Respond to this Article January/February 2002

Comrades in Arms

Meet the former Soviet mobsters who sell terrorists their guns.

By Ken Silverstein

There is nothing remarkable about Cinisello Balsamo, a working-class town in Northern Italy just outside Milan. No famous churches or ruins. No great bars or restaurants. Tourists seldom visit. The rich do not go there to see or be seen. All of which was fine with Leonid Minin; the shadowy, Ukranian-born Israeli millionaire wasn't looking for attention. During his frequent visits to Cinisello Balsamo, Minin liked to stay at the equally anonymous Hotel Europa, across the street from the town's main cathedral, where $75 can get you a double room and the privacy to do what you want. Which is what Minin was doing until the wee hours of August 5, 2000, when police, acting on a tip, barged into Room 341 and found Minin surrounded by four naked prostitutes, 58 grams of cocaine and half a million dollars worth of diamonds.

A further search turned up a green briefcase stuffed with some 1,500 documents in English, Russian, Dutch, and French. Months later, after translating and reviewing the documents, Italian law enforcement authorities discovered that they had stumbled upon an international arms dealer. Minin, they say, had been running guns from Eastern Europe to the regime of Charles Taylor in Liberia and to the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), a vicious guerrilla group in neighboring Sierra Leone---both of which are banned from receiving weapons under a United Nations arms embargo. Now Minin is in jail awaiting trial on arms-trafficking charges. If convicted---the trial is expected to get underway as early as this spring---he faces up to 12 years in prison.

The paper trail seized by the police offers a rare glimpse into the new and usually opaque world of post-Cold-War international arms brokers. It shows how a new generation of black market suppliers have helped turn the former Soviet bloc into a weapons warehouse for outlaw regimes, insurgencies, and terrorist groups.

In late 1997 and early 1998, planes laden with arms departed from the Ukraine and flew to Peshawar in Pakistan. From there, the materiel was trucked to the Taliban government in Kabul. During the 1990s, Iraq and Yugoslavia bought tens of millions of dollars worth of weapons with the help of black market suppliers based in Eastern Europe, despite being the objects of U.N. embargoes at the time. And while it's difficult to trace back weapons shipments to their original supplier, U.S. government officials believe that black market arms find their way to weapons bazaars in places like Somalia, Pakistan, and Yemen, and from there are bought by terrorist groups.

The primary destination of most of the illicit small arms is Africa, where eleven major conflicts (involving 32 countries) have erupted during the past decade. Among the bloodiest are those in Liberia and Sierra Leone, where tens of thousands of people have been killed, half a million have become refugees, and as many as two million have been displaced.

Italian authorities suspect that Minin may have ties to a number of other Eastern European gunrunners who have been arrested in their country over the past few years. "It's important to stop this now because otherwise the problem could explode here," says Walter Mapelli, the prosecutor who is preparing the case against Minin.

The Italians aren't the only ones worried about the likes of Minin. U.S. officials and security experts say that the small-arms trade fuels the growing instability that breeds and harbors terrorism. "The chaos that exists in parts of Africa has created a black hole where terrorists can come and go and conceal their activities," says an administration official who requested anonymity. His views are echoed by Rep. Ed Royce (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Africa Subcommittee. At a hearing on Nov. 16, he charged that international terrorist cells are operating in several African countries. "U.S. policies toward all regions of the world have been forced to adjust to the post-September 11 world," he said. "The general weakness of African governments makes parts of the continent hospitable grounds for terrorist operations."

One of the hospitable parts of the continent that Royce had in mind is Liberia, where arms dealers, drug traffickers, Eastern European mobsters, and mercenaries have all found safe haven under Taylor. So, too, has Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda network, according to a recent story in The Washington Post which reported that al Qaeda set up shop in Liberia in 1998 and has earned millions of dollars by buying cheap diamonds from Taylor's government and selling them in Europe. Last March, the U.S. government backed a United Nations resolution that banned travel by senior Liberian officials and Monrovia's chief financial and military supporters, including Minin. Now, the Bush administration is supporting efforts to tighten sanctions in an effort to cut the flow of weapons to Liberia and the RUF, which is supported by Taylor's regime.

Lee Wolosky, a former National Security Council official, calls black-market dealers a new and significant security threat. "There can be no world order with these international criminal syndicates running amok," says Wolosky, who until last July headed a little-known interagency working group charged with monitoring and controlling the small arms trade. "They have significantly increased regional destabilization in Africa and threaten the transition to law-based democratic states in Central and Eastern Europe."

Missiles in a Pig Pen

The lion's share of the international arms trade consists of above-board deals between corporate entities and national governments---Lockheed Martin selling a package of F-16 fighter planes to Chile, to cite one recent example. In such cases, private brokers have no role. Lockheed negotiates directly with Chilean government officials and submits the proper paperwork for review at the Office of Defense Trade Controls, the State Department agency charged with overseeing the arms business.

However, private brokers are essential in moving weapons to regimes under international embargoes or to insurgents or terrorists who have no legal means of purchasing arms. Brokers cover the tracks with complex financial transactions that make it almost impossible to follow the money, bribes to ensure that customs inspectors and other officials avert their gaze from illicit cargo, and bogus documents, especially "end-user certificates" that show a false destination for the arms. Once shipped, the goods are re-routed to their true destination.

During the Cold War, a small number of arms dealers with close ties to the CIA or KGB dominated the private weapons trade. As the Soviet bloc imploded, a new generation of arms dealers appeared on the scene. Their ranks include numerous Eastern European mobsters, who are likely to be involved in drug trafficking, prostitution, and other criminal activities as well as weapons peddling. Cold War-era arms dealers were certainly not paragons of virtue, but they sometimes had ideological as well as financial motives. Minin, like most of the new breed, arranged black-market transfers with only "the pure motive of pure profit" in mind (as George Bernard Shaw put it in Major Barbara, his satire of the arms business).

It's impossible to know precisely how much weaponry is moved on the black market, but estimates range from hundreds of millions of dollars to several billion dollars' worth per year. Due to the nature of what they sell, private dealers play an especially significant role in geopolitical affairs. Approximately 90 percent of all war victims are killed by small arms---three million people in the last 10 years alone. Herbert Calhoun, a senior foreign affairs specialist at the State Department's Bureau of Political-Military Affairs until retiring last November, calls small arms "today's real weapons of mass destruction."

Rep. Tony Hall (D-Ohio), the author of legislation passed by the House in late November that is designed to stop the sale of "conflict diamonds"---gems that pay for African wars---says that there are practical as well as humanitarian reasons to police the black-market trade. "If we turn our back and ignore the problem, we're liable to get sucked in anyway," he says. "The wars in Africa can be so disruptive and brutal that the U.S. ends up committing money and sometimes troops to stop them."

Yet law enforcement agencies have a hard time combating Minin and other black-market dealers because, says Wolosky, they are "stateless" threats. They typically use one jurisdiction as a hub, a second as a banking center, a third to buy arms, a fourth as a weapons depot and on and on. "They operate like drug cartels," says Wolosky. "They disguise their identities and business operations so well that it's hard to know the scope of their activities or even who is involved."

Another problem in combating illegal trafficking is that the U.S. government, like many others, is perfectly happy to use arms dealers to carry out covert deals when it is deemed to be in the national interest (see sidebar). The Reagan era marked the halcyon days for such "gray-market" transfers, with the U.S. employing numerous brokers to secretly funnel weapons to guerrilla groups in Nicaragua, Afghanistan, and Angola. More recently, the Clinton administration turned a blind eye to covert arms transfers that Iran organized to Bosnian Muslim forces during the war in the Balkans.

At the U.N. small arms conference held last summer, the Bush administration refused to sign an agreement until a clause was dropped that would have banned armed sales to guerrilla groups. One immediate reason for American opposition to the clause, according to a source who is close to intelligence officials, is that the administration has hopes of establishing a major covert-weapons pipeline to opponents of Saddam Hussein. (Of course, following the September 11 attacks, the United States may directly topple Hussein.)

For brokers, securing weapons has never been easier. Most of the former Communist states are in dire economic straits and desperate for hard currency; they see arms sales, covert or overt, as a means of generating it. The illegal arms trade is further driven by rampant corruption in military bureaucracies in Eastern Europe, where plenty of insiders have grown rich on bribes and kickbacks. Much of the dirty money comes from Mafia organizations, which buy weapons directly from state factories and military stocks, then warehouse the materiel at makeshift depots around the former East Bloc. One American arms broker I interviewed told of inspecting surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) and other merchandise offered by a seller in Armenia. The goods were stored in empty stalls at a pig farm.

Besides Ukraine, Bulgaria has emerged as the supplier of choice for black market dealers. Kintex, a state-owned arms exporter established during the Communist era, has supplied clients ranging from Burundi---where it armed both government forces and insurgents fighting against them---to Croatia, which turned to Sofia for help during the Balkans war. In one case, Kintex was caught shipping weapons to the Croats on an end-user certificate that showed Bolivia as the purchaser. This raised suspicions, since Bolivia exclusively uses NATO-standard arms. So did the fact that the certificate's signer, the illustrious General Juan Carlos Montano, turned out not to exist.

Russia, a country which the Bush administration has been avidly courting, has made increased arms exports a central component of its foreign policy. Rosvoorouzhenie, the state-owned firm that handles about 90 percent of overseas sales, publishes a weapons catalogue that offers "not only the most updated high-tech samples of Russian armaments but also a variety of tailor-made versions compatible with systems manufactured in other countries." Moscow's weapons have also been liberally supplied to black-market dealers. According to news accounts, members of the Russian mafia have supplied arms to Chechen rebels who use them to kill Russian soldiers.

David Adler, a former CIA case officer who followed the Eastern European weapons pipeline, points out that after the fall of Communism, the former Soviet Bloc countries didn't have many viable exports. "Nobody was lining up to buy their cars," he says. "Weapons became their cash crop."

A retired U.S. intelligence officer who has brokered arms transfers out of Eastern Europe laughed when I asked how difficult it would be for him to arrange an illicit deal---say for a few hundred Russian-made SAMs. Obtaining a range of price quotes from his sources---European-based brokers with good contacts in the East, officials at various Ministries of Defense, higher-ups at a few scattered weapons factories---would take no more than 48 hours. For a bogus end-user certificate, he'd turn to a European arms dealer who traditionally kept a stack in his safe. "The seller would need some time to get an export license, then you charter a plane to pick up the goods and away they go," says this source. "The whole process could be completed in a month."

The ready availability of small arms, combined with a glut of weapons available through legal channels, has made prices absurdly low. A July 1999 report by the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research said that in some African countries an AK-47 Kalashnikov assault rifle can be had for as little as $6. "In some countries it is easier and cheaper to buy an AK-47 than to attend a movie or provide a decent meal," the report said. The American arms broker I interviewed said that a shoulder-fired SA-7 surface-to-air missile, an older Russian model that is largely ineffective against the most modern military aircraft but deadly if used by a terrorist against a commercial airliner, goes for about $8,000 on the black market. Newer Russian IGLAs, which are far more accurate and can bring down a helicopter gunship or a low-flying combat plane, are available for about $25,000.

Diamonds in the RUF

Investigators who are examining Minin's activities---not only the Italian authorities but also a panel at the U.N.---have uncovered a long pattern of murky business dealings. Born in Odessa in 1947, Minin emigrated to Israel in the 1970s and established a global web of companies, many of them discreetly incorporated offshore. Minin's primary business vehicle is Monaco-based Limad AG, which also has offices in Switzerland, China, and Russia, while his business interests include---in addition to arms---timber, chemicals, food, clothing, scrap metal, and oil. A U.N. report from 2000 on arms trafficking into Liberia reports that Minin uses dozens of aliases and travels with passports from Germany, Israel, Russia, Bolivia, and Greece. "[He] has a history of involvement in criminal activities ranging from east European organized crime, trafficking in stolen works of art, illegal possession of fire arms, arms trafficking, and money laundering," says the report.

Minin's business contacts and associates are equally unsavory. They have included Vladimir Missyurin, a Russian mobster who was shot and killed near Brussels in 1994, Alexander Angert, a Ukrainian mafioso and convicted murderer affectionately nicknamed The Angel, and Alexander Zukhov, a Ukrainian emigre who Italian authorities arrested last April and charged with illegally funneling weapons to Croatia during the Balkans war.

By the late-1990s, Minin had become a major broker of arms to Liberia, where Charles Taylor took power in 1997 following a seven-year civil war that the writer Kenneth Cain has described as "a relentless campaign of sadistic, wanton violence unimaginable to those unfamiliar with the details of man's capacity to visit the abyss." According to Cain, Taylor "inaugurated the use of grade school-age children as scouts, spies, and cannon fodder [and] explicitly employed terror tactics, ethnic cleansing, and political assassinations." Taylor brought this same style of rule to the presidency, which he assumed in July 1997. The political opposition and press have been largely silenced and Human Rights Watch says in its most recent report on Liberia that members of the police and armed forces act "with complete impunity" in carrying out harassment, extortion, mistreatment, killings, "disappearances," and torture.

In foreign policy, Taylor is chiefly known for providing Sierra Leone's RUF with weaponry, military training, and logistical support. In return for his backing, the RUF---which routinely amputates the limbs of those who oppose it---supplies Taylor with looted diamonds from areas it controls. (There are now hopes that the terrible war in Sierra Leone may be winding down. Thousands of RUF fighters have trooped into demobilization camps during the past year, U.N. forces have been deployed across the country and elections are set for this May.)

While most Liberians live in dire poverty, Taylor has plenty of money for his personal use and to finance arms purchases for his security forces. Diamonds from the RUF are a primary source of his funding, which investigators believe explains the haul of gemstones found in Minin's possession at the time of his arrest.

Under Taylor's rule, arms traffickers have prospered in Liberia, among them Gus Kouwenhoven, a Dutch national who runs the Hotel Africa outside Monrovia, and the notorious Victor Bout, a Russian broker based in the United Arab Emirates (see sidebar). Minin, though, was the best-connected gunrunner in the country, as well as the most visible. When in Liberia, he lived in a compound near Kouwenhoven's hotel and was invariably escorted by a three-man security detail. He was well known as a chronic cocaine user and frequent client of local prostitutes.

In addition to providing the government with arms, Minin was involved in the diamond trade and operated a logging company called Exotic Tropical Timber Enterprise. Alex Vines, who served on the U.N. panel of experts that reported on Liberia, says Minin supplied arms to Taylor in the hopes of winning timber concessions for his firm.

The key to Minin's success was his intimate tie to Taylor. So close were the two men that in late 1998, Minin turned over his personal jet to Taylor for use as Liberia's presidential plane. The aircraft---a $2 million, 27-seat BAC 1-11 that Minin bought through an Orlando, Florida-based firm called Cortran International---had previously served as the team plane for the N.B.A.'s Seattle Supersonics. Taylor was so anxious to use it that he never bothered to paint over the club's insignia on the tail. As soon as he took possession, Taylor dispatched the plane to Niger to pick up a consignment of weapons from the armed forces, which were brought back to Liberia and sent to the RUF. A few days after receiving the arms, the rebels launched a bloody offensive that left at least 5,000 people dead and ultimately gave the RUF control of the country's best diamond fields. Taylor himself flew on Minin's plane to attend regional peace negotiations in Togo and to attend the presidential inauguration in Nigeria.

Lou Leggett of Cortran became friendly with Minin and traveled with him to Monaco and Rome, both cities where Minin maintained multimillion-dollar homes. Leggett---who says he was unaware of his friend's involvement with weapons or drugs---also flew with Minin to Odessa and Moscow in the hopes of meeting potential clients for Cortran. He recalls that when Minin's plane landed at the airport, a team of heavily armed bodyguards would rush to greet it. "Everywhere we went these guys would surround the plane," he says. "It scared the hell out of me."

In the course of conducting business, Minin travelled frequently between Africa and Europe, with Italy becoming a primary base for his operations. His lifestyle was hardly extravagant, at least in the conventional sense. At Cinisello Balsamo, he generally stayed at the Hotel Europa, of which he was the majority owner. He also owned a small apartment in a drab six-story building, located on an industrial strip that is home to a Kodak plant, a tire factory, and a boarded-up electronic store outlet. According to law enforcement authorities, Minin preferred a Ukrainian diet of cabbages, potatoes, and onions to expensive restaurant fare. He did have an enormous appetite for sex and drugs, however, which proved to be his downfall.

The man in charge of the Minin investigation is Salvatore la Barbera, who in the early 1990s led the successful probe into the Cosa Nostra hit on two anti-Mafia judges, Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino. Now head of the state police's organized crime unit in Milan, la Barbera said that he had been alarmed by the material turned over to his office by the local police in Cinisello Balsamo. "It is not common that we investigate when the crimes are committed in a foreign country, but it was felt to be important as [the evidence suggested Minin] might be part of an international criminal organization," he observed during an interview at police headquarters.

La Barbera recently concluded his work and sent a report to Mapelli, the prosecutor, who works in the nearby town of Monza. It's a charming place with windy stone streets and a famous cathedral that holds the jeweled crown worn by Charlemagne when he was crowned emperor of the West in the year 800, but Mapelli's office sits on a bland stretch amid apartment buildings, a gas station and a McDonald's. Mapelli showed me some of the documents that investigators used to piece together the two specific weapons deals that led to the court charges Minin now faces. The first transaction took place in March 1999, when Minin helped ship 68 tons of weapons from the Ukraine to Burkina Faso. The latter country, which could legally buy arms, served merely as a brief pass- through point for the operation. From there, Minin's private jet carried the weapons to Monrovia in a series of back-to-back flights. Part of the materiel remained with Taylor's forces and the rest was sent on to the RUF.

Minin organized the second deal, which took place 16 months later, with the help of Valery Cherny, a longtime Moscow-based associate. Ukraine once again supplied the weapons---113 tons of materiel, including assault rifles, grenade launchers, night-vision equipment, and eight million rounds of ammunition---but this time the Ivory Coast served as the cutout. After being flown there, the weapons were transferred to a waiting plane that carried them on to Monrovia. The end-user for the deal, according to documents found in Minin's briefcase, was provided by Ivory Coast dictator General Robert Guei, who was overthrown in a coup three months later. "Minin may have been taking part in other criminal activities, but what we know for certain is that he arranged these two deals," Mapelli said.

As the prosecution prepares for trial, Minin seems to be having a hard time mounting his defense. By all appearances he's a highly temperamental man and has already gone through four attorneys, most recently Pietro Traini from Milan. I had an interview scheduled with Traini, but Minin fired him a few days before I arrived in Italy and he said that he could no longer discuss specifics of the case. "I represented him for three months only and I am very tired," he said with a shake of his head. "He is a difficult, difficult client." Minin's civil attorney in Rome, Giorgio Sbarbara, is seeking new criminal representation for his client. He, too, refused to comment on the case other than to say that Minin is "refuting all the charges."

For his part, Minin---who is not allowed to speak with the press---denies any involvement in the arms trade. During an interrogation with investigators, Minin claimed that the documents found in his hotel room belonged to Valery Cherny, and that he had inadvertently slipped them into his briefcase when the two men met in Bulgaria a few days prior to his arrest.

Meanwhile, groups like Human Rights Watch and Global Witness are pressing governments to take steps to restrict the black-market trade. One suggestion is to establish a centralized international agency to authenticate end-user certificates, which would minimize the use of forged documents. In March 2000, a U.N. panel recommended that sanctions be imposed on any nation that deliberately violates international arms embargoes.

U.S. officials would not provide details about the government's initiatives: "The problem is being addressed at a classified level," one explained. In off the record conversations, they say that because virtually all black-market transfers take place outside the U.S., American officials can only pass on information to foreign law enforcement agencies and urge them to take action. Perhaps the greatest possibility to pressure Eastern European governments is in regard to NATO membership. "Almost all of them want to join and we need to let them know that facilitating black market sales will not increase their chances," says one source.

Of course, the broader problem is that in the weapons business, as with the drug trade, there is an abundance of buyers and sellers. "Minin is important but he's not unique," says Alex Vines. "There are plenty of others like him who Taylor and others can turn to if they want to buy weapons."

Ken Silverstein is a Washington-based jounralist who frequently covers the arms trade. This story was supported by a grant from the Fund for Investigative Journalism. Thanks also to Alice Blondel of Global Witness for providing important material on Minin.


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