Watch CBS News

Viktor Bout: Capturing "The Merchant of Death"

Viktor Bout: "The Merchant of Death" 12:54

Rarely does the U.S. government want anyone more than it wanted Viktor Bout, known as the "Merchant of Death." U.S. government officials say Bout became the world's most notorious arms dealer by fueling civil wars around the world. Courted by drug lords and dictators, the U.S. saw him as a threat because of his ability to arm terrorists targeting the United States.

A former Russian military officer, Bout has been protected by powerful friends, and long considered simply untouchable by law enforcement. But three years ago the DEA devised a bold undercover operation to capture him. This past week they brought him to New York to face terrorism charges.

Now, those at the heart of "Operation Relentless" - a sting that spanned three continents - tell the story behind it for the first time.

The result: Bout spent the last two and a half years in a Bangkok prison, before finally being extradited to New York. Now, those at the heart of the stunning sting - one that eventually spanned three continents - tell the story behind it for the first time.

60 Minutes Overtime: Viktor Bout
CBS News Chief Investigative Correspondent Armen Keteyian discusses the capture of notorious arms dealer Viktor Bout, the man known as "the Merchant of Death."

Full Segment: "Merchant of Death"
Extra: Actor-Turned Agent
Extra: Hearing Viktor Bout's Voice
Read: The Team That Will Prosecute Bout

"Viktor Bout in my eyes is one of the most dangerous men on the face of the Earth," Michael Braun, the former chief of operations for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, told correspondent Armen Keteyian.

Braun told "60 Minutes" Bout first "exploded" on the scene in war-torn West Africa in the late 1980s, elevating bloody conflicts from machetes and single shot rifles to military grade assault rifles.

"AK-47s not by the thousands but by the tens of thousands," Braun explained.

"So he weaponizes civil war in Africa," Keteyian remarked.

"He transformed these young adolescent warriors into insidious, mindless, maniacally driven killing machines that operated with assembly line efficiencies," Braun said.

Now 43, Bout, from Tajikistan (formerly a Soviet republic), is a mystery man who reportedly served in the Soviet Air Force and intelligence service. The U.S. has indicted him on four terror-related charges, including "conspiracy to kill Americans."

Asked what makes Bout a threat to the United States, Braun said, "He is a shadow facilitator. He's arming not only designated terrorist groups, insurgent groups, but he's also arming very powerful drug trafficking cartels around the globe."

Taking advantage of Russian military contacts at the highest levels and the collapse of the Soviet Union, federal prosecutors allege Bout essentially became a one-stop shop, offering an unlimited supply of stockpiled Cold War weapons to "bad guys" around the world, including Charles Taylor of Liberia, who's now on trial for war crimes.

According to the U.S. indictment, Bout had a unique selling point when it came to weapons trafficking: "a fleet of cargo airplanes capable of transporting weapons and military equipment" anytime, anywhere. With more than 60 planes in all, it was his own private air force.

"Those Russian aircraft were built like flying dump trucks. He could move this stuff and drop it with pinpoint accuracy to any desert, to any jungle, to any other remote place in the world. Right into the hands of what I refer to as the potpourri of global scum," Braun told Keteyian.

By the late 1990s, Bout was a legend in the shadowy world of illicit arms dealing - so illusive that the only two pictures that have surfaces of him back then were taken without Bout's knowledge by a Belgian photographer.

Later, Bout became the inspiration behind the Nicholas cage Character in the movie "Lord of War."

U.S. Treasury documents reveal a Bout empire so sophisticated, so complex - hidden behind a thick curtain of front companies - that even the U.S. government unwittingly contracted with two of his companies to deliver supplies to U.S. troops in Iraq.

Juan Zarate, deputy national security advisor in the second Bush White House, and a CBS News consultant, told "60 Minutes" hiring Bout was a mistake.

"This was one of the grave complications for the United States. Viktor Bout's tentacles reached so far and so deep that he had access to planes that could provide services for the U.S. government," Zarate said.

Zarate admitted the U.S. could do business with Bout, but it couldn't catch him. "I had always thought of Viktor Bout as untouchable. And, I also, frankly, didn't think that anyone could get to him," he said.

It was a challenge Zarate from the White House threw out at a meeting with Mike Braun and his DEA team. The DEA had just pulled off a string of extraordinarily successful captures of high-value terrorism targets around the world, like Afghan drug lords.

"DEA Agents live for the hunt," Braun told Keteyian.

"But, Mike, no one had even gotten a sniff on this guy," Keteyian pointed out.

"Let me tell ya something, Armen, when I'm sitting there next to Juan, and my guys are sitting across the table from him, the very best that our government's got to offer, and he tosses this out on the table, and I look at him in the eyes, and they're looking back at me, like, 'We'll do this, we can do this,'" Braun said.

"But it was about a five percent chance in the back of my mind. And so, you know, I wished them well and I went back to the White House," Zarate recalled.

"Mike Braun's thinking 95 percent, okay. Five and 95 make a hundred. He was going down, he was in our crosshairs," Braun added.

The DEA supervisor put in charge of the hunt for Bout was Louis Milione. "We felt that we could create a scenario that would pull him in," he said.

The plan was to "pull" Bout out of Moscow with a huge arms deal he couldn't refuse.

To do that, the DEA hired an undercover agent to contact a trusted associate of Bout's named Andrew Smulian. The DEA operative said he had a big business deal for Bout.

"I'm thinking in terms of fishing here. It's almost like you've thrown the line in the water. There's a little bit of bait. This is a business proposition. And you're waiting to see if anything comes back with a nibble," Keteyian remarked.

"We were really waiting to see, yeah, exactly what Smulian says and what he says about Bout," Milione replied.

"And as it comes back, 'Spoke to Boris, anything possible with farming equipment,'?" Keteyian asked.

"That's correct," Milione said.

"Boris" stood for Bout, "farming equipment" for weapons.

That exchange led to the island of Curacao, a few hundred miles off the coast of Colombia. It was there that Bout's buddy, Andrew Smulian, would first meet the DEA's phony arms buyers, posing as officials in the Colombian terrorist group known as the FARC.

The two fake rebels, "Eduardo" and "el Comandante," would say they wanted to buy millions of dollars' worth of weapons to fight the Colombian army and the U.S. military pilots protecting them.

"Smulian has to believe that Eduardo and El Comandante are real," Keteyian remarked.

"Right, if Smulian doesn't believe it we're done. And we go home," Milione replied.

"The meeting is about to take place. What's your temperature like?" Keteyian asked.

"Your heart rate goes is up a little bit. And your adrenaline's going a little bit. You have butterflies," Milione said.

Emotions that only escalated when, at a hotel in Curacao, the fake rebels told Smulian, Bout's buddy, they want to spend $12 million on everything from sniper rifles to surface-to-air missiles.

"He bites off on it. In fact, he eats the whole thing. So it was, it was very successful," Milione remembered.

So successful, Smulian immediately flew to Moscow to present the deal to "Boris," the man the DEA believes is Bout.

Two weeks later, in another meeting, this time in Copenhagen, Smulian told the DEA's two undercover operatives that his Russian business partner really liked the deal and then he revealed who that man in Moscow really is.

"'You know who this man is that we're getting the weapons from? This is Bout. B-O-U-T. He's wanted by the world. They call him the Merchant of Death,'" Milione quoted Smulian. "He spelled it out for him. We marveled that Smulian would do that. But it was just great evidence."

The DEA was in the game, but Bout was still safe and secure in Russia and reluctant to leave. The DEA undercovers insisted they couldn't go to Moscow but had to meet Bout to seal the deal.

"And Bout's gonna know that that's how these deals are gonna work. Comandante is not going to release these millions of dollars for these weapons to anybody until he at least shakes hands, talks, looks Bout in the eye and then we can move on. That's how we countered. And Bout went for it," Milione explained.

The next stop was Romania, just three days later. The play was to entice Bout to Bucharest, claiming that's where the money was stashed to pay for the weapons. Bout said he'd come, but then he had trouble getting a visa. The case stalled.

After ten days of waiting for Bout, the top DEA agent made a gutsy call: to walk away.

"So, you've been chasing this guy hard for two months. You almost got him. And you gotta make the decision to step away from the table?" Keteyian asked.

"If we were real, we wouldn't stay there forever," Milione explained. "We're gonna now step away and say, 'Look we need to take care of some other things. But it's time for us to leave.'"

Over the next two weeks, Milione came up with a new plan to reel Bout in. The phony rebels told Bout they would be in Bangkok soon. Asked if he could get there, Bout agreed.

The morning Bout arrived in Bangkok, the DEA and Thai police had gathered downtown, waiting for word from cops at the airport that the "Merchant of Death" had landed.

"They call us in the room and they tell us that he's here," Milione remembered.

Asked what that moment was like, Milione said, "It was just unbelievable. Because we knew at that point, you know you're kind of like holding on as you climb up the mountain at different points in the investigation. This was one where at that point I believed, and the other investigators believed, not only are we in the game, he shows up at this meeting, we've got him. He's gonna be arrested."

Bout drove to a hotel and met the two fake arms buyers in a conference room on the 27th floor. There, the DEA's undercover team told Bout they want his weapons to kill Americans.

"The Comandante and Eduardo make it very clear. They said, 'We're fighting against the United States.' Bout responds and says, 'Look, they're after me too.' He said, 'But we are together in this. They are my enemy also.' Eduardo and Comandante talk about how they want sniper sights for the rifles that they have so that they could, quote, 'Start blowing the heads off American pilots.' Bout's response immediately is, 'Yes,'" Milione said.

Then, the DEA said, Bout jotted down on what he intended to deliver for $12 million, including between 700 and 800 surface-to-air missiles.

"Five thousand AK47s," Milione said. "Anti-personnel mines. Fragmentation grenades. Armor piercing rockets. Money laundering services. And all within the context of speaking about a shared ideology of communism and fighting against the Americans."

After two hours, one of the DEA undercovers made a call, a signal it was time to move in. Within minutes, the Thai police and DEA agents burst into the room.

"We see Bout across the far end of like a boardroom type table, standing up with his hands inside his briefcase. And they give him the command to put his hands up. And he hesitates. And they immediately focused in with their weapons and gave him the command again," Milione remembered.

"Are you thinking, 'We've come all this way to see Viktor Bout shot by a Thai policeman'?" Keteyian asked.

"The thought did cross my mind that something really bad is gonna happen to him right here. But then he complied," Milione replied.

It turned out there was no weapon in the briefcase. The disarming of Bout was now "officially" complete.

"The Thais cuff him. He's taken into custody. Smulian's taken into custody," Milione said.

Asked if Bout said anything, Milione replied, "'The game is over,' or something like that."

But then a new game began: Bout became the center of a legal tug of war between the U.S. and Russia, which wanted him released back to Moscow. Bout said he only went to Thailand as a simple tourist, not an arms dealer.

Bout and the Russians managed to delay his extradition to America for more than two and a half years. But last Tuesday, after a sting that played out on three continents, the DEA finally got their man.

They flew him to New York, where he pled not guilty to charges including conspiracy to kill Americans. When Bout rode under tight security in a convoy to jail in Manhattan, riding with him was Louis Milione.

"This is the Lord of War, the Merchant of Death," Keteyian remarked. "And you've got him in your hands."

"Right. He's in custody. It's a great feeling. It's an absolutely great feeling," Milione replied.

Now Available: America's number one news program now has a companion iPad app! The "60 Minutes" iPad app features the same hard-hitting investigative reports, interviews, feature segments and profiles of people in the news that are the hallmark of the iconic broadcast show, plus original video content from "60 Minutes Overtime." Check it out in the iTunes app store.

Produced by Robert Anderson and Pat Milton

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.