There's a memorable sequence at the start of the 2005 Hollywood blockbustrer, “Lord of War” which shows a bullet's eye view of a bullet's life cycle, from a manufacturing plant through various intermediaries till 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 fact is, as Andrew Feinstein explains in this remarkable and couragous book, that governments are so heavily involved in the deeply corrupt world of arms dealing, that they turn a blind eye to the human cost and the damage they do to their own economic and moral integrity.
The “Lord of War”, played by Nicolas Cage, was based on the life Russian arms dealer, Viktor Bout aka “the merchant of death”, who made his name busting arms embargoes in African states in the 1990s. He helped arm the Liberian dictator Charles Taylor's murderous NPFL, and the psychopathic Sierra Leonian bandit Foday Sankoh's RUF, which used child soldiers doped with crack cocaine to kill tens of thousands of civilians. The activities of the RUF featured in another Hollywood film, “Blood Diamond”, starring Leo diCaprio, in 2006 which connected up the dots between the illegal diamond trade and international gun running.
Despite their lurid celebrity these master of war are rarely prosecuted. Viktor 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 in Thailand and put pressure on the Thai authorities not to allow his extradition. It took two years and the personal intervention of Barack Obama to get him to America, where he was finally convicted last week.
It may be that Bout's capture was only made possibly 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 Bout's immunity arose from his being a US intelligence “asset”. There is evidence that he and his associates were indeed involved in George W Bush's “War on Terror”, and provided information about terrorist organisations like al Qaeda which Bout had supplied. Indeed, Feinstein clams 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 world peace. If it takes a multi million dollar film before any of these monsters are 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 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, and the source of most of the wealth of arms dealers like Adnan Khashoggi, was the al Yamamah arms deal, the biggest in the world, negotiated personally by Margaret Thatcher with the Saudi Royal family in 1985. It was an arms-for-oil deal worth £40bn, benefiting the UK defence conglomerate BAE systems, and according to Feinstein, Iron Lady's son, Mark Thatcher, who swept up the crumbs. Huge sums were paid in “commissions” 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 questionable 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 African National Congress was persuaded by BAE to spend £6 billions 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 ten 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.