My Adventures with Mercenary Aviators: A Secret History of Globalization, Organized Crime and Terror

09/19/2011 01:54 pm ET | Updated Nov 19, 2011
  • Matt Potter Journalist, presenter and author of non-fiction bestsellers 'Outlaws Inc: Flying with the world's most dangerous smugglers' (Pan MacMillan/Bloomsbury) & 'F**k You & Goodbye: The Dark & Hilarious History of the Resignation' (Little, Brown)

The first time mujahideen rebels started shooting at us and our antique Soviet plane, I was more scared than I've ever been. In the first wave of planes to supply Coalition forces in Afghanistan, the Taliban considered aid and military flights fair game. The jets screamed; the Russian pilot looked like he was asleep. The loadmaster was swigging vodka from a bottle as the aircraft nosedived towards the tarmac at an impossible angle, and with the few seconds I had left, I prepared myself to die surrounded by madmen and drunks.
The second time, I knew better. By then it was clear that I was, as doctors in private clinics say, in the very best of hands.

Mikhail and his crew - a privateering crew of former Soviet aviators, often half-cut on booze, always unshaven and mostly the wrong side of 40 -- had been there, done it, and got the T-shirt a thousand times, over Chechnya, Iraq, Somalia, Colombia, the Congo and here in Afghanistan. The crew were calm. They knew the range of the rockets being fired at us. And well they might. They had delivered them to the rebels.

It's a job, like any other: the one, Mikhail later told me, "we were brought up to do." As fresh-faced young Soviet air force recruits, they'd flown these deadly missions boy and man, delivering weapons, tanks, ammo and whatever else was needed to whoever had the cash. And they've never stopped. When the USSR imploded, they were left high and dry: the biggest standing army in the world arrived home from Cuba and Colombia, Africa, Eastern Europe and Asia within weeks, touching down in a bankrupted Union in the midst of disintegration and a mafia takeover. No back pay. No homes. No air force pension. No future.

So Mickey and his friends did the only thing they could: they flew off in their old plane, coated it in primer on some remote Kazakh airfield, and went into private business. Man with truck, any job considered. Only their truck was one of the largest, toughest, most versatile combat planes ever made, with enough secret compartments to carry up to 15 extra tonnes of 'invisible' cargo. The bankrupt Soviet army was selling off its weapons stockpiles cheap to whoever had the cash, and Mickey and the boys found themselves in demand. It was the beginning of a boom in illicit cargo and arms-running that continues to shape our world.

When the Coalition commanders put out the call for assistance from "non-state actors" in post-invasion Afghanistan and Iraq in the wake of 9/11, I got the chance to join one of these shadowy outlaw crews myself, on the Kabul delivery run that has since become infamous for the part it plays in the guns-for-opium trade. The irony is that, until months before, they were running missions for the Taliban too.

A keen Russophile, I'd been hearing stories -- legends, almost -- about guys like Mickey for years. I'd been in Russia as the USSR blew apart, seen soldiers sprinting from their posts carrying bundles of rifles to sell at market, and special forces soldiers loading insignia-free private cargo jets at airbases; I'd witnessed the orgy of trafficked cocaine, luxury goods and bullets in Milosevic's Serbia -- officially a country under lockdown, but filled with high-living Mafiosi courtesy of these ex-Soviet mercenary aviators and their nightly delivery run. I'd watched their handywork in South America, where sacks of jettisoned cocaine washed up on the shore the morning after a botched rendezvous, to the delight of local fishermen. Secretive air hubs sprouted up, Little Russias in the deserts of Asia and jungles of Africa, haunted by airmen, rebels and ex-KGB men turned fixers. Their illicit gunrunning activities, it was said, connected FARC and CIA-sponsored renditions, blood diamonds and the Russian mafia, Al-Qaeda and the UN itself, in one giant web of illicit transportation and complicity: arms, aid, drugs, people, whatever. Outlaws Inc is the record of my journey into that web, in the company of these hellraising mercenary pilots.

It was a journey that would take me from the mafia-controlled Wild East of Russia to the Afghan mountains, Cocaine Coast of Central America. It took me to the Horn of Africa, where humanitarian aid for Somali refugees shares a hold with Kalashnikovs and RPG launchers for al-Shabaab, US-backed mercenaries, and strongboxes full of ransom cash from Wall Street insurance firms, to be dropped onto the decks of hijacked ships for the pirates. And finally, it took me closer to home -- and to Western governments -- than I could ever have imagined.

The story is sometimes shocking, as when I discovered that humanitarian aid was being transported into disaster zones alongside consignments of weapons that would later be used to attack the very same refugees the aid was to help. Sometimes, it is heartening. In the end, these airmen are not villains, any more than they are heroes. Like us -- like me -- they are subcontracted, paid for and doing the only job they know the best way they can. To quote a business associate of Russian cargo baron Viktor Bout, the so-called 'Merchant of Death' awaiting trial in New York whose movements across the globe I trace in Outlaws Inc., they are taxi drivers: who are they to ask what their pickups are carrying?

Accountable to no-one, available to everyone, their story amounts to a secret history of the move towards free-market globalization. And 20 years after the big bang that set these crews loose, a decade on from the 9/11 attacks organized by an al-Qaeda many of their flights still equip, as this empire of the global marketplace totters and shakes, it also provides a timely warning of the cost of moral blindness in the name of free trade.