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Context of 'Mid-1996-October 2001: Ariana Airlines Becomes Transport Arm of Al-Qaeda and Taliban'

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Richard Chichakli.Richard Chichakli. [Source: Public domain]In the spring of 1993, Victor Bout moves to Sharjah, United Arab Emirates (UAE), and begins to use it as the central hub of expanding business empire. Bout is an ex-Russian military officer and is rapidly developing an international network to buy, sell, and transport illegal goods, mostly weapons. The UAE is centrally located for his needs, and it has no money laundering laws, low taxes, and very lax banking regulations. Sharjah International Airport has almost no air passenger traffic at the time, being overshadowed by the popular airport in Dubai a short distance away. So the airport establishes a niche as an air cargo hub by offering tax incentives for cargo companies. In 1993, Richard Chichakli becomes friends and business partners with Bout. In 1995, Sharjah airport hires Chichakli to be the commercial manager of a new free trade zone now being heavily used by Bout. Chichakli, a Syrian by birth, has an interesting background. He claims to have been friends with Osama bin Laden while studying in Saudi Arabia in the early 1980s. He will later claim that he used to “sit around and eat sandwiches and sing songs” with bin Laden and his siblings, back when “Osama was OK.” In 1986, he moved to Texas, became a US citizen, and served in the US army until 1993, specializing in aviation, interrogation, and intelligence. He will later claim that he not only served in the US military, but also spent about 18 years working in intelligence (which, if true, would mean he was an intelligence agent when he was friends with bin Laden). Chichakli’s free trade zone is wildly successful. [Center for Public Integrity, 11/20/2002; Farah and Braun, 2007, pp. 53-56] In 2000, US investigators will learn that Chichakli is living in Texas again and is still working closely with Bout. [Farah and Braun, 2007, pp. 53] However, no action will be taken against him until April 26, 2005, when US Treasury and FBI agents raid his home and business in Texas. They will seize his computer, documents, and over $1 million in assets as part of an investigation into Bout’s financial empire, but they will not arrest him. Chichakli will not be stopped when he leaves the US several days later. He will move to Syria, where it is later suspected that he and Bout supply Hezbollah with weapons (see July 2006). [Farah and Braun, 2007, pp. 247-248] Meanwhile, Sharjah and its airport will become a hub for al-Qaeda and the 9/11 plot. By 1996, there are daily flights between Afghanistan and Sharjah, and al-Qaeda uses Sharjah for drug and arms smuggling (see Mid-1996-October 2001). 9/11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed will live in Sharjah in 1998 (see July 8, 1999), and 9/11 plot facilitator Mustafa Ahmed al-Hawsawi will be based in Sharjah in the months before the 9/11 attacks. Some of the 9/11 hijackers will pass through there and visit him (see Early-Late June, 2001).

Entity Tags: Victor Bout, Richard Chichakli

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

In 1996, al-Qaeda assumes control of Ariana Airlines, Afghanistan’s national airline, for use in its illegal trade network. Passenger flights become few and erratic, as planes are used to fly drugs, weapons, gold, and personnel, primarily between Afghanistan, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Pakistan. The Emirate of Sharjah, in the UAE, becomes a hub for al-Qaeda drug and arms smuggling. Typically, “large quantities of drugs” are flown from Kandahar, Afghanistan, to Sharjah, and large quantities of weapons are flown back to Afghanistan. [Los Angeles Times, 11/18/2001] About three to four flights run the route each day. Many weapons come from Victor Bout, a notorious Russian arms dealer based in Sharjah. [Los Angeles Times, 1/20/2002] Afghan taxes on opium production are paid in gold, and then the gold bullion is flown to Dubai, UAE, and laundered into cash. [Washington Post, 2/17/2002] Taliban officials regularly provide militants with false papers identifying them as Ariana Airlines employees so they can move freely around the world. For instance, one flight on a Ariana small plane in 2000 lists 33 crew members. A former National Security Council official later claims the US is well aware at the time that al-Qaeda agents regularly fly on Ariana Airlines. (However, US intelligence will not learn of the widespread use of forged Ariana IDs until after 9/11.) The CIA learns of Bout’s connection to Ariana and the Taliban in 1998, but takes no action (see 1998). The US presses the UAE for tighter banking controls, but moves “delicately, not wanting to offend an ally in an already complicated relationship,” and little changes by 9/11. [Los Angeles Times, 11/18/2001; Farah and Braun, 2007, pp. 139] Much of the money for the 9/11 hijackers flows though these Sharjah, UAE, channels. There also are reports suggesting that Ariana Airlines might have been used to train Islamic militants as pilots. The illegal use of Ariana Airlines helps convince the United Nations to impose sanctions against Afghanistan in 1999, but the sanctions lack teeth and do not stop the airline. A second round of sanctions finally stops foreign Ariana Airlines flights, but its charter flights and other charter services keep the illegal network running. [Los Angeles Times, 11/18/2001] About nine of the 9/11 hijackers work at the Kandahar airport in 2000, which is Ariana’s main hub (see Summer 2000).

Entity Tags: Taliban, United Arab Emirates, United Nations, Al-Qaeda, Ariana Airlines, Victor Bout

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

In 1998, CIA analysts realize that ground crews for illegal arms dealer Victor Bout are performing maintenance chores for Ariana Airlines planes flying to and from Afghanistan. Bout’s air fleet is based in Sharjah, United Arab Emirates (UAE), at the time, and in fact Bout has been working with the Taliban since about 1996 (see October 1996-Late 2001). The CIA has also been gathering intelligence that al-Qaeda operatives are frequently moving between Afghanistan and the UAE. Ariana, Afghanistan’s official airline, is the only airline making flights between the Middle East and Afghanistan. Therefore, Michael Scheuer, head of the CIA’s bin Laden unit, concludes that Ariana is being used as a “terrorist taxi service.” Scheuer concludes that Bout is assisting al-Qaeda. He will later comment that when al-Qaeda operatives would travel through the UAE, “it was almost always through Ariana flights. Since Bout’s operation was working with Ariana, they were part of the same set of concerns.” The CIA also notices an increasing number of Bout’s own planes flying to and from Afghanistan. Scheuer will later say, “Our human intelligence said it was mostly small arms and ammunition, going to Kandahar and occasionally to Kabul.” [Farah and Braun, 2007, pp. 138-140] However, while intelligence reports on Bout’s ties to the Taliban continue, interest in his activities in Afghanistan fades by the end of 1998. Scheuer will later claim that he tried to raise concern about the Bout flights with National Security Council officials, but saw little interest. “I never got a sense that he was important. He was part of the problem we had with the terrorist infrastructure in Afghanistan, but there were so many parts we were dealing with.… [N]o one was going to fall on their sword to get Victor Bout.” [Farah and Braun, 2007, pp. 143] After 9/11, evidence will emerge that about nine of the 9/11 hijackers worked in the Kandahar airport heavily used by Bout’s airplanes (see Summer 2000).

Entity Tags: Taliban, Alec Station, Al-Qaeda, Ariana Airlines, Michael Scheuer, Victor Bout, Central Intelligence Agency

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

Julie Sirrs.Julie Sirrs. [Source: Julie Sirrs]Julie Sirrs, a military analyst for the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), travels to Afghanistan. Fluent in local languages and knowledgeable about the culture, she made a previous undercover trip there in October 1997. She is surprised that the CIA was not interested in sending in agents after the failed missile attack on Osama bin Laden in August 1998, so she returns at this time. Traveling undercover, she meets with Northern Alliance leader Ahmed Shah Massoud. She sees a terrorist training center in Taliban-controlled territory. Sirrs will later claim: “The Taliban’s brutal regime was being kept in power significantly by bin Laden’s money, plus the narcotics trade, while [Massoud’s] resistance was surviving on a shoestring. With even a little aid to the Afghan resistance, we could have pushed the Taliban out of power. But there was great reluctance by the State Department and the CIA to undertake that.” She partly blames the interest of the US government and the oil company Unocal to see the Taliban achieve political stability to enable a trans-Afghanistan pipeline (see May 1996 and September 27, 1996). She claims, “Massoud told me he had proof that Unocal had provided money that helped the Taliban take Kabul.” She also states, “The State Department didn’t want to have anything to do with Afghan resistance, or even, politically, to reveal that there was any viable option to the Taliban.” After two weeks, Sirrs returns with a treasure trove of maps, photographs, and interviews. [ABC News, 2/18/2002; ABC News, 2/18/2002; New York Observer, 3/11/2004] By interviewing captured al-Qaeda operatives, she learns that the official Afghanistan airline, Ariana Airlines, is being used to ferry weapons and drugs, and learns that bin Laden goes hunting with “rich Saudis and top Taliban officials” (see Mid-1996-October 2001 and 1995-2001). [Los Angeles Times, 11/18/2001] When Sirrs returns from Afghanistan, her material is confiscated and she is accused of being a spy. Says one senior colleague, “She had gotten the proper clearances to go, and she came back with valuable information,” but high level officials “were so intent on getting rid of her, the last thing they wanted to pay attention to was any information she had.” Sirrs is cleared of wrongdoing, but her security clearance is pulled. She eventually quits the DIA in frustration in 1999. [ABC News, 2/18/2002; New York Observer, 3/11/2004] Congressman Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) will claim that the main DIA official behind the punishment of Sirrs is Lieutenant General Patrick Hughes, who later becomes “one of the top officials running the Department of Homeland Security.” [Dana Rohrabacher, 6/21/2004]

Entity Tags: Taliban, Unocal, Osama bin Laden, US Department of State, Northern Alliance, Patrick Hughes, Defense Intelligence Agency, Ahmed Shah Massoud, Al-Qaeda, Julie Sirrs, Central Intelligence Agency, Dana Rohrabacher, Ariana Airlines

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

A group of Abu Sayyaf militants photographed on July 16, 2000.A group of Abu Sayyaf militants photographed on July 16, 2000. [Source: Associated Press]In the book “Dollars for Terror” published this year, investigative journalist Richard Labeviere claims that the Philippine drug trade is worth billions of dollars a year and that Muslim militants connected to al-Qaeda have a role in it. “Admittedly, the Islamists do not control all of these flows, but the Abu Sayyaf group plays a big part. Its mercenaries look after the protection of transport and the shipping of cargoes via jungle airports in the [southern Philippines.] By the same air channels, and also by sea, weapons are delivered for the group’s combat unit. This supply chain is managed by Pakistani intermediaries who are trained directly in the Afghan camps around Peshawar” in Pakistan. He does not give his source for this information. [Labeviere, 1999, pp. 365] Perhaps not coincidentally, a Pakistani believed to be connected to the drug trade is suspected of helping to fund the Bojinka plot (see January 6, 1995), which was planned in the Philippines with the help of the Abu Sayyaf (see December 1994-April 1995). Victor Bout, the world’s biggest illegal arms dealer, is said to use his network to ship weaponry to the Abu Sayyaf, though details have not been reported. Bout’s network also delivers weapons to the Taliban (see Mid-1996-October 2001). [New York Times, 2/27/2002; Strategic Studies Institute of the US Army War College, 9/1/2005 pdf file] There are many reports on the Abu Sayyaf’s involvement with illegal drugs. For instance, in 2002 a Philippine newspaper will note that the region dominated by Abu Sayyaf has become such a notorious drug center that it is sometimes nicknamed “Little Colombia.” [Manila Times, 3/13/2002]

Entity Tags: Al-Qaeda, Richard Labeviere, Abu Sayyaf, Victor Bout

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

In 2008, the website Intelwire.com will obtain a declassified FBI document from this date. The content is heavily redacted, including the title, but the full title appears to be, “Summary of information obtained from the United Arab Emirates with regard to Manila Air fugitive Khalid Shaikh Mohammed.” The document appears to detail a briefing by United Arab Emirates (UAE) officials from the General Department of State Security to FBI officials visiting the UAE. It mentions that Khalid Shaikh Mohammed (KSM) “who was reported to be in _____ during mid-1998, is still currently living in Sharjah, UAE, with his family.” The report also mentions that “in July 1998, authorities from ______ based on information probably obtained from Qatar, located KSM living and working in ____. After questioning him about his activities with the [Muslim Brotherhood], he was deported to Bahrain.” [Federal Bureau of Investigation, 7/8/1999 pdf file] The 9/11 Commission will later mention this document a single time, and reveal that one of the redacted sections discusses KSM’s links to the Abu Sayyaf militant group in the Philippines. [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 488] Sharjah is a major hub of al-Qaeda activity at this time (see Mid-1996-October 2001), and one of the 9/11 hijackers, Fayez Ahmed Banihammad, is from the emirate of Sharjah (see 1980s and 1990s). 9/11 plot facilitator Mustafa Ahmed al-Hawsawi will be based in Sharjah in the months before the 9/11 attacks, and some of the 9/11 hijackers will pass through there and visit him (see Early-Late June, 2001). It is not known what action US intelligence takes in response to this briefing.

Entity Tags: Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Muslim Brotherhood, General Department of State Security

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

United Nations sanctions against Afghanistan take effect. The sanctions freeze Taliban assets and impose an air embargo on Ariana Airlines in an effort to force the Taliban to hand over bin Laden. [BBC, 2/6/2000] It had been widely reported that Ariana had become a transportation arm for al-Qaeda (see Mid-1996-October 2001). However, Ariana will keep its illegal trade network flying, until stricter sanctions will ground it in 2001 (see January 19, 2001).

Entity Tags: Ariana Airlines, Osama bin Laden, Taliban, United Nations, Al-Qaeda

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

Under interrogation after 9/11, al-Qaeda leader Khallad bin Attash will claim he met some of the 9/11 hijackers at Kandahar airport in Afghanistan in the summer of 2000. Although he will not be able to recall all of them, he will say the group includes Satam Al Suqami, Waleed and Wail Alshehri, Abdulaziz Alomari, Hamza Alghamdi, Salem Alhazmi, and Majed Moqed. He will say he was closest to Saeed Alghamdi, whom he convinced to become a martyr and whom he asked to recruit a friend, Ahmed Alghamdi, to the same cause. However, doubts will later be expressed about the reliability of such statements from prisoners like bin Attash, due to the methods used to obtain them (see June 16, 2004) [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 233-4] Al-Qaeda’s division of passports and host country issues is based at the airport and it alters passports, visas and identification cards. Some people involved in the plot will later be reported to have altered travel documents (see July 23, 2001). [9/11 Commission, 8/21/2004, pp. 56 pdf file] 9/11 hijacker Ahmed Alnami and would-be hijacker Mushabib al-Hamlan are also said to be at the same Kandahar camp, Al Farooq, and are assigned to guard the airport. [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 526] By the late 1990s, the Kandahar airport will become the main logistics lifeline for al-Qaeda and the Taliban to the outside world. One Ariana pilot will later recall, “I would see Arabs with [satellite] phones walking around the terminal, in touch with the Taliban at the highest levels.” On one occasion, he sees Taliban ruler Mullah Omar meeting in the middle of the airport with a rebel leader from Tajikistan, surrounded by aides. “There they were, cross-legged on their mats, chattering into cell phones.” [Farah and Braun, 2007, pp. 140] At this time, the Kandahar airport is being mainly used by Ariana Airlines, which has been completely co-opted by al-Qaeda and the Taliban, and aircraft companies controlled by international arms dealer Victor Bout (see 1998).

Entity Tags: Wail Alshehri, Waleed Alshehri, Mullah Omar, Khallad bin Attash, Ariana Airlines, Salem Alhazmi, Satam Al Suqami, Ahmed Alnami, Ahmed Alghamdi, Abdulaziz Alomari, Saeed Alghamdi, Majed Moqed, Mushabib al-Hamlan, Hamza Alghamdi

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

New United Nations sanctions against Afghanistan take effect, adding to those from November 1999 (see November 14, 1999). The sanctions limit travel by senior Taliban authorities, freeze bin Laden’s and the Taliban’s assets, and order the closure of Ariana Airlines offices abroad. The sanctions also impose an arms embargo against the Taliban, but not against Northern Alliance forces battling the Taliban. [Associated Press, 12/19/2000] The arms embargo has no visible effect because the sanctions fail to stop Pakistani military assistance. [9/11 Commission, 3/24/2004] The sanctions also fail to stop the illegal trade network that the Taliban is secretly running through Ariana. Two companies, Air Cess and Flying Dolphin, take over most of Ariana’s traffic. Air Cess is owned by the Russian arms dealer Victor Bout (see Mid-1996-October 2001), and Flying Dolphin is owned by the United Arab Emirates’ former ambassador to the US, who is also an associate of Bout. In late 2000, despite reports linking Flying Dolphin to arms smuggling, the United Nations will give Flying Dolphin permission to take over Ariana’s closed routes, which it does until the new sanctions take effect. Bout’s operations are still functioning and he has not been arrested. [Los Angeles Times, 1/20/2002; Gazette (Montreal), 2/5/2002] Ariana will essentially be destroyed in the October 2001 US bombing of Afghanistan. [Los Angeles Times, 11/18/2001]

Entity Tags: United Nations, Victor Bout, Ariana Airlines, Osama bin Laden, Flying Dolphin, Air Cess, Northern Alliance, Taliban

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

The muscle hijackers arrive in Dubai on their way to the US (see April 23-June 29, 2001):
bullet April 11: It is not known when Ahmed Alghamdi first arrives in Dubai, but he leaves on April 8, traveling to an unknown destination, and returns on April 11;
bullet April 12: Satam al Suqami arrives in the United Arab Emirates from Malaysia (see April 1-May 27, 2001);
bullet May 7, 2001: Ahmed Alhaznawi arrives in Abu Dhabi from Karachi by plane;
bullet May 13: Ahmed Alnami arrives in the United Arab Emirates by plane from Saudi Arabia;
bullet May 26: Hamza Alghamdi enters the United Arab Emirates;
bullet May 27: Abdulaziz Alomari arrives in Dubai from Malaysia (see April 1-May 27, 2001);
bullet June 1: It is not known when Wail Alshehri first arrives in Dubai, but he leaves on May 29, traveling to an unknown destination, and returns on June 1 with Ahmed Alhaznawi, who previously arrived on May 7, but must have left in the meantime;
bullet June 12: Saeed Alghamdi arrives in the United Arab Emirates from Saudi Arabia;
bullet June 28: Salem Alhazmi arrives in the United Arab Emirates from Saudi Arabia. [US District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, Alexandria Division, 7/31/2006, pp. 42-50 pdf file]
The hijackers typically remain in Dubai for a few weeks before moving on to the US (see April 23-June 29, 2001). While in Dubai the hijackers purchase traveler’s checks:
bullet April 28: Majed Moqed purchases $2,980 in MasterCard travelers’ checks from the Thomas Cook Exchange in the nearby emirate of Sharjah;
bullet May 27, 2001: Ahmed Alnami purchases $10,000 of American Express travelers’ checks and Hamza Alghamdi purchases the same amount of Visa travelers’ checks in Dubai;
bullet June 6, 2001: Ahmed Alhaznawi purchases $3,000 of American Express travelers’ checks in Dubai;
bullet June 7, 2001: Wail Alshehri purchases $14,000 of American Express travelers’ checks in Sharjah;
bullet June 24: Fayez Ahmed Banihammad purchases $4,000 of Thomas Cook travelers’ checks in Sharjah. [US District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, Alexandria Division, 7/31/2006, pp. 44-48 pdf file]
In addition, Wail Alshehri obtains an international driving permit in Sharjah on June 5. [US District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, Alexandria Division, 7/31/2006, pp. 47 pdf file] Some of these hijackers are assisted by plot facilitator Mustafa Ahmed al-Hawsawi (see Early-Late June, 2001). It is not clear who helps the others, although Dubai-based Ali Abdul Aziz Ali previously assisted some of the hijackers (see June 29, 2000-September 18, 2000), and Saeed Sheikh, who has Dubai connections, may also assist some of them (see Early August 2001). In addition, Victor Bout, an arms dealer who flies shipments for al-Qaeda and the Taliban through the UAE, is based in Sharjah (see Mid-1996-October 2001).

Entity Tags: Satam Al Suqami, Wail Alshehri, Ahmed Alhaznawi, Abdulaziz Alomari, Ahmed Alghamdi, Salem Alhazmi, Saeed Sheikh, Victor Bout, Mustafa Ahmed al-Hawsawi, Saeed Alghamdi, Ali Abdul Aziz Ali, Fayez Ahmed Banihammad, Ahmed Alnami, Majed Moqed, Hamza Alghamdi

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

Victor Bout during his trial.Victor Bout during his trial. [Source: Agence France-Presse]Victor Bout is found guilty on conspiracy charges to kill US citizens and officials, deliver anti-aircraft missiles, and provide aid to a terrorist organization (see September 1992, 1993-1995, Mid-1996-October 2001, October 1996-Late 2001, 1998, 1998, January 1998-April 2001, 1999, Early 2001-September 11, 2001, January 19, 2001, Shortly After September 11, 2001, Late February 2002, Summer 2002, Late April 2003, Late April 2003-2007, August 17, 2003, July 2006, Late July 2006, March 6, 2008, and November 16, 2010). In the the trial, which began on October 12, Bout was accused of agreeing to deliver 100 surface-to-air missiles, 20,000 high-powered weapons, and 10 million rounds of ammunition to rebels in Colombia sometime in 2008. Bout will be sentenced on February 8, 2012. The BBC’s Laura Trevelyan will note: “This was a potentially risky case for the US government. Bout was caught in a sting operation by informants working for the US Drug Enforcement Administration, the so-called Farc rebels were actually former criminals and might have had their evidence discredited.” [BBC, 11/2/2011]

Entity Tags: Laura Trevelyan, Drug Enforcement Administration, Victor Bout

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

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