It’s a chocolate mousse with cream on the top

So: the Viktor Bout trial chunters on, as does the tirelessly priapic news coverage.

I’m studiously avoiding the debates about whether the DEA sting operation created a legitimate basis for Bout’s extradition or trial in the US; whether his own testimony was coerced by DEA agents threatening him with Midnight-Express-style abandonment in a Bangkok jail; whether he really is the ‘Merchant of Death’ or just Death’s DHL Courier.*** These arguments are legally important, but they tend to distract from the genuinely interesting stuff: what the trial is telling us about the business of the network of people around Bout and his collaborators, and thus about the wider business or arms trading and its logistics.

One fortunate consequence of the pre-trial jurisdiction/admissibility row, though, has been that a number of interesting transcripts and evidential annexes have already been filed with the court since May, even before the hearings proper have started. Quite a lot of this hasn’t really been reported at all, even though it’s technically in the public domain. The new docs suggest several new connections in the Bout universe.

In no particular order, six things I thought were interesting:

[Caution: this is probably only of interest to the two arms trade geeks who occasionally read this blog.]

  1. Friendship never ends: there’s a surprise guest appearance from Peter Mirchev of the Bulgarian-based arms brokering firm Kas Engineering. When I first got into small arms trading (research, not practice), Kas were already part of arms trading history: named as having provided (perhaps unwittingly) the Kalashnikovs airdropped over Purulia in the 1995 Peter Bleach case; and as having shipped arms on Togolese end-user certificates between 1996 and 1998, some of which the UN’s Angola Sanctions monitoring mechanism claimed ended up with UNITA in Angola in the late 1990s. Back to Bout: the prosecution claims that a series of emails from 2007, found on Bout’s laptop, detail a prospective $38m arms deal (end-user not mentioned) with Kas Engineering via a Hungarian bank; and a second RFQ for BMP-3 fighting vehicle gun barrels. The DEA goes on to claim that Bout told his testifying co-conspirators that he intended to get Igla MANPAD anti-aircraft missiles for the (fake) FARC buyers from Mirchev in Bulgaria. In the transcript from Bout’s final meeting with the fake-FARC reps in Bangkok, at the point where they’re discussing anti-aircraft missiles, Bout says [in English] “Because I spoke with, er, Peter and I will also go for to see him”.

    Of course, even assuming that the prosecution’s evidence is correct, Bout could nonetheless have been blagging about MANPAD availability from Bulgaria. But even the proposition: MANPADs for terrorists? From (EU member state) Bulgaria?? From Kas Engineering??? Really???? The whole thing just feels so…late 1990s. When they were done arms dealing for the day, did Viktor and his Colombians celebrate by going out dancing to Steps and then sitting down to watch the latest Ally McBeal?

    That said, I’ve always been struck by the longevity of arms dealers’ careers. Some of the most active UK arms dealers today were flogging guns to the Stasi in the 1970s. (There’s a lovely vignette in the summary testimony of Bout’s alleged co-conspirator, Andrew Smulian, where he describes going with Bout to the UAE arms fair in 1997 to meet both Mirchev and Mikhail Kalashnikov, inventor of the Kalashnikov assault rifle, who’s been Izhmash’s cheery Ronald MacDonald figure for years. Getting to shake the ageing General Kalashnikov’s hand at arms fairs used to be as predictable as meeting Sylvester McCoy at a Dr Who convention – a guaranteed part of the ticket price, but not as exciting as getting chatted up by Tom Baker). What’s more interesting is that these guys seem to continue to do business perfectly happily from jurisdictions that have ostensibly cleaned up their export control acts since the wild west days of the 1990s – like the UK or Bulgaria. Perhaps the dealers have cleaned up too. Or maybe they’re just better at getting round the rules.

  2. Our friends still want to do business with dodgy people: The rest of Bout’s alleged recent arms dealing career is also a blast from the past. The prosecution’s Memorandum of Law describes 2007 emails between Smulian and Bout about arms deals allegedly proposed by contacts of Smulian, on behalf of those notorious members of the axis of evil
    • Tanzania (“a multifaceted [investment] project…among other things, the provision of military hardware to the Government of Tanzania, construction and development, telecommunications equipment, and minerals and gas exploration….satellite and surveillance equipment, air equipment, helicopter gunships, patrol boats, tanks, and other military-related hardware”)

    • and Kenya (“the provision of military-related equipment to a contact in Kenya for the benefit of the Kenyan government”).

    Hmm. After millions of dollars in US export control outreach programmes, surely US-friendly East African governments are really supposed to have cleaned up their arms procurement acts by now and not be tendering from people on UN sanctions lists? Of course, there’s no clear evidence they knew that Bout was to be involved. But Smulian’s pedigree (Air Pass etc.) should have been enough to ring alarm bells. Equally, Smulian’s mates might have been bullshitting about their prospects of getting the deals – but they were reportedly good enough for a Tanzanian People’s Defence Force (TPDF) official to travel to visit Smulian to discuss.

    (There are more traditional customers here as well: a Skype-chat between Bout and an unnamed individual discussing a prospective deal for AT-14 Kornet anti-tank missiles to Libya.)

  3. Remember who your friends are: There are further inklings about how the DEA’s undercover agents made themselves convincing to Smulian and, ultimately, Bout. From the memoranda from Bout’s lawyer, it appears that the approach to Smulian was made by an ‘undercover operative’ named Michael Snow, playing the role of an aircraft broker who flogs some mysterious South Americans a Moldovan Antonov-12 and then contacts Smulian and Bout when the South Americans want some more serious hardware. The transcripts featuring Snow during a restaurant meeting in Curacao with the fake FARC contacts are awesome: he seems to be straight out of central casting for a Frederick Forsythe film adaptation, playing a grizzled ‘this is Africa’ aviation veteran who says things like “if it wasn’t for me, he’d be left in fucking Africa to fucking rot…what you say? I’m fucking deaf…oh, merci beaucoup madame…I must show them how to make a proper crème brulee.” (I’m not making this up. In fact, the whole dessert schtick is brilliant: in the middle of talking about arms smuggling to Angola, Snow gets the fake FARC rebel commander “Carlos” to discuss his pudding:
    CARLOS: It’s a chocolate mousse with cream on the top.

    SNOW: But they never burnt it properly.

    CARLOS: No, because they got the ice-cream on the top.

    Serious pros. I’m wondering whether Snow was so ludicrously convincing because he actually *was* a grizzled ‘this is Africa’ aviation veteran. I’m not sure who he is, but there was a Captain Mike Snow who flew for the ill-fated Africargo in eastern DRC during the war in the early 2000s. No idea if it’s the same guy. It’s presumably not impossible that someone flying there around that time might have bumped into Bout at that time when Bout was reportedly hanging around in the eastern DRC.

  4. New friends…from Iceland? The prosecution also names a new co-conspirator in the FARC deal: one Jon Gylfason, based in Tanzania, who - according to the prosecution – pitches up to Smulian with the Tanzania proposal and a TPDF contact, travels to Moscow to meet Bout, and continues to act as a messenger between Smulian and Bout during the fake-FARC negotiations. I’ve never heard of Gylfason, although I now have some ideas about who he might be. Sounds lcelandic, which is also tangentially suggested by the fact that Smulian communicates with Bout using an Icelandic root-domain email address (development@xnet.is) which he says was “set up for Jon by his buddy who owns the server”, and which he says deletes the emails after they’re sent.

  5. Good old friends: There’s been much supposition and speculation about Bout’s ability to sit in Moscow all the way through the 2000s and not be bothered – an ostensible immunity often attributed to alleged high-level friends in the Russian government. That government’s subsequent efforts to argue against Bout’s extradition from Thailand have fuelled this geopolitical speculation further. From affidavits filed with the Thai court, reproduced in the US case filings, some of this speculation, at least, seems to be true: there’s one from a Russian Duma member, Serge Ivanov, who says that he met Bout for coffee in Moscow before he went to Thailand; and that after his arrest the Duma issued letters to Thailand and President Medvedev in March and September 2008 requesting Bout’s assistance and release.

  6. Other old friends (or maybe new ones): Finally, two new bit-players not yet identified. When discussing an aircraft from Moldova, Smulian refers to the country as ‘Paul’s place’. And when emailing Bout about a prospective trip to discuss the fake-FARC deal, Smulian proposes that Bout sends ‘A from your side’.

    Who’s Paul, and who’s ‘A’? Any thoughts?

    (Picture from the dependable Brick Arms. Lego weapons for all occasions)


    *** I’ve never been convinced that Bout, as some of his mythmakers would have it, was really the biggest arms dealer going in Afghanistan and West Africa, single-handedly keeping the Taliban in business and Charles Taylor up to his Rolex in child soldiers’ blood. Nor am I at all convinced by the arguments from the other side, that Bout just did logistics (including arms) and never dealt arms himself: documentation already presented in the current pre-trial proceedings and by Richard Chichakli in his 2006 civil suit against OFAC, if genuine, strongly suggest that Bout has long been involved in setting up real arms deals.

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