On Thursday, famed arms merchant Victor Bout was arrested at a Thai hotel on charges of selling weapons to Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, a 40-year-old insurgent group known for drug trafficking and terrorist attacks. In recent years, Bout and his affiliates have been accused of arranging illicit arms transfers in Africa, Latin America, Central Asia, and elsewhere.
The name “Victor Bout” has become synonymous with the large, clandestine arms shipments that have fueled devastating civil wars in developing countries, and the extreme difficulty of shutting down the global, ever-shifting networks that orchestrate these transfers. His arrest puts arms traffickers on notice that the days of impunity may be coming to an end.
The arrest could have significant practical implications as well, depending on the outcome of the case against Bout and the quantity and quality of information about his network acquired by authorities as a result of his arrest. If Bout is tried and convicted, and information collected along the way leads to the arrest and conviction of other key members of his global network – two big “ifs” – his arrest could indeed “mar[k] the end of the reign of one of the world’s most wanted arms traffickers,” as claimed by US Attorney Michael Garcia.
The case is significant for several other reasons, few of which have been noted in the mainstream media. It is the second arrest of a high-profile arms merchant in less than a year. In June 2007, Monzer al-Kassar, whom the US government accused of running a “global munitions empire,” was arrested at Barajas airport in Madrid, Spain. Like Bout, al Kassar is accused of fueling some of the deadliest conflicts of the last quarter-century.
The two cases are uncannily similar in many respects: both featured elaborate fictional plots to sell large quantities of advanced light weapons to informants claiming to represent the same Colombian rebel group; both were apparently spear-headed by the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA); and both nabbed experienced, sophisticated and seemingly untouchable arms dealers. Out-witting one of these men is a significant accomplishment; out-witting both of them in the same nine-month period and with nearly identical operations is miraculous.
Also notable are the weapons that Bout and his associate, Andrew Smulian, allegedly offered to the DEA’s confidential sources. According to the Department of Justice, Smulian agreed to sell millions of dollars worth of unspecified “armor-piercing rocket launchers,” helicopters and Igla surface-to-air missiles to the FARC. While the helicopters are the most sensational items, the most alarming are the 100 Igla missiles and that were supposedly “available immediately” to Bout. The Igla is an advanced, Russian IR-seeking, surface-to-air missile that is often fired from a launch tube that rests on the operator’s shoulder. There are three main variants: the Igla-1 (SA-16), Igla (SA-18) and Igla-S (SA-24). While all three are superior to the older Strela missiles thought to be in FARC arsenals, there are significant differences between the missiles in terms of performance and availability. The SA-16 is the least capable and the most widely proliferated, with approximately 34 states having either imported or produced the missiles since the 1980s, according to Jane’s Information Group. The SA-24, which reportedly entered production in 2002, is significantly more capable than the SA-16 and, to a lesser degree, the SA-18,* but is also in far fewer hands; exports to date appear to be limited to, at most, a handful of countries in the Middle East and Asia. Too little information about the missiles referenced by Smulian is publicly available to determine which variant Bout allegedly had access to.
Smulian reportedly told the DEA’s sources that the weapons were located in Bulgaria – a manufacturer of Igla-1 missiles** and an unwitting source of illicit weaponry in the 1990s, according to UN investigators. It is unclear, however, if Bulgaria was the source of the weapons or just a transit point. More information about the missiles is needed to determine their origin and proximate source. Also worth noting is the apparent link between Bulgaria and the Monzer al Kassar case. Court documents indicate that, a month before his arrest, Kassar invited one of the DEA’s confidential sources to “…travel to Romania and Bulgaria where the weapons were being manufactured.”
Assuming Smulian was telling the truth and Bout did indeed have access to dozens of Igla missiles, this case is a poignant reminder of the continued availability of sophisticated light weapons to terrorists, insurgents and the arms traffickers that stock their arsenals. Despite a broad and energetic global campaign to deny terrorists access to shoulder-fired, surface-to-air missiles, these weapons continue to find their way into the arsenals of armed groups. As part of a study conducted last year, the FAS found credible reports of missiles being transferred to, used by, or seized from non-state groups in at least 16 countries since 2002. These missiles include sophisticated systems like the Igla. Last spring, images of a Somali with an SA-18 on his shoulder appeared on the Washington Post’s website shortly after Somali rebels shot down a Belarusian cargo plane outside of Mogadishu. UN investigators later reported that the missile was one of six SA-18s provided to the ICU by Eritrea.
Bout’s arrest is a major coup for the small group of government officials and private analysts who have doggedly tracked his exploits for over a decade. Whether it will lead to his conviction and the dismantling of the loose, global network of airplanes and front companies remains to be seen. Regardless, the illicit trade in shoulder-fired missiles and other sophisticated light weapons will continue until the international community finds the resources and political will to seal all leaky government arsenals and bring irresponsible governments to heel.
* According to the Teal Group, the SA-24 has range of 6 km (versus 5 km for the SA-18) and a warhead that is twice the size of the SA-18 (2.5 kg versus 1.25 kg).
** See Jane’s Land-Based Air Defense 2006-2007 (Cambridge University Press, 2006), p. 3.