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Context of '1998: CIA Discovers Links between Arms Dealer Victor Bout, Al-Qaeda, and Taliban'

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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

Victor Bout.Victor Bout. [Source: New York Times]Russian arms merchant Victor Bout, who has been selling weapons to Afghanistan’s Northern Alliance since 1992, switches sides, and begins selling weapons to the Taliban and al-Qaeda instead. [Los Angeles Times, 1/20/2002; Guardian, 4/17/2002; Los Angeles Times, 5/19/2002] The deal comes immediately after the Taliban captures Kabul in late October 1996 and gains the upper hand in Afghanistan’s civil war. In one trade in 1996, Bout’s company delivers at least 40 tons of Russian weapons to the Taliban, earning about $50 million. [Guardian, 2/16/2002] Two intelligence agencies later confirm that Bout trades with the Taliban “on behalf of the Pakistan government.” In late 2000, several Ukrainians sell 150 to 200 T-55 and T-62 tanks to the Taliban in a deal conducted by the ISI, and Bout helps fly the tanks to Afghanistan. [Gazette (Montreal), 2/5/2002] Bout formerly worked for the Russian KGB, and now operates the world’s largest private weapons transport network. Based in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bout operates freely there until well after 9/11. The US becomes aware of Bout’s widespread illegal weapons trading in Africa in 1995, and of his ties to the Taliban in 1996, but they fail to take effective action against him for years. [Los Angeles Times, 5/19/2002] US pressure on the UAE in November 2000 to close down Bout’s operations there is ignored. Press reports calling him “the merchant of death” also fail to pressure the UAE. [Financial Times, 6/10/2000; Guardian, 12/23/2000] After President Bush is elected, it appears the US gives up trying to get Bout, until after 9/11. [Washington Post, 2/26/2002; Guardian, 4/17/2002] Bout moves to Russia in 2002. He is seemingly protected from prosecution by the Russian government, which in early 2002 will claim, “There are no grounds for believing that this Russian citizen has committed illegal acts.” [Guardian, 4/17/2002] The Guardian suggests that Bout may have worked with the CIA when he traded with the Northern Alliance, and this fact may be hampering current international efforts to catch him. [Guardian, 4/17/2002]

Entity Tags: United Arab Emirates, Russia, Taliban, Pakistan Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence, Al-Qaeda, George W. Bush, Northern Alliance, Victor Bout, Central Intelligence Agency

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

Witney Schneidman.Witney Schneidman. [Source: Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars]In 1999, State Department official Witney Schneidman is collecting information on the many civil wars and conflicts raging in Africa. He notices that the name of Victor Bout, a Russian arms dealer, keeps popping up in many conflicts. Sometimes Bout is even supplying both sides of a civil war. In early summer 1999, an NSA official gives Schneidman a “drop dead” briefing about Bout, based mostly on communications intercepts the NSA has on him. Photos show dozens of airplanes parked in an airport in Sharjah, United Arab Emirates, all of them owned by Bout. Schneidman begins mobilizing other officials. By early 2000, he and National Security Council adviser Lee Wolosky create a team to apprehend Bout. While Bout remains little known to the general public, for many US officials he becomes the most wanted criminal in the world, aside from Osama bin Laden and his top aides. National Security Council official Gayle Smith will later comment, “You want to talk about transnational threats? We had [al-Qaeda’s bombing in] East Africa, global warming, and Victor Bout.” No other arms dealer has an operation anywhere near the size of Bout’s, and his links to the Taliban and al-Qaeda are a special concern (see 1998). But Bout is not doing any business in the US and is breaking no US laws, so the team cannot gather enough evidence to issue an arrest warrant for him. Counterterrorism “tsar” Richard Clarke considers targeting Bout for rendition, which is a very rare practice before 9/11. But when the Bush administration takes power in early 2001, Bout is deemed a less important priority, and ultimately no effective action is taken against him prior to 9/11 (see Early 2001-September 11, 2001). [Farah and Braun, 2007, pp. 1-7]

Entity Tags: Witney Schneidman, Gayle Smith, Lee Wolosky, National Security Council, Richard A. Clarke

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

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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