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.
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.