The sleazy men who trade in the tools of death
‘It’s in the DNA,” Andrew Feinstein says. We've been talking arms dealers, and I’ve been marvelling at just how sleazy and how much the stuff of B-grade movies they all appear to be – at least as presented in Feinstein’s compendious new book, The Shadow World: Inside the Global Arms Trade.
Take Leonid Minin, one of the most notorious suppliers of arms to former Liberian strongman Charles Taylor, who fuelled the press-ganged child soldiers he unleashed on neighbouring Sierra Leone with a psychotic mix of Kalashnikovs and drip-fed amphetamines.
Minin was finally taken down not by the institutions of global outrage but by Italian cops on a routine vice bust after a spurned prostitute lodged a complaint in Cinisello Balsamo outside Milan, claiming she had not been properly remunerated for her services. Following up, the cops found Minin in his hotel suite engaged in what appeared to be a long-range orgy from the imagination of Charlie Sheen. There were four girls of the night in attendance, there was ambient porn on the television, there were mounds of cocaine on every surface, and a litter of diamonds on the floor.
And, though this had nothing to do with the original purpose of the raid, there were documents and computers that incontrovertibly proved the Ukrainian-born Minin had fuelled and profited from some of the most cynical and brutal conflicts in the world’s recent history.
Or take the extraordinarily sinister network of unreconstructed Nazis who formed a network around Uber-dealer Gerhard Mertins’s Merex, building their initial cachet by trading Nazi military secrets with the CIA in the later 1940s, then consolidating themselves as major players in the grey and black weapons trade throughout the remainder of the 20th century.
Offering among other very grey services specialist training in interrogation and torture to tyrants around the world, the Merex lot were also linked up with a chilling survivalist community in Chile known as Colonia Dignidad, whose membership at times included the fugitive Nazi war criminal Klaus Barbie. While its Merex dealers supplied him with weapons, Colonia Dignidad provided Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet with a discreet venue for torturing his political opponents, all as part of the one-stop service.
Such stories from the annals of arms dealing, as uncovered by Feinstein in his researches, run like a toxic thread through the 500-plus pages of his meticulously researched volume, which was launched in Cape Town last night.
But – and this is his point – they are not essentially aberrant in the context of weapons dealing. One of the jobs recorded by a British Aerospace official handling the account of Saudi Arabian wheeler dealer Prince Bandar was to procure girls for his ongoing delectation. BAe also gave Bandar, as a thank-you for securing massive deals with his home country, an aircraft painted in the colours of the Dallas Cowboys football team.
For Feinstein, as he makes clear, it is all part of a continuum of corruption and criminality that stretches from the “pork-barrel” politics of the US – whereby support for the often outrageous projects engaged by the military industrial complex is secured by ensuring that economic benefits and campaign contributions go to congressmen supporting their bills – to the system of covert agents embraced by BAe, to the outright sleaze of operators like Minin and the recently convicted Viktor Bout.
“In my over 11 years of researching the industry I have yet to come across an arms deal that did not have an element of illegality,” Feinstein observes.
“The trade accounts for around 40 percent of all corruption in all world trade, according to work done by Transparency International’s Joe Roeber.”
Feinstein has a quiet and earnest, though far from humourless, presence. But what is inescapable in talking to him is that his research, sober, thorough and academically weighted though it might be, is driven by powerfully held moral imperatives.
In his book, after driving a forensically sharpened stake into the heart of the Israeli defence industry and its questionable links with the US military industrial complex, he suddenly shifts persona, speaks as the son of a Holocaust survivor and pleads with the Israeli government to remember the suffering of Jews in more appropriate ways than by emerging as the bullies and thugs of the Middle East.
And as we talk and my somewhat gritty coffee gets cold, his gaze moves over the present situation in Africa. One of his major concerns in the current frame is with the establishment by the US of an African command centre and how that is going to play out in the time to come.
“I believe that the establishment of Africom has resulted in the US engaging with Africa through a military prism,” he says.
“This leads to the involvement of special forces in areas of the continent, as well as the use of private military contractors like Xe/Blackwater and individuals including Joe der Hovsepian, the Lebanese-Armenian arms dealer I interviewed, who was a contractor for USAID in Liberia, among other places.
“This approach to the continent is deeply worrying, but reflects US behaviour in most parts of the world: driven by its self-perceived role as the world’s policeman and by the profit needs of its main defence contractors and private military service providers.”
Or, you could say, business as usual.