“This book fascinates… great writing.”
The Washington Post
The Seattle Times
“Simply, one hell of a book. It sounds like something out of James Bond, but it’s all true. We await the inevitable Hollywood movie of this one!”
Michael Rowland, ABC Breakfast
“Journalist Matt Potter spins a nonfiction tale more suspenseful and compelling than any espionage novel. A decade in the making, Outlaws Inc. tells the story of “Mickey” (a pseudonym) and others like him, former military men who found themselves at loose ends when the Soviet Union collapsed. Mickey set himself up as a freelance pilot, flying anything anywhere for anyone. His plane of choice, the Ilyushin-76, has a hidden advantage: a secret space for 15 extra tons of cargo. The rogue airmen of Potter’s book take full advantage of this space to carry profitable, and frequently illegal, cargo. They might fly food aid into a war zone for the U.N., along with a secret shipment of arms that will fuel the conflict. But this is not merely a case of a few lone wolves sowing chaos. Potter makes clear that much higher authorities in government and commerce are involved in this shadow economy. He carefully pieces together firsthand interviews and expert testimony to create an unsettling portrait of this brave new post-Cold War world. Potter’s first-hand accounts of hair-raising missions, high-level obfuscation and battered humanity make his book a must-read for thrill-seekers and policy buffs alike. A vicarious thrill ride.”
Joanna Oppenheimer, The Baltimore Sun
*** The Literary Review ***
Outlaws Inc. Flying with the World’s Most Dangerous Smugglers
By Matt Potter (Sidgwick & Jackson 382pp £11.99)
Reviewed by John Sweeney
Say what you like about the Soviet Union, but they did know how to build machines that would run and run and run. The T-34 tank and its successors were stronger and more robust than anything the Nazis could cook up. The AK-47 is still the weapon of choiceacross the undeveloped world. And in the skies, the Ilyushin Il-76, as unglamorous, lumpy-looking and dogged as a tractor, can lift sixty tonnes ofcargo, take off from a football pitch (admittedly a very long one), and land in an Afghan cabbage patch.
Long after the fall of the Soviet Union, these features make the Il-76, or the Candid (its NATO codename), the favoured transport plane of the United Nations and the major aid agencies when flying anything into one of the world’s worst places: Somalia, Angola, Sierra Leone, Colombia. The thing is, if you dump all the boring health and safety bits and some of the less interesting avionics,you can hide a further fifteen tonnes of cargo, much of it under the main cargo floor. So along with the aid, tents, food, and life-giving drugs, you can also smuggle guns and cash and death-dealing drugs and diamonds and people.
Matt Potter has written a riveting homage to these extraordinary ex-Soviet planes and the dodgily heroic Russian and Ukrainian smugglers who fly and crash them. You could call it freight-aviation crashporn. But it’s also the alternative history of the last twodecades: how the end of the Cold War led not to a longed-for peace but to asplintering of the world and the rise of a series of nasty turf wars, followed by, in 2001, Osama Bin Laden’s entirely successful attempt to enrage the West, triggering a series of violent retaliations. A few days after 9/11 I went to New York to make a documentary about the ordinary, extraordinary people who had lost their lives in the Twin Towers, and I remember a line of script mourning the dead to come. All these wars were made possible through airlifts, and much of the heavy lifting was done by the Il-76s.
Outlaws Inc. contains two cracking stories that are worth the priceof the book alone: the tale of the doomed black shape flying without lightsover Milosevic’s Belgrade and the investigation into what really happened whenbrave Russian aviators escaped their Taliban captors.
Back in 1996, Yugoslavia had become a pariah state and smuggling was pretty much the only business it didwell. One night an overloaded and mechanically faulty Il-76 took off. Its electronics failed totally but it still flew, roaring for three hours over Belgrade, a 176-tonne kerosene bomb, until it came to earth with a bang and the loss of all the souls on board. But what was it carrying? Enter Milosevic’s Men in Black, who swept up all the bits and kept the nosy journalists away. Apart, that is, from a team from the opposition news magazine Vreme, led by Belgrade’s great Miloš Vasić, an ex-copper, Milosevic opponent and champion drinker, who dug into the story. Not long after the Men in Black had departed, the Vreme team got people to talk. On the ground they had found avionic parts of Yugoslav-produced Galeb and Jastreb fighter planes and 23mm cannon ammunition. One source put it simply: ‘So, it looks like Gaddafi’s not getting a flypast at his military parade this year.’ After the crash, according to a report byAmnesty International, the assets of the plane’s owners, SpAir, were transferredto Air Cess, the company started by ‘Lord of War’ Viktor Bout.
In 1996, stranded Russian aviators – prisoners of the Taliban at Kandahar airport – fooled their captorsand flew off, low over the desert. All the Russians got fancy medals and a Moscollywood movie was made. But Potter asks if they really fooled the Taliban. Was a deal done between the Kremlin’s spooks and the Talibs? And those questions trigger a third, most interesting question that Potter raises throughout this book: how much of this smuggling is secretly approved by, for example, the FSB? His answer is rather a lot.
Most depressing of all is the very real possibility that along with aid comes, stashed in the secret places of the Il-76, guns and ammo that make things in starving Africa a lot worse.
I very much enjoyed this book, though that may tell you about my sad state as a wannabe plane-spotter. Potter’s prose resembles the Bournemouth Evening Echo (‘Police are today hunting’) a little too often, and some ofthe stories are a bit repetitive, but these are minor flaws. Outlaws Inc. is the fruit of a passionate eccentricity, full of true gumshoe-detective stuff, the writer slogging through the streets and up in the air, then landing corkscrew-style with his belly in his boots on the tarmac at Bagram airbase. It’s not exactly Gatwick.
“**** Outlaws Inc. is a chilling indictment of a worldwide failure of regulatory will.”
Manchester Evening News
“Outlaws Inc is an explosive mix of heart-stopping action and tenacious detective work that shines a light into the darkest corners of the global underworld, revealing how these flying mercenaries operate – and their influence on the world we live in – all the more terrifying for being true.”
Sean Rayment, author of Bomb Hunters and Security & Defence Correspondent of the Sunday Telegraph
“[It is the] anecdotes that make Matt Potter’s book Outlaws Inc: Flying with the World’s Most Dangerous Smugglers such an interesting read. The author, a British freelance journalist and broadcaster, has spent months travelling with these ex-Soviet types in the ancient Il-76s — and has lived to tell the tale. Through good research and by following these pilots around the globe, Potter tells their action-packed story excessively well.”
“5/5 – The story of these outlaws is a microcosm of the world since the end of the cold war: secret contracts, guerrilla foreign policy, and conflicts too thorny to be handled in public. Potter uses the story of these men to articulate an underground history of the globalized world. At once thrilling, provocative, and morally circumspect, this book is a must-read for anyone with an interest in espionage, or in how the world works today.”
“Fascinating, amazing, insane.”
Fox News Live!
“Espionage, smuggling and secret ransoms highlight this exciting and disturbing book about the outlaws who go where our government won’t. The author, a BBC Radio reporter, reveals the impact of the Soviet military’s sudden dissolution, which left a stockpile of useful military equipment at the disposal of black markets. He traveled with these outlaw aviators as they flew where there was money to be made. Their cargo — legal and illegal — included building supplies, generators and heroin in Afghanistan; humanitarian aid and blood diamonds in Africa; cocaine in Latin America; and arms almost everywhere.”
Barbara Frank, Waco Herald Tribune
“Engrossing examination of the role of ex-Soviet air crews in post–Cold War smuggling and global instability, [Outlaws Inc] reads more like a novel than straight journalism. The personalized narrative is taut and funny; Potter’s prose strains, often successfully, to be ornate and haunting in portraying the doomed, absurdist lot of the airmen… An exciting yet disturbing look at a dark corner of current geopolitics.”
“Riveting, provocative reportage”
Clare Calvet, ABC
“A brilliantly told story. From the Eastern European crews, the action steadily progresses towards the larger players; it will dawn on everyone when they have reached the end of the book that these hardened airmen are mere expendable cogs in a giant machine. The laughs and action along the way make the book’s overall sadness even more poignant. I will certainly buy a copy. ****“
Peter Danssaert, Member, UN Panel of Experts on arms transfers & Researcher, International Peace Information Service
“One of globalization’s seamier corners–the shadowy network of Russian aviators flying rattletrap cargo planes full of contraband to the world’s hellholes–is poked with a stick in this colorful exposé-cum-adventure story. BBC correspondent Power flies along with ‘Mickey’ and his crew of Soviet Air Force vets in their Ilyushin-76 transport plane, a model prized for its secret cargo holds that customs officials never check. The crew and their ilk go everywhere there’s money to be made, legal or not: they transport building supplies, generators, and heroin in Afghanistan, humanitarian aid and blood diamonds in Africa, cocaine in Latin America, and arms almost everywhere. It’s a story rife with ironies–the same flight, the author notes, could carry U.N. food for refugees and Kalashnikovs for the militias who destroyed their homes – which Potter traces upward to the hypocrisies of financiers and governments. But the book’s heart is his vivid, atmospheric reportage on the hungover flyboys who subject their planes–held together more with duct tape than rivets–to potholed airstrips, crazed aerobatics, and ground fire. Through the dissolute romanticism peeks an arresting glimpse of an airborne proletariat desperate for a risky paycheck”
“When communism collapses, some Russian military men get together and buy a decommissioned Soviet plane for mere kopeks, then launch a shipping business. Soon they’re crisscrossing borders with everything from illegal weapons to emergency aid, trading behind the scenes with the Taliban, the U.S. government, and various global corporations. It’s scary, but it pays, until the world settles into a new groove and their smuggling expertise isn’t in as much demand. Then they move their operations to a particularly troubled part of Africa. Okay, sounds like a thriller, but it’s all true. Widely published British journalist Potter traveled with these risk takers for a time so that he could tell their story. This should be great narrative nonfiction reading.”
“Conflicts don’t arm themselves. Weapons, fuel, explosives, and even medicine and other aid must constantly arrive at the front lines to keep a war fuelled. And in Outlaws Inc., Potter does an admirable job of showing just how that demand is met… Potter brings an immensely complex story in for a gentle landing. Outlaws Inc. is a thorough, well-sourced account of how the fly-by-night transport trade works.”
Gerry Doyle in The National
“A shocking read… well written and extremely well researched. I found myself getting engrossed into the book and not wanting to put it down…”
ARRSE British Army Book Reviews