'Merchant of death' could be set free
Viktor Bout has sat in a Thai jail for more than two years with a U.S. extradition request pending. By Friday we will know if a notorious international arms dealer will head home to Russia to once again ply his deadly trade or land in New York to face terrorism charges. Will his extradition be a diplomatic win for the Obama administration and solidify U.S.-Thai security cooperation? Or will his release allow him to again arm those gunning against U.S. interests? Disturbingly, it is looking like the latter.
Out of the dust of the Cold War, Bout built a complex enterprise that spanned several continents and employed a network of nefarious individuals, front companies and aging Soviet aircraft fleet capable of dropping arms in even the most remote regions.
Dubbed the "merchant of death," Bout, 43, fueled many brutal civil wars in Africa and beyond through illicit arms sales. He dealt weapons to several sides fighting in the Democratic Republic of Congo in the 1990s. One U.N. report after another cited Bout for busting international arms embargoes. Former Liberian president Charles Taylor, now facing charges of war crimes, relied on Bout to arm his reign of terror in West Africa. Thousands of limbless victims are part of Bout's legacy.
In Afghanistan in the late 1990s, Bout simultaneously armed the Taliban and its rival, the Northern Alliance. His dealings with international terrorist organizations reportedly include Hezbollah and elements that went on to form al-Shabaab, the Somalia-based terrorist group that is an increasing concern of the FBI.
Bout believed he was negotiating a deal to provide the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) with millions of dollars in arms when he was arrested in March 2008 in a bold joint operation between the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency and Thai authorities. This deal was to include 100 advanced Russian-designed shoulder-fired missiles capable of blowing aircraft out of the sky.
With Bout, anything flies for the right price. And his assembled logistical capability could transport a nuclear weapon.
Years of solid law enforcement cooperation with Thailand and its status as a major non-NATO ally suggested that extradition to the United States would be smooth. Unfortunately, the process has been anything but. Last August, a Thai court rejected the U.S. extradition request on the vague grounds that the FARC is not a terrorist group. A Thai appeals court has proceeded opaquely for the past year and is scheduled to issue its final ruling on the case Friday. Charges may very well be dropped.
Six months ago, sensing the need for a backup plan, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York unsealed a second set of charges against Bout dealing with wire fraud and money-laundering. Thai authorities have not even responded to these charges. If the appeals court rules in Bout's favor this week, he is likely to become a free man.
It's clear that Thai officials have long agonized over choosing between the United States and Russia. Bout has high-level contacts in Moscow, including in the intelligence service fraternity where he trained, and the Russian government has lobbied hard for his release. The Russian parliament officially condemned his arrest in September 2008 and called for Bout's return "to his motherland." Charges of Russian bribery have hung over the proceedings. It is understood that Bout would operate freely if returned to Russia. The protracted political crisis in Thailand, with opposition protesters leaving Bangkok in flames this spring, no doubt has given this master of chaos added hope.
The United States has made several efforts to counter Russia. President George W. Bush raised the issue with Thai leaders in 2008. President Obama's national security adviser, James Jones, wrote to me and other members of Congress last November that the administration has "pressed repeatedly" at the "highest levels" of the Thai government for Bout's extradition. But it is a bad sign that the State Department learned that the appeals court would rule Friday from statements by Bout's lawyers in the Russian press. All along the State Department has assured Congress that it is on top of this case. But is it?
Bout walking free without being tried would be a miscarriage of justice that would severely harm U.S. relations with a key Asian ally. Worse, there is little doubt that Bout would reclaim his arms franchise as a vengeful enemy of the United States and arm those targeting U.S. troops and interests around the world.
For the administration, which touts the United States as a Pacific power, now is the time to show our clout, with President Obama explaining the high stakes to our friends in Bangkok. Friday, we all need a win.
The writer, a representative from California, is the ranking Republican on the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on terrorism, nonproliferation and trade. He previously served as chairman of the Africa subcommittee.