Global Policy Forum

On the Bin Laden Arms Trail


By Eric Watkins

March 1, 2002

Belgian authorities have issued an international warrant for the arrest of Victor Bout, an alleged arms dealer accused of selling weapons to the al-Qaeda network of Osama bin Laden and to the Taleban, former rulers of Afghanistan.

"We have launched an international arrest warrant for Bout," a spokesman for the Brussels prosecutor's office said. He added that Belgian authorities were awaiting further information from officials in Russia, where the alleged smuggler is thought to live.

But in an interview broadcast live on Moscow radio on Thursday Mr Bout denied that he had been involved in smuggling weapons to al-Qaeda. "I have never supplied anything to or had any contacts with the Taleban or al-Qaeda," he said. Described as short, stocky and usually sporting a bushy moustache, Mr Bout, 35, was an air force officer until the break up of the Soviet Union.

Diamond trade

"His regiment was disbanded and essentially they went private," a Western intelligence official said recently. "It started with gun running to Afghanistan and then they discovered Africa."

The arrest warrant follows the capture in Belgium earlier this month of Sanjivan Ruprah who has been charged with criminal association and using a false passport.

Mr Ruprah is a potentially valuable informant because UN reports tie him to the illicit diamond trade in West Africa and to arrangements for Mr Bout's alleged weapons deliveries to be paid for with diamonds from Sierra Leone and Angola.

In particular, they will be looking to confirm previous reports linking al-Qaeda to an underground network stretching across Africa and trading in diamonds, weapons and other precious commodities.

Weapons bans

Mr Bout specialised in breaking arms embargoes around the world, according to four separate UN Security Council reports on weapons trafficking - and traded almost exclusively in weapons bought in the former Soviet bloc, chiefly Bulgaria and Romania.

The UN reports say Mr Bout shipped hundreds of tonnes of arms to Unita rebels in Angola, the government of President Charles Taylor in Liberia and several factions involved in the civil war in Congo - all areas under UN weapons bans.

Mr Bout has long been suspected of also supplying weapons to the Taleban. UN and US officials say he first made a deal with the Taleban in 1996 in the United Arab Emirates.

'Merchant of death'

They also believe that a number of charter flights fom Dubai into the Taleban stronghold of Kandahar were loaded with weapons. Intelligence recently gathered in Afghanistan has provided new details about Mr Bout's alleged arms shipments in the months before the 11 September attacks on the United States.

Peter Hain, Britain's minister for European affairs and a leader in international efforts to clamp down on gun-running to African rebels, last week told the Associated Press news agency that Mr Bout "undoubtedly" supplied al-Qaeda and the Taleban with arms. Mr Hain called Mr Bout a "merchant of death".

More Information on International Justice
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