Who is Viktor Bout?

US Government photo

Viktor Bout, the “Merchant of Death,” a Russian aviation tycoon suspected as leader of the world’s largest weapons trafficking network, was convicted on Nov. 2, 2011 on federal charges of conspiracy to aid a terrorist organization, deliver anti-aircraft missiles and kill American citizens and U.S. officials. Bout was sentenced to a 25-year prison term on April 5, 2012. After years of eluding authorities, Bout, 44 at the time of his sentencing, was arrested in Bangkok by U.S. and Thai law enforcement agents on March 6, 2008. Bout was targeted by a year-long sting operation by federal Drug Enforcement Administration agents and undercover informants posing as South American terrorists. He endured two years in a Bangkok prison until Thai authorities extradited him to the U.S. in November, 2010. Over two decades, Bout, a former Soviet military officer, amassed a fleet of more than 60 transport planes, hundreds of companies and a fortune reportedly in excess of $6 billion. His aircraft flew from Afghanistan to South America, carrying anything from raw minerals to gladiolas, drilling equipment to frozen fish. But their stock in trade, according to authorities, were black market arms — assault rifles, ammunition, anti-aircraft missiles, helicopter gunships and a full range of sophisticated weapons systems. His clients included dictators like Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi, Liberia’s Charles Taylor and Zaire’s Mobutu Sesse Seko. His planes flew both for the Taliban mullahs who once ruled Afghanistan and for the U.S. military and the Bush administration’s reconstruction in Iraq. Before his 2008 arrest, Bout had been targeted by the UN with an international travel ban and by the U.S with a financial assets freeze for violations of weapons embargoes in Africa. Sentenced on Feb. 8, 2012, Bout served nearly 10 years of his 25-year sentence at a medium-security federal penitentiary in Marion, Ill. His prison term was cut short when he was taken by federal officials and flown to an airport in Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates. There he was exchanged in a long-awaited prisoner swap with American basketball star Brittney Griner, who had been held by Russian authorities on a narcotics possession charge. Bout is now a free man in Moscow. “Merchant of Death” tells the full story of Viktor Bout’s rise and his pursuit by a determined band of international sleuths — a hunt that finally led to the U.S. sting that brought about his arrest and conviction. In September 2018, Wonderfilm Media Corp. and partner Anthony Zuiker, creator of the CSI crime television series, announced they had acquired the media rights to “Merchant of Death” for development as a TV series.

–Transcript of March 6, 2008 meeting between Viktor Bout and undercover informants at Sofitel Hotel, Bangkok, Thailand

–U.S. indictment of Viktor Bout, May 6, 2008

–U.S. sealed complaint in Viktor Bout case, released May, 2008

–State Department cables relating to Viktor Bout from U.S. embassies in UAE (2006) and Thailand (2008-2010)

–Email allegedly sent by Viktor Bout to undercover informant 

–U.S. Treasury announces financial sanctions on Viktor Bout’s international arms trafficking network, April 2005 

–U.S. Treasury chart of Viktor Bout business empire, April 2005

–U.S. Treasury list of individuals and companies targeted by Office of Foreign Asset Control sanctions on Bout network, April 2005

–Department of Justice announces conviction of Viktor Bout, November 2011

–U.S. Attorney, Manhattan, announces conviction of Viktor Bout accomplice Richard Chichakli, December 2013

–AP interactive timeline of Viktor Bout history

–Viktor Bout, on “Merchant of Death”