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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. (Verloy 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).
In 2007, Los Angeles Times journalist Steven Braun, coauthor of a book on arms dealer Victor Bout, will claim, “We now know that one of Bout’s pals approached an American intelligence agent soon after the [9/11] attacks, suggesting that the US use his operation in arming the Northern Alliance against the Taliban and al-Qaeda. We don’t know for sure if the US accepted, but European intelligence officials believe a relationship blossomed. Within two years, Bout was flying for us not only in Iraq, but also in Afghanistan.” (Silverstein 7/26/2007) The Bout associate Braun refers to is Sanjivan Ruprah. In November 2001, Ruprah contacts an FBI agent and offers a deal. He and Bout will secretly help the US arm the Northern Alliance in its fight against the Taliban, and help the US gain information on al-Qaeda and other militant groups. He and Bout would provide and deliver many millions of dollars’ worth of weapons that the Northern Alliance has already told Bout that they need. It is unclear if the deal ever goes through, and some experts and officials doubt it. However, one European official will later say, “We know Bout had his aircraft near Afghanistan and made them available to the US efforts almost immediately. They needed him and he had the only airlift capacity in the region.… The deal was, if he flew, the US would leave him alone.” Richard Chichakli, a close associate of Bout’s, will later boast that Bout organized three flights carrying US personnel to Afghanistan. (He will later withdraw the claim.) Ruprah twice flies to the US for secret talks with the FBI about such deals, despite being on a UN travel ban list. Such contacts are kept secret from US officials attempting to arrest Bout. Ruprah will be arrested in Belgium in February 2002, and documents found in his possession are the only reason anything is known about his secret talks with the FBI. Two months later, he is freed on bail and immediately skips the country. He is soon arrested in Italy, then curiously freed on bail again, and then escapes again. He has not been rearrested since. (Farah and Braun 2007, pp. 194-202) Prior to 9/11, Bout was the main arms dealer for the Taliban, greatly assisting al-Qaeda in the process. He had been supplying weapons to the Northern Alliance until about 1996, but switched sides once the Taliban gained the upper hand in the conflict (see October 1996-Late 2001). But despite these alleged US ties, it 2002 it will be reported that Bout has recently been helping al-Qaeda and the Taliban transport gold (see Summer 2002). He will work for the US military in Iraq in 2003 (see Late April 2003-2007).
In July 2006, fighting breaks out in southern Lebanon between the Israeli military and Hezbollah. Western intelligence officials soon learn that Victor Bout, the world’s biggest illegal arms dealer, has been spotted in a Hezbollah military building in Lebanon. Officials also discover that Richard Chichakli, Bout’s longtime business partner, has recently moved from the US to Damascus, Syria. Israeli officials suspect that Bout arms Hezbollah with sophisticated Russian-made armor-piercing antitank missiles. (Farah and Braun 2007, pp. 254) Bout’s role is not confirmed at the time. But in 2008, journalist Douglas Farah, co-author of a 2007 book on Bout, will tell ABC News that recent intelligence indicates Bout did supply the armor-piercing missiles to Hezbollah. (Rood and Sauer 3/6/2008) In 2006, Bout’s network is also supplying the US military in Iraq (see Late April 2003-2007).
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