison. In July 2022, the proposal got further support from President Joe Biden. On 27 July, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that the United States had made a "substantial offer" to Russia to release Griner and Paul Whelan, another American who had been convicted of spy activities in Russia, but declined to say what the United States was offering. On the same day, CNN reported that the U.S. had offered to exchange Bout for both Griner and Whelan.
Bout was released back to Russia on 8 December 2022. Once confirmation came on that the prisoner exchange excluded Whelan, CNN interviewed him. Whelan expressed his frustration that more has not been done to secure his release in the exclusive CNN interview.
Whelan continued and said he was happy that Griner was released, but told CNN, "I am greatly disappointed that more has not been done to secure my release, especially as the four year anniversary of my arrest is coming up."Biden said, "While we have not yet succeeded in securing Paul's release, we have not given up; we will not give up."
After returning to RussiaEdit
On 9 December 2022, Viktor Bout gave an interview to Maria Butina for RT, where he stated that he did not think he was important for Russian politics. On 10 December, Bout supported the Russian invasion of Ukraine and said that he would volunteer if given the opportunity and skills.
On 12 December 2022, Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) leader Leonid Slutsky announced that Bout had joined the LDPR.
Since 1992, he has been married to Alla Vladimirovna Bout (nee Protasova; born in 1970 in Leningrad). Alla is an artist, designer, fashion designer, was the owner of clothing stores in the UAE, Germany, South Africa and Russia. Viktor Bout met his future wife in the late 1980s in Mozambique, where he worked as a translator from Portuguese in the Soviet military mission. This was Alla's second marriage. His daughter was born in 1994 in the UAE. Elder brother and former partner Sergey Anatolyevich Bout continues to conduct an aviation business in United Arab Emirates (Sharjah) and Bulgaria.
Viktor Bout is a vegetarian. He claims that he is not a follower of any religion, but considers Leo Tolstoy and Ivan Ilyin to be his spiritual leaders and "shares the views" of Jesus Christ, Buddha, Zarathustra and Krishna.
Bout speaks many languages, including English, French, Portuguese, Tajik, Farsi, Dari, Zulu, Xhosa and Esperanto, most of which he learned while in prison.
In popular cultureEdit
The third chapter "Merchant of Death" of the 2005 book The Washing Machine by Nick Kochan is written about Bout.
The 2005 film Lord of War is purportedly based on allegations about Bout's personal history and black-market activities.
In 2007, Stephen Braun and Douglas Farah published a book about Bout: Merchant of Death: Money, Guns, Planes, and the Man Who Makes War Possible.
A documentary about Bout, The Notorious Mr. Bout, from Market Road Films and directed by Tony Gerber and Maxim Pozdorovkin, received its premiere at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival.
The 2015 TV series Manhunt: Kill or Capture, episode 10, entitled "The Merchant of Death", details the rise and fall of Viktor Bout.
In the US documentary series Damian Lewis: Spy Wars released in 2019 by A&E Networks, where Damian Lewis hosts,  episode 7 titled "The Merchant of Death" portrays the story of Viktor Bout, the sting operation, capture, extradition, and sentencing.
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The indictment alleges that in 2004 "Bout and Chichakli took steps to form new aviation and other companies, and took specific steps to register these companies in the name of other individuals....the defendants, created and registered Samar Airlines, which purported to be a commercial airline and a passenger and cargo aircraft charter service based in the Republic of Tajikistan."
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According to a report by Stratfor, an American analytic outfit, Bout served with Igor Sechin in Mozambique in the 1980s.
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- Cached copy of Victor Bout's Personal Website
- Indictment of Viktor Bout, 6 May 2008, U.S. Department of Justice, Southern District of New York
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- "International Arms Dealer Viktor Bout Sentenced in Manhattan Federal Court to 25 Years in Prison for Terrorism Crimes", Press Release, United States Attorney, Southern District of New York, 5 April 2012
- "Who is Viktor Bout?" The Christian Science Monitor, 22 October 2009
- Extensive background information on United States vs. Viktor Bout and related cases The Hague Justice Portal
- Gallery of International Arms Dealers – Victor Bout PBS Frontline/World
- Arms and the Man. The New York Times Magazine profile of Viktor Bout
- The World's Most Notorious Arms Trafficker (Audio/32min) WNYC interview with Douglas Farah and Stephen Braun WNYC
- NPR interview of Douglas Farah and Stephen Braun National Public Radio, 11 July 2007
- Brian Wood and Johan Peleman 1999, "The Arms Fixers", online version of report published by Basic Norwegian Initiative on Small Arms Transfers (NIST) and the International Peace Research Institute, Oslo (PRIO)
- "The deadly convenience of Victor Bout" International Relations and Security Network
- Robert Eringer:"Viktor Bout & Monaco", August 2010