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Merchant of Death: Money, Guns, Planes and the Man Who Makes War Possible by Douglas Farah and Stephen Braun

Jacket: Hardcover
Pages: 308 pages
Publisher: John Wiley & Sons, Inc. (2007)
Genre: War/Terrorism
ISBN: 978-0-470-04866

Comments about the authors:

Douglas Farah is the former West African bureau chief of the Washington Post and the author of Blood from Stones: The Secret Financial Network of Terror ; Stephen Braun is a Pulitzer Prize-winning national correspondent for the Los Angeles Times.

“Merchant of Death is particularly timely in light of the March 2008 arrest in Thailand of international arms dealer Viktor Bout, the subject of this book. Bout is also believed to have inspired the lead character portrayed by Nicholas Cage in the 2005 film, Lord of War, about a Russian American arms dealer operating in Africa and the Middle East. Even the film’s director bragged that a plane used in the film had been leased from ‘one of the most notorious arms traffickers in Africa’ (presumably Bout), and Bout himself, commenting on the film (which did not fare well at the box office) in an interview, said, ‘I’m sorry for Nicholas Cage.’

Review: Merchant of Death provides a riveting look at the life of Viktor Bout, quite probably the world’s most prolific international arms dealer until his March 2008 arrest in Thailand for attempting to purchase weapons for delivery to FARC rebels in Colombia. Over an almost-20-year period, during which time he flouted UN weapons embargoes and asset freezes imposed by the U.S. and various other countries, Bout delivered weapons to anyone and everyone involved in the world’s most remote conflict-torn areas, including the Taliban and Northern Alliance in Afghanistan, Charles Taylor in Liberia, and the RUF in Sierra Leone; he even provided services to the U.S. military in Iraq. Incredibly, Bout often worked for opposing sides (with their knowledge), as only he was capable of delivering the weapons required to wage war. As Bout fed his clients’ thirst for weapons, he fostered the continuation of conflicts, reaping substantial financial rewards in the process. He even contemplated engineering his own armed takeover of a portion of Sierra Leone rich in natural resources.

Bout was not only an international arms dealer, but a global entrepreneur, as he often had his planes transport legitimate cargo on return flights after weapons had been delivered, thereby increasing his profits. Bout, dubbed the ‘Merchant of Death’ by former British Foreign Office minister Peter Hain, is – according to various accounts – a former Russian Air Force officer with ties to Russian security services. Widely described as humorless but with an incredible linguistic capability (he is reportedly fluent in six languages), he operated his fleet of cargo planes from a base in the emirate of Sharjah (and at times in Belgium and South Africa), flying weapons to various clients in Africa, Afghanistan and the Balkans. Hobnobbing with a who’s who of international freedom fighters and despots, from the Northern Alliance’s Ahmed Shah Massoud (with whom Bout went on hunting trips) in Afghanistan to Liberia’s Charles Taylor and UNITA’s Jonas Savimbi in Angola, Bout acquired mothballed Russian cargo planes on the cheap and used fearless Russian pilots to ferry weapons to remote corners of the globe.

Farah and Braun have shed a bright light on the international arms trafficking business, and how, in the world’s dark corners fraught with conflict, everyone from heads of state to rebel leaders to the world’s mightiest militaries required the services of one man – Viktor Bout. Using sources who previously worked with or for Bout, as well as several who attempted to bring Bout to justice, Merchant of Death reads like a fast-paced novel, describing not only Bout’s weapons deliveries in far-flung locales, but his complex corporate structures, his negotiations to free one of his plane crews held by the Taliban in Afghanistan, and even his use of helicopters to seek out beer for an African rebel leader and his troops ensconced deep in the jungle.

Perhaps the timing for Bout was perfect – the break-up of the former Soviet Union, mothballed Russian cargo planes and unemployed pilots, suspected ties to Russian security services, a love of Africa, and – most importantly – an unprecedented ability to deliver weapons to any willing buyer in the most remote areas. One thing, however, is certain: there is and never will be a shortage of international conflicts, and, undoubtedly, other business-minded opportunists will fill (and probably already have filled) Bout’s shoes. Skip Lord of War and read Merchant of Death.

Reviewed by: Craig A. Stoehr


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