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Book Reviews

Book review: Operation Relentless – The world’s Most Wanted Criminal; The Elite Forces Hunt to Catch Him

Operation relentlessOperation Relentless is the gripping story of the years-long effort to catch arms dealer Viktor Bout, nicknamed ‘The Merchant of Death’ and 'The Lord of War'.

Damien Lewis, author of the best-selling special forces book Zero Six Bravo, does an impressive job of turning the facts into a thriller-like package. Although it is clear Lewis takes liberty in describing some of the conversations, feelings and actions of the book’s motley subjects, it does make Operation Relentless an easy and entertaining read that is more akin to a James Bond novel than a work of non-fiction. Nevertheless the book is based on extensive research, including accessing US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) transcripts, court testimony, interviews and information on Bout’s seized computer.

“Two major conflicts in recent history have dominated news headlines: the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan,” Lewis writes. “However, this same period has witnessed other, equally devastating wars… In Angola, Rwanda, the Congo, Sudan and Sierra Leone these ‘second level’ conflicts rumbled on largely unnoticed by the outside world, yet claiming a far great loss of life than both the Iraq and Afghan wars combined. In the Congo alone some five million are estimated to have died. These conflicts were perpetuated in large part by the clandestine flow of weaponry to these parts of the world.

“This is the story of how one of the men most implicated in that illicit trade – the Russian arms trafficker and businessman, Viktor Bout, also known as ‘the Merchant of Death’ – was brought to justice. It is the story of the undercover operatives who went into harms’ way to track him down…It deals, therefore in part with the forgotten modern wars that have convulsed the continent of Africa.”

Lewis brings together a wide cast of fascinating characters that hinge around Bout. Mike Snow, a former British soldier and bush pilot was recruited by the DEA as a confidential source on Operation Relentless and together with Bout associate Andrew Smulian, a former South African Air Force officer and bush pilot, were instrumental in putting Bout behind bars.

Snow’s adventures as a sometimes shady, small time air operations manager occupy a number of chapters, as Snow was vital in getting Smulian to unwittingly gather enough evidence to put Bout in prison, along with several DEA employees, who posed as Colombian FARC rebels and got Bout to promise to supply them with surface-to-air missiles, small arms, grenades and rockets, amongst others.

It was this elaborate sting operation that finally nabbed Bout after more than a decade of pursuit. One of the things that strengthened the DEA’s case was that they got Bout to admit he was at war with the United States and was complicit in the death of American citizens by agreeing to supply the FARC with weapons.

“I am not an arms trader,” Bout said in one interview. “It’s possible that I have transported arms, but I am a businessman and I have lots of planes and I don’t’ care what I transport because that is not my responsibility.”

Bout’s philosophy was to never fly empty and this, together with his view that no-one should shoot the postman, were some of the reasons for his successful airline ventures, along with his gift for languages. Born in 1967 in Tajikistan, Bout entered the Soviet military’s Institute of Foreign Languages before being sent to Mozambique in 1987 when he fell in love with Africa. In 1993 he set up an air freight company in Brussels and went into business with Peter Mirchev, a Bulgarian arms dealer. Angola and Afghanistan were his earliest customers.

Was Bout a businessman who would fly anything and everything, including arms, or was he indeed The Merchant of Death? It seems he was someone who would fly anything, anywhere, by any means. Apart from weapons this included Tilapia fish from Africa to Europe, frozen chickens to Nigeria, peacekeepers into conflict zones and aid into areas of unrest. In 1997 Bout’s aircraft were vital in flying refugees around the Congo and aid for the UN World Food Programme, while at the same time flying weapons around that very country - his aircraft were very busy during the Second Congo War.

By 1999 the United Nations had discovered that Bout was flying arms around Africa but there was no way to prosecute him even though he was violating UN arms embargoes. By the 2000s Bout’s empire was worth billions of dollars, employed several hundred people and dozens of mostly ex-Soviet aircraft.

Bout flew anything, anywhere and in 2004 it emerged that Bout’s companies had been contracted by the US military to fly supplies and equipment into Iraq for the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), and the US Department of Defence had even refuelled his aircraft in Baghdad. After this embarrassing episode, in July 2004 US President George W Bush signed a Presidential Executive Order declaring Bout “an unusual and extraordinary threat to the foreign policy of the United States,” and the United States started going after him where it hurt by seizing his assets.

For years international authorities attempted to stop Bout’s activities, with Interpol issuing a money laundering arrest in 2002, but it was not until 2006 that the beginning of the end drew near, as the United States and United Kingdom made a concerted effort to take him down and the DEA recruited Mike Snow. By this time Bout was described by the US National Security Council (NSC) as the world’s most notorious arms dealer due to his ability to deliver weapons into civil war zones, with the complicity of the highest ranks of government and military in Russia. As a result he was branded ‘one of the most dangerous men on the face of the earth.’

With Snow luring Bout’s trusted former deputy Smulian into the trap, the DEA set the scene for the elaborate FARC sting. Over the course of two years the DEA worked to successfully get Bout and Smulian to agree to sell weapons to the FARC. With meetings in Curacao, Russia, Denmark and Romania, things came to a head in March 2008 when Bout agreed to meet the ‘FARC representatives’ in Thailand. He was arrested along with Smulian, but it took two years to extradite him to the United States for trial, due in part to political interference from Russia.

The US Grand Jury indictment stated that Bout was an “international weapons trafficker” who, in order “to provide cover for his illicit arms transactions…developed an international network of front companies, and used his cargo airplanes to deliver lawful goods, such as food and medical supplies, in addition to arms.” He was charged with conspiracy to kill US nationals; providing the FARC with weapons; and conspiracy to acquire and use anti-aircraft missiles to enable the FARC to attack US aircraft in Colombia. Bout, and Smulian, were also charged by the United States with conspiracy to provide material support to a terrorist organisation.

In October 2011 Bout was found guilty by the jury and in April 2012 sentenced to 25 years in a US penitentiary. Before his sentencing he said “I am innocent…If you gonna apply the same standards to me, then you’re gonna jail all those arms dealers in America who [are] selling the arms that end up killing Americans…It’s a double standard.”

Judge Shira Scheindlin, in imposing the mandatory 25 year sentence, noted that “but for the approach made through this determined sting operation, there is no reason to believe Bout would ever have committed the charged crimes.” She said later that, “I’m not defending him…but he’s a businessman. He was in the business of selling arms.”

Lewis, in his epilogue, writes that he believes Bout did little to defend himself and in doing so avoided going into details of about all his arms deliveries across the globe and therefore avoided implicating others. “Victor Bout’s arrest and conviction proved controversial at the time and continues to do so. World opinion seemed split between those who believed Bout was the incarnation of all evil and deserved all he got, and those who claimed he was a victim of a US-led witch hunt.”

“Some have argued that Bout’s conviction did little to stop the flow of illicit arms to conflict torn areas of the world. Certainly he was not – and is not – the only arms dealer in the world. As Mark Galeotti [senior researcher at the Institute of International Relations Prague] remarks, ‘Bout did not create the market. He was able very effectively to capitalise on it, but he didn’t create, and where there’s a market there will be other suppliers.’”

Operation Relentless: The World’s Most-Wanted Criminal, The Elite Forces Hunt to Catch him, by Damien Lewis
Quercus Books 2017
ISBN 9781848665439/9781848665392
Softcover, 384 pages

Wings over Langebaanweg. Stories from a South African Air Force Base

Review of Wings over LangebaanwegHermanus-based Andrew Embleton’s third book on SA Air Force (SAAF) training looks set to be a winner with the military flying fraternity.

Book Review: Harsh Lessons: Iraq, Afghanistan And the Changing Character of War

altThe interventions by the US and its allies in Iraq and Afghanistan were on a massive scale and came close to failure. In the thirteen years of fighting there were 250,000 civilian casualties (dead and wounded) and 35,000 casualties among the US and allied forces.

Drawing lessons from these wars is key to understanding the future of warfare, with the caveat of the old adage of the dangers of “generals fighting the last war”.

This short book by Brigadier (Retired) Ben Barry, who is the Senior Fellow for Land Warfare at the London based International Institute for Strategic Studies, is enormously useful as a way of coming to grips with the future likely character of warfare. The book could help military planners and strategists in the intervening powers as well as other to think of the capabilities needed to fight the next war.

Intervening militaries from the US and its allies now perform everything from fighting to “nation building under fire”. In the late 1990s US Marine Corps General, Charles Krulak, described the “three block war” concept where Marines might be involved in full scale military action, peacekeeping, and humanitarian aid within three city blocks. Barry believes the future might involve “n block wars”, where n is the number of different types of activities, which could be even wider in range.

In these two wars the US and its allies came close to “strategic defeat,” he writes. They were only really saved from defeat by the surge in forces that took place well into the wars.

In the wake of some wars some of the Generals often complain that they were not given enough troops or time, and hamstrung by the politicians. There is recognition that density of forces made a difference and that some allies were restricted in what they could do, but this is not the core of Barry’s case.

Leadership, reconstruction efforts, political strategy, military strategy, operational concepts, and equipment were inadequate. There were failures “at every level” to adapt quickly enough to unforeseen circumstances, such as the use of IEDs and the mistreatment of prisoners, which gave opportunities to the insurgents.

“It took years for the US and its allies to sufficiently understand both conflicts,” Barry writes.

Innovation by the US and the UK was slow and encumbered by large defence bureaucracies. By contrast the insurgents were quick to adapt their methods.

The successes of the two campaigns were the initial offensives to bring about regime change and, in the case of Iraq, the US move to support the Anbar Awakening of the Sunni against al Qaeda.

If there is one overriding message from the book, it is to reinforce what Clausewitz said - that war is and always will be an inherently political process. The importance of understanding local politics would have helped the intervening powers avoid such pitfalls as breaking up of the Ba’ath Party and the army. The question of what after regime change was hardly addressed at the outset.

Soon after the US declared what was tantamount to victory, insurgencies exploded in both theatres. Both the US and UK had neglected the counter-insurgency doctrine and had to re-learn what had been learned in Vietnam and Northern Ireland.

From the disasters a host of lessons emerge. There is a need for improved intelligence and political understanding, as well as a case for armed forces to retain their own development and reconstruction experts who can operate in hostile environments from which civilians had best stay away. The necessity of maintaining and developing a counter-insurgency capability was brutally reinforced by these conflicts. Barry also argues that armed forces must ensure that they can win the battle of the narrative through electronic and information warfare in the age in which social media is dominant.

In military operations, the wars showed the value of Special Forces in conducting counter-insurgency operations and in training. Iran used its Quds forces in Iraq to wage a proxy war through support of Shia extremist groups.

Other lessons from military operations in these campaigns showed that infantry remains a key capability especially in urban areas and mountains. However, the improvements in infantry protection do restrict mobility. Armoured vehicles will continue to perform a key role. Artillery was also effective and the fighting in Ukraine, Syria, and Iraq has shown its continued importance.

The great advantages of the US and its allies in Iraq were their overwhelming air superiority and uncontested use of the electromagnetic spectrum. In future conflicts it is highly unlikely that any force will enjoy these sorts of advantages. Russia places an enormous emphasis in its military doctrine on electronic warfare, and means of bringing down UAVs are fast developing.

For countries that might fear invasion or intervention, the main lesson of the war could be the failure to deter a foreign power. That could mean more investment in anti access and area denial systems. Planning for a fall back position on an insurgency once the conventional army has folded could also be a lesson for many and drive an investment in irregular forces.

The two wars have generated a public distaste in many countries for boots on the ground intervention. That makes intervention a less likely policy option for many countries, meaning that interventions when they do occur will have to be quick and limited.

An associated lesson from such interventions might be that regime change without successful stabilisation could bring about a worse situation than the preceding one.

For most forces, the overriding lesson to be drawn from the book is the need to quickly understand an environment and to rapidly adapt.

Harsh Lessons: Iraq, Afghanistan And the Changing Character of War by Ben Barry
Publisher: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group
ISBN 978-1-1-138-06096-8
Softcover: 164 pages

Apartheid Guns and Money - a tale of profit

Review of apartheid Guns and Mioney“Apartheid Guns and Money - a tale of profit” is the latest addition to the stable of South African non-fiction providing much-needed and valuable insight into the darker workings of government, both pre- and post-apartheid.

Book Review: Firearms Developed and Manufactured in Southern Africa 1949-2000

Firearms Developed and Manufactured in Southern Africa 1949-2000This weighty tome is a definitive reference guide to firearms developed during the region’s golden age of gunmaking.

It took seventeen contributors eight years to produce the book and in the process they accumulated a library of 30 000 documents. A vast amount of original research was undertaken, from interviews to digging through patent documents.

Initially planned to reach no more than 200 pages, the book takes 540 to cover some 200 local firearms, covering everything from hunting rifles, sporting weapons, handguns, machineguns and sniper rifles. Even experimental, one-off and prototype designs are covered, such as a farmer-specific BXP submachinegun, the early prototypes of the Neostead shotgun and experimental assault rifles like the Vektor CR21 and Truvelo Raptor.

Although 1949-2000 was the golden age of firearm production in Southern Africa, the book does cover many firearms up to the date of publication in a wonderful effort to conclude or complete the stories of different manufacturers. For instance Truvelo's CMS 20x42 mm weapon, referred to in the book as a 'pirate gun', is there.

Although focussed on firearms, the book also gives good coverage to the people who designed them and also provides a history of the companies that built them.

Much effort was also put into photographing firearms from every angle, inside and out, to explain the variants, internal workings and identifiers.

The book's mandate is to cover Southern Africa, but as only two such countries produced firearms, there is a comprehensive chapter on Rhodesia, focussing on the busy period of the 1970s. It also becomes evident how big an influence Rhodesian gunsmiths had on South African developments.

Southern African Firearms is a detailed and fascinating firearms study and the effort taken in producing it is clear. The book is an excellent reference work for historians, experts and aficionados alike. Collectors in particular will find the book most useful as it provides much detail on markings, serial numbers and other identifiers.

The fact that there are many firearms covered that the majority of people have never heard of before - such as the Vektor H5 Zip Gun, Quattro Derringer, TS V submachinegun, and NIAST 5.56 mm assault rifle - is testament to the depth of this book and a guarantee it will remain the definitive guide to South African firearms.

Firearms: Developed and Manufactured in Southern Africa 1949-2000
Compiled by the Pretoria Arms Ammunition Association/Pretoria Wapen En Ammunisievereniging - -
Edited By Chas Lotter
Pretoria Arms Ammunition Association 2017
540 pages
1 200 photos
ISBN 9780620728744

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