Richard Ammar Chichakli is the nephew of a former president of Syria and a veteran of the U.S. Army, a family friend of the bin Ladens who hung out with a youthful Osama and ran a free-trade zone in the United Arab Emirates. According to the United Nations, Chichakli also served as the financial overseer of arms trader Victor Bout's far-flung network of air cargo operations.
Chichakli was born in Syria in 1959 to a politically prominent family. His father Mandour was once commander of the country's armed forces, and his uncle, Adib Shishakli, ruled the country for three years after seizing power in a military coup in 1951; he, in turn, was overthrown in a 1954 coup. Shishakli, who had served in the French army while Syria was under a French mandate, maintained a pro-Western orientation as the ruler of the country. He was so close to Miles Copeland, a long-time Central Intelligence Agency operative in the Middle East, that Copeland asked Adib Shishakli to become the godfather to one of his children. Following the 1954 coup, Shishakli fled to Brazil. Most of Richard Chichakli's family was driven out as well. In 1979, those relatives who did not leave Syria were imprisoned or killed in a massacre in Hama.
From 1979 to 1986, Chichakli lived most of the time in Saudi Arabia, first studying at Riyadh University, and later working for a variety of businesses. During his university days, he told the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists that he used to "sit around and eat sandwiches and sing songs" with Osama bin Laden and his siblings, back when "Osama was OK." He added that he probably knew about 40 bin Laden family members and that most of them were nice people.
In the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States, Chichakli claims he was contacted by the Federal Bureau of Investigation to assist bin Laden family members living in the United States. "FBI acted absolutely wonderfully," he said, then remarked of the bin Laden family that that's how it goes when one has friends in high places.
Richard Chichakli in the military
Chichakli moved to Texas in 1986 and married; at some point obtaining U.S. citizenship. According his military service record and résumé, both of which were obtained by ICIJ, Chichakli served in the U.S. Army from 1990 to 1993, specializing in fields such as aviation, first aid, interrogation and intelligence. He also earned FAA certification as an air traffic controller with military control-tower rating. He took courses at the Defense Language Institute and the Army's academy for non-commissioned officers, in addition to receiving training in conventional and unconventional warfare. He left the military as a decorated veteran.
Chichakli claimed in an interview with ICIJ that his service to the United States was not limited to his three-year tour in the military. He said he spent some 18 years working in intelligence.
After his honorable discharge from the Army, Chichakli returned to the Gulf States, specifically the United Arab Emirates, and became the commercial manager of the free zone in Sharjah. From 1993 to 1996, he was responsible for much of the liaison and commercial activity at the airport where, according to the United Nations, most of Victor Bout's companies had their operations base.
Chichakli has held several senior positions in companies owned by Bout, U.N. documents say, including chief financial manager with responsibilities such as accounting, financial and reporting activities, and overall responsibility for the financial systems.
Chichakli downplayed his role. "I did provide some accounting advice here and there," he said. "Making companies public, prepare business plan etc. … I helped him advance his cargo business." He also denied any involvement in the arms trade.
But he did say that Bout had taken part in at least one operation with a military purpose. After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, Chichakli told ICIJ, Bout organized three flights ferrying U.S. personnel to Afghanistan, but he refused to elaborate.
Chichakli is the agent for several companies registered in Texas. San Air General Trading, which is run by associates of Bout, has Chichakli listed as president and director, while the two other names that appear on the registration form are Serguei Denissenko and Vladimir Kviazeo. Denissenko, in addition to being general manager of San Air in the United Arab Emirates, is also the commercial manager for Bout's Centrafrican Airlines. San Air owns some of the aircraft operated by Centrafrican Airlines.
San Air, which mainly uses Boeing 707 and Ilyushin-76 aircraft, also "supplies arms from Bulgaria to the DRC [Democratic Republic of the Congo] government," according to an intelligence document obtained by ICIJ. In addition, the company "transport [sic] commodities for the Angolan government," says the same document.
"San Air is a company in the free zone," Chichakli said. "It registered in Texas too. It wanted to have a maintenance facility for aircraft here, but it didn't work out." A U.S. branch gives the company more respectability, he added. Chichakli denied the company had any connection to arms trafficking. The other two officers of the company, Denissenko and Serguei Bout, Victor's older brother, came to the United States in the late 1990s. "It is a shell company, no activity, no liability, not in business, no employees," Chichakli said about San Air in Texas.
Bout also had a company, Air Cess Incorporated, in Miami, Florida. According to Florida state records, incorporation papers were filed in September 1997, and the company was dissolved in September 2001. Air Cess Incorporated, which like San Air in Texas existed mostly on paper, gave Bout the right to use the "N" number given to aircraft registered in North America.
For Chichakli, the U.N. reports naming Bout as one of the largest arms traffickers in the world do not make sense. "How can this guy suddenly become ‘A god of Africa,'" he asked. "Here's this 27 year-old guy with the wrong tie, the wrong acceptance, going to Africa and suddenly he is king of kings. … I don't think he is a Superman. He is a cargo man."
Chichakli suggested that the reports identifying Bout as an arms trader are likely a smear campaign from countries like Britain and Belgium. According to him, Belgium is still desperately trying to get control over the Congo, which it once ruled, while most of the air cargo companies operating in Africa are British. "Bout attempted to break that monopoly on air cargo in Africa," he said.
"In Africa, you are either supported or you are screwed. Victor was one, a Russian, two, he was not British, so three, he became the ugly duckling."
(June 7th, 2004)
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