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Context of 'Shortly After September 11, 2001: Arms Dealer Victor Bout Allegedly Switches Sides, Works with US Against Taliban'

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Victor Bout.Victor Bout. [Source: New York Times]Russian arms merchant Victor Bout, who has been selling weapons to Afghanistan’s Northern Alliance since 1992, switches sides, and begins selling weapons to the Taliban and al-Qaeda instead. [Los Angeles Times, 1/20/2002; Guardian, 4/17/2002; Los Angeles Times, 5/19/2002] The deal comes immediately after the Taliban captures Kabul in late October 1996 and gains the upper hand in Afghanistan’s civil war. In one trade in 1996, Bout’s company delivers at least 40 tons of Russian weapons to the Taliban, earning about $50 million. [Guardian, 2/16/2002] Two intelligence agencies later confirm that Bout trades with the Taliban “on behalf of the Pakistan government.” In late 2000, several Ukrainians sell 150 to 200 T-55 and T-62 tanks to the Taliban in a deal conducted by the ISI, and Bout helps fly the tanks to Afghanistan. [Gazette (Montreal), 2/5/2002] Bout formerly worked for the Russian KGB, and now operates the world’s largest private weapons transport network. Based in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bout operates freely there until well after 9/11. The US becomes aware of Bout’s widespread illegal weapons trading in Africa in 1995, and of his ties to the Taliban in 1996, but they fail to take effective action against him for years. [Los Angeles Times, 5/19/2002] US pressure on the UAE in November 2000 to close down Bout’s operations there is ignored. Press reports calling him “the merchant of death” also fail to pressure the UAE. [Financial Times, 6/10/2000; Guardian, 12/23/2000] After President Bush is elected, it appears the US gives up trying to get Bout, until after 9/11. [Washington Post, 2/26/2002; Guardian, 4/17/2002] Bout moves to Russia in 2002. He is seemingly protected from prosecution by the Russian government, which in early 2002 will claim, “There are no grounds for believing that this Russian citizen has committed illegal acts.” [Guardian, 4/17/2002] The Guardian suggests that Bout may have worked with the CIA when he traded with the Northern Alliance, and this fact may be hampering current international efforts to catch him. [Guardian, 4/17/2002]

Entity Tags: United Arab Emirates, Russia, Taliban, Pakistan Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence, Al-Qaeda, George W. Bush, Northern Alliance, Victor Bout, Central Intelligence Agency

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

In 2007, Los Angeles Times journalist Steven Braun, coauthor of a book on arms dealer Victor Bout, will claim, “We now know that one of Bout’s pals approached an American intelligence agent soon after the [9/11] attacks, suggesting that the US use his operation in arming the Northern Alliance against the Taliban and al-Qaeda. We don’t know for sure if the US accepted, but European intelligence officials believe a relationship blossomed. Within two years, Bout was flying for us not only in Iraq, but also in Afghanistan.” [Harper's, 7/26/2007] The Bout associate Braun refers to is Sanjivan Ruprah. In November 2001, Ruprah contacts an FBI agent and offers a deal. He and Bout will secretly help the US arm the Northern Alliance in its fight against the Taliban, and help the US gain information on al-Qaeda and other militant groups. He and Bout would provide and deliver many millions of dollars’ worth of weapons that the Northern Alliance has already told Bout that they need. It is unclear if the deal ever goes through, and some experts and officials doubt it. However, one European official will later say, “We know Bout had his aircraft near Afghanistan and made them available to the US efforts almost immediately. They needed him and he had the only airlift capacity in the region.… The deal was, if he flew, the US would leave him alone.” Richard Chichakli, a close associate of Bout’s, will later boast that Bout organized three flights carrying US personnel to Afghanistan. (He will later withdraw the claim.) Ruprah twice flies to the US for secret talks with the FBI about such deals, despite being on a UN travel ban list. Such contacts are kept secret from US officials attempting to arrest Bout. Ruprah will be arrested in Belgium in February 2002, and documents found in his possession are the only reason anything is known about his secret talks with the FBI. Two months later, he is freed on bail and immediately skips the country. He is soon arrested in Italy, then curiously freed on bail again, and then escapes again. He has not been rearrested since. [Farah and Braun, 2007, pp. 194-202] Prior to 9/11, Bout was the main arms dealer for the Taliban, greatly assisting al-Qaeda in the process. He had been supplying weapons to the Northern Alliance until about 1996, but switched sides once the Taliban gained the upper hand in the conflict (see October 1996-Late 2001). But despite these alleged US ties, it 2002 it will be reported that Bout has recently been helping al-Qaeda and the Taliban transport gold (see Summer 2002). He will work for the US military in Iraq in 2003 (see Late April 2003-2007).

Entity Tags: Victor Bout, Taliban, US Department of Defense, Steven Braun, Richard Chichakli, Al-Qaeda, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Northern Alliance, Sanjivan Ruprah

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, War in Afghanistan

In February 2002, the Belgian government secretly indicts Victor Bout, the world’s biggest illegal arms dealer, on charges of money laundering and illegal weapons trafficking. For the first time, he can be legally arrested and Interpol issues a secret arrest warrant for him anywhere in the world. Later that month, solid intelligence indicates Bout is going to be on a flight from Moldova to Greece. An encrypted message is sent by British intelligence field agents once the plane takes off, alerting their superiors in London that they are preparing to arrest Bout in Athens. But shortly after the message is sent, Bout’s plane veers away from its flight plan and disappears off radar screens into mountainous terrain. It reappears on radar about ninety minutes later and lands in Athens. British special forces raid the plane, but find it empty except for the pilot and a few passengers. One European intelligence official familiar with the operation will later say, “There were only two intelligence services that could have decrypted the British transmission in so short a time. The Russians and the Americans. And we know for sure it was not the Russians.” [Farah and Braun, 2007, pp. 202-203] It has been alleged that the US began secretly working with Bout shortly after 9/11, despite his previous connections to the Taliban (see Shortly After September 11, 2001).

Entity Tags: Victor Bout

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

In September 2002, the Washington Post reports that European, US, and Pakistani investigators believe that al-Qaeda and the Taliban have secretly shipped large quantities of gold from Pakistan to Sudan in recent weeks and months. Disguised boxes of gold are taken by small boat from Karachi, Pakistan, to Dubai, United Arab Emirates, or Iran, and then flown to Khartoum, Sudan. European officials claim that some of the chartered planes used to fly the gold and other commodities are linked to Victor Bout, the world’s largest illegal arms dealer. [Washington Post, 9/3/2002] Bout worked extensively with the Taliban before 9/11 (see October 1996-Late 2001), but reportedly began working with the US after 9/11 (see Shortly After September 11, 2001). So if these various allegations against Bout are true, it means he would be working with the US and the Taliban and al-Qaeda at the same time. European and US intelligence sources say Sudan may have been chosen because Osama bin Laden used to live there and still retains business contacts there. The Taliban kept most of their money in gold when they ruled Afghanistan. Large amounts of gold were also apparently shipped out of Afghanistan shortly before the Taliban were driven from power there in late 2001. [Washington Post, 9/3/2002] The US learned of bin Laden’s extensive financial network in Sudan several years before 9/11, but apparently never shut it down, even after 9/11 (see December 1996-January 1997 and March 16, 2000).

Entity Tags: Victor Bout, Al-Qaeda, Taliban

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

Beginning in late April 2003, when the first civilian cargo planes begin arriving in Baghdad (see Late April 2003), through at least 2007, Victor Bout front companies fly supplies into Iraq for the US military. Bout is the world’s biggest arms dealer, with links to the Taliban, al-Qaeda, and other militant and rebel groups around the world. The United Nations has banned all business dealings with his companies since before 9/11. Around October 2003, the CIA apparently learns that Bout’s planes have been flying into Iraq, but this warning does not lead to any action to stop such flights. [Farah and Braun, 2007, pp. 232]
Bout Flights Exposed by Media - Starting in May 2004, various newspapers occasionally report on how Bout front companies are supplying the US military. Some actions are eventually taken against him. For instance, on July 22, 2004, President Bush signs an executive order declaring Bout a “specially designated person,” permanently freezes his assets, and bans all US business with his companies. [Farah and Braun, 2007, pp. 225, 237]
Continued Collaboration - But the US military continues to hire Bout’s companies for Iraq supply flights. One Bout front company alone is estimated to make about 1,000 flights into US controlled air bases in Iraq by the end of 2004. [Farah and Braun, 2007, pp. 225] A Pentagon spokesman will later confirm that the US military gave at least 500,000 gallons of free airplane fuel to Bout’s pilots. US government contractors pay Bout-controlled companies roughly $60 million to fly supplies into Iraq. [ABC News, 3/6/2008] Journalist Stephen Braun will later claim, “The US military insisted they had no responsibility for Bout’s hiring, because, as [Deputy Defense Secretary] Paul Wolfowitz said, he was a ‘second-tier contractor’-in other words, hired by, say, [Kellogg, Brown, and Root] or FedEx, not directly by the Army or the Marines. But there were other reports of direct contracts. [The Defense Department] made no effort to put Bout on a no-fly list early on, and made only perfunctory follow-up efforts to find out the backgrounds of the companies flying for them.” [Harper's, 7/26/2007]
Bout Flights Continue - In early 2006, it will be reported, “The New Republic has learned that the Defense Department has largely turned a blind eye to Bout’s activities and has continued to supply him with contracts, in violation of [Bush’s] executive order and despite the fact that other, more legitimate air carriers are available.” [New Republic, 1/12/2006] In 2008, Douglas Farah, who co-wrote a 2007 book with Braun about Bout, will tell ABC News that Bout may have worked on behalf of the US government as recently as 2007. [ABC News, 3/6/2008]
Outrage - Gayle Smith of the National Security Council will comment in 2007: “It’s an obscenity. It’s contrary to a smart war on terror. Even if you needed a cut-out (to transport supplies) why would you go to the one on the bottom of the pile, with the most blood on his hands? Because he worked fastest and cheapest? What’s the trade-off? Where’s the morality there?” National Security Council adviser Lee Wolosky, who led a US effort to apprehend Bout before 9/11, will similarly complain, “It befuddles the mind that the Pentagon would continue to work with an organization that both the Clinton and Bush White Houses actively fought to dismantle.” [Farah and Braun, 2007, pp. 237]
Theories - Some officials and experts believe the US military is simply being incompetent by repeatedly hiring Bout. Others suggest there was some kind of secret deal. For instance, one senior Belgian Foreign Ministry official involved in efforts to try to arrest Bout comments: “Not only does Bout have the protection of the US government, he now works for them as well. It’s incredible, amazing. It has to be the only reason why he is still around and free.” [Farah and Braun, 2007, pp. 224-225] In 2006, Bout’s companies will supply weapons to Hezbollah in Lebanon (see July 2006) and an al-Qaeda linked militant group in Somalia (see Late July 2006). Bout will finally be arrested by US agents in Thailand in March 2008 (see March 6, 2008).

Entity Tags: Lee Wolosky, US Military, Victor Bout, Gayle Smith, US Department of Defense

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

Victor Bout in 2003.Victor Bout in 2003. [Source: James Hill / Contact Press]The New York Times Magazine publishes an article based on an interview with Victor Bout, the world’s biggest illegal arms dealer. Bout worked extensively with the Taliban in the years before 9/11, and because of this, he claims, “I woke up after Sept. 11 and found I was second only to Osama,” in terms of being a wanted criminal. But he hints that he has powerful connections. “My clients, the governments… I keep my mouth shut.” He also points to the middle of his forehead and adds, “If I told you everything I’d get the red hole right here.” When asked about his possible ties to Russian intelligence, he says, “Until now you’ve been digging in a big lake with small spoons. There are huge forces…” He breaks his sentence, and explains to the reporter that he cannot explain too much about what the report calls “the triangulated relationship between him, governments, and his rogue clients.” An unnamed British arms investigator claims, “Bout is encouraged by Western intelligence agencies when it’s politically expedient.” Bout, a Russian, is interviewed in Moscow, where “he lives in plain sight… under the apparent protection of a post-Communist system that has profited from his activities as much as he has.” [New York Times Magazine, 8/17/2003] It will later be alleged that Bout began working with US intelligence shortly after 9/11, if not before, despite being the main arms dealer to the Taliban (see Shortly After September 11, 2001).

Entity Tags: Victor Bout

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

Victor Bout during his trial.Victor Bout during his trial. [Source: Agence France-Presse]Victor Bout is found guilty on conspiracy charges to kill US citizens and officials, deliver anti-aircraft missiles, and provide aid to a terrorist organization (see September 1992, 1993-1995, Mid-1996-October 2001, October 1996-Late 2001, 1998, 1998, January 1998-April 2001, 1999, Early 2001-September 11, 2001, January 19, 2001, Shortly After September 11, 2001, Late February 2002, Summer 2002, Late April 2003, Late April 2003-2007, August 17, 2003, July 2006, Late July 2006, March 6, 2008, and November 16, 2010). In the the trial, which began on October 12, Bout was accused of agreeing to deliver 100 surface-to-air missiles, 20,000 high-powered weapons, and 10 million rounds of ammunition to rebels in Colombia sometime in 2008. Bout will be sentenced on February 8, 2012. The BBC’s Laura Trevelyan will note: “This was a potentially risky case for the US government. Bout was caught in a sting operation by informants working for the US Drug Enforcement Administration, the so-called Farc rebels were actually former criminals and might have had their evidence discredited.” [BBC, 11/2/2011]

Entity Tags: Laura Trevelyan, Drug Enforcement Administration, Victor Bout

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

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