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Making a Killing
There’s a memorable sequence at the start of the 2005 Hollywood blockbuster Lord Of War which shows a bullet’s-eye view of a bullet’s life cycle, from a manufacturing plant through various intermediaries until it ends up in the head of an African civilian via the chamber of a Kalashnikov.
The message is clear: arms don’t come from nowhere. From factory to gun, there is a path that is easy to trace for anyone with the will so to do.
The lord of war played by Nicolas Cage in the film was partly based on the life of alleged Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, aka “the merchant of death”, who made his name by using his air freight company to bust arms embargoes in African states such as Liberia and Sierra Leone in the 1990s. Another Hollywood film, Blood Diamond, starring Leonardo DiCaprio, connected up the dots between the illegal diamond trade and international gun-running.
Despite their lurid celebrity, these masters of war are rarely prosecuted. Bout was finally arrested after a sting operation in Thailand in 2008 when he offered to sell weapons to US DEA agents posing as members of the Colombian marxist group FARC. He had been under the protection of Russian oligarchs, who were furious when their man was arrested and put pressure on the Thai authorities not to allow his extradition. It took two years and the personal intervention of President Barack Obama to get him to America, where he was found guilty last week .
It may be that Bout’s capture was only made possible by Hollywood. Had it not been for the publicity generated by these films, it’s unlikely that the President himself would have been involved. In Lord Of War, it was suggested that the main character’s immunity arose from his being a US intelligence “asset” and, indeed, Feinstein claims that an attempt by the Belgian authorities to arrest Bout in Athens in 2002 was foiled when US intelligence sources tipped him off.
Fact is indeed stranger than fiction, which is good news for Hollywood, but bad news for the future of world peace. If it takes a multi-million dollar film before any of these people is arrested, then God help Africa. Mind you, there is enough in Feinstein’s book for a dozen film pitches. Bizarre characters leap from the page – like Adnan Khashoggi, confidant of royalty, who claimed to be the wealthiest man in the world and whose yacht, Nabila, was used in the Bond film Never Say Never Again. Then there is Dale Stoeffel, a US arms adventurer and ex special forces agent in the Bruce Willis mould, who stood to make a killing out of the war in Iraq but was himself killed in 2004 after he crossed members of the provisional Iraqi government. Yoshio Kodoma, aka “The Monster”, worked closely with US arms companies as they bribed and bought their way to the heart of the Japanese government.
But the grand-daddy of them all was the Al Yamamah arms deal, the biggest in the world, negotiated personally by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher with the Saudi Royal family in 1985. It was an arms-for-oil deal worth £40 billion, benefiting the UK defence conglomerate BAE systems and, according to documents submitted to parliament by Tam Dalyell in 1994, the Iron Lady’s son, Mark Thatcher. Huge sums were paid in “commissions” and other kickbacks to Saudi Princes and shady intermediaries. More than £6bn was paid out, and some of it, according to Feinstein, even flowed through the accounts of the Saudi fixer, Prince Bandar, into the pockets of two of the terrorists responsible for 9/11.
Feinstein’s account of how the Serious Fraud Office was nobbled in its attempt to bring BAE to justice is deeply disturbing because of the insight it gives into the way that the entire British establishment has been subborned by decades-long complicity in the arms firm’s illegal activities. Feinstein has seen BAE’s modus operandi at close hand. He was an MP in the South African parliament after the collapse of apartheid, and he saw how the ANC was persuaded by BAE to spend £6bn on weapons systems it didn’t need while millions died of HIV/AIDS.
We knew the arms business was corrupt, but only a book as exhaustively researched as this one is able to reveal just how serious and extensive this corruption really is, and how democracy itself is threatened. “The tragic reality,” Feinstein says, “is that arms companies, large and small, and arms dealers and agents, get away with corruption and bribery on a massive scale, complicity in crimes against humanity and even murder. They operate in a shadow world, taking advantage of gaps in the international legal system and hiding behind the protective cover of powerful politicians and intelligence agencies.”
The Shadow World is a heroic book by an author who, in writing it, has placed himself in the firing line. We surely can’t go on leaving this story to Hollywood. The global arms trade totalled $1.6 trillion in 2010, up 53% in 10 years. As the world plunges into a double dip recession, with huge stockpiles of weapons, the script is being written for the ultimate disaster movie.