Viktor Bout made his first major foray into the weapons business in 1995, on a pleasant summer day in Bulgaria. A Russian entrepreneur who was then twenty-eight years old, he had flown to Sofia from Sharjah, the third largest city in the United Arab Emirates, where he had lived for the previous two years. Sharjah was a kind of postmodern caravansary—as Bout told me recently, it was a place with “practically no law.” Although he had arrived in the Emirates not knowing much about Arab culture, he had a cosmopolitan ability to adapt to new circumstances. He was intending to enter the field of aviation. Supple with languages, he could flip among Russian, English, Portuguese, and Esperanto; today, he says, he can “read fifteen or sixteen languages, go to the market with nine or ten, and fluently speak five or six.” He started spending time at the cargo hangars at Sharjah’s international airport, got to know the pilots and crews, and soon formed an air-freight company, Air Cess, with a small fleet of Russian planes.
In Sofia, Bout checked into the Park Hotel Moskva, a shabby, state-owned high-rise, and set out for the office of a Bulgarian arms dealer named Peter Mirchev. Bout was comfortable doing business almost anywhere, be it an Eastern European city or an African jungle airstrip. Air Cess was doing particularly well in Africa, where he sometimes worked with despotic regimes. Bout’s pilots flew televisions, air-conditioners, and expensive furniture from Sharjah to ragged African capitals, and delivered planeloads of West African francs from Senegal to surrounding countries. Air Cess had also begun shipping textiles and electronics from Sharjah to Afghanistan, a country that was then led by President Burhanuddin Rabbani. Bout had grown close to Rabbani’s defense minister, Ahmed Shah Massoud, whom Bout described to me as “a real revolutionary,” adding, “You could see the flame in his eyes.” Massoud was concerned about the advance of Taliban rebels, and one day his deputy asked Bout if he could also hustle guns.
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