Misha Glenny’s McMafia takes a riveting, original and comprehensive look at international crime and the dark side of globalisation. With a major BBC series based on the book due to air in January, starring James Norton, Juliet Rylance and Caio Blat, now is the perfect time to discover this unmissable read.
Have you ever illegally downloaded a DVD? Taken drugs? Fallen for a phishing scam? Organised crime is part of all our worlds – often without us even knowing. McMafia is a journey through the new world of international organised crime, from gunrunners in Ukraine to money launderers in Dubai, by way of drug syndicates in Canada and cyber criminals in Brazil.
Read on from an extract from McMafia by Misha Glenny!
It was the evening of April 30th, 1994, and spring had settled on Woking in Surrey. The Barnesbury Estate is not quite middle-management, but there is no shortage of aspiration in this part of southern England. And as dusk fell on Willow Way, a quiet road of terraced housing, cars had already been garaged and families sat down for dinner and Saturday-night television.
At nine o’clock, a man emerged from his red Toyota outside No. 31. Carrying a flat blue-and-white box, he strolled up to the front door and tapped on it. Inside Karen Reed, a 33-year-old geophysicist who analysed seismic data for a living, was enjoying a glass of white wine and a chat with a friend when they heard the man’s muffled voice through the window. ‘Have you ordered a pizza?’ he enquired. Karen opened the door, whereupon the pizza deliverer drew a .38 pistol and shot her several times in the head with calm deliberation. The killer then ran back to the car and drove off.
Karen Reed was not the intended victim that night. There was a reason for the murderer’s confusion, however. His real target was Karen’s sister, Alison Ponting, a producer at the BBC World Service who was living with Karen at the time, but happened to be out that evening. The killing had probably been carried out at the instigation of Djokar Dudayev, President of the Republic of Chechnya.
In 1986, Alison had married a chubby Armenian charmer, Gacic Ter-Oganisyan, whom she had met a couple of years earlier while studying Russian at university. The marriage triggered a chain of improbable events, which eight years later unleashed the whirlwind of death, imperialism, civil war, oil, gangsterism and nationalist struggle that is otherwise known as the North Caucasus upon the sleepy commuter town of Woking.
Eighteen months before Karen’s murder, two brothers, Ruslan and Nazarbeg Utsiev, had arrived in London as envoys of President Dudayev, with a brief to arrange the printing of passports and banknotes for the new Chechen state. Ruslan was the volatile Dudayev’s most trusted adviser and a hardliner in the faction-ridden administration. His brother was a martial-arts expert and general muscle-for-hire. Along with their public mandate to print the documents of the putative Chechen state, they had a number of other missions: to secure a $250 million loan from an American businessman for the modernisation of Chechnya’s huge oil refineries; to conclude negotiations with the German energy company, Stinnes AG, for the quick sale of Chechen oil at world prices; and, as investigators later discovered, to purchase 2,000 ground-to-air Stinger missiles. To embark on such complex negotiations, the Chechen Government representatives needed a skilled interpreter and fixer. Ruslan remembered that he was once interviewed by a BBC producer, Alison Ponting, and he turned to her for help. She suggested her husband, Ter-Oganisyan, hoping, perhaps, that he would find gainful employment.
During his time in London, Alison’s Armenian husband had developed into the consummate chancer. Ter-Oganisyan was ducking and diving: smuggling, setting up fake companies for money-laundering and also doing menial work when his tentative criminal activities dried up. Initially the macho Caucasian trio hit it off, holding raucous parties to which a stream of call girls were invited. Not surprisingly, Alison was increasingly unhappy at the behaviour of her husband and the two Chechens, as were the wealthy occupants of Bickenhall Mansions, the apartment block a stone’s throw from Sherlock Holmes’s reputed domicile at 221b Baker Street, where the Utsiev brothers had found a flat.
At some point, relations between the Armenian and the Chechens soured. Later, England’s Crown Prosecution Service insisted that Ter- Oganisyan had discovered that the Stinger missiles were destined for Azerbaijan to be deployed in the war against his home country, Armenia. There was a second theory – that the Stingers were indeed bound for Chechnya, and that the Utsiev brothers and Ter-Oganisyan fell out over money. What is certain is that Ter-Oganisyan alerted senior members of the Armenian KGB to the Utsiev brothers’ activities and a couple of hitmen were dispatched from Los Angeles, the centre of the Armenian diaspora in the United States, to London.
The Utsiev brothers were murdered in gruesome fashion (Ruslan’s body was dismembered and only discovered when it fell out of a packing case en route to the north-London suburb of Harrow). Ter-Oganisyan is now doing life for their murders, while a co-defendant, an officer of Armenia’s KGB, hanged himself at Belmarsh prison while awaiting trial.
I was appalled when reading about this case at the time, not least because I discovered that Alison and Karen’s father was David Ponting, a lecturer in drama at Bristol University, where I had been an undergraduate. His one-man show about Dylan Thomas had made a great impression on me when I studied there. David had taught me radio production, skills I would later employ as the BBC’s Central Europe correspondent.
After Karen’s murder, Alison accepted an offer to go into a witness-protection scheme. Deprived of his children, David moved to the United States, where he worked for a while as an actor. Later, he, too, went underground.
The Pontings were gentle and unassuming. It is hard to imagine a family less likely to be involved in a political mafia killing from the former Soviet Union. But as one of the officers involved in the Utsiev brothers’ case pointed out at the time, ‘We were suddenly dealing with crime and politics from a part of the world that, to be honest, none of us in the Metropolitan or Surrey police had ever heard of. We knew nothing about the wars, about the crime and about the politics – we were, frankly, all at sea.’
Around the world, a new type of country was emerging – the failing state. And the fallout was visiting Britain for the first time.
Intrigued? Don’t miss the first episode of McMafia on 1 December at 9pm on BBC One! Find out more here.