By Michael SchererMother Jones
September 20, 2004
The U.S. government has for years kept in its sights one of the world's most notorious arms traffickers, Victor Bout. Known on both sides of the Atlantic as the "merchant of death," Bout has been implicated in running guns and missiles to combatants across the world, from the Taliban and Northern Alliance in Afghanistan to the UNITA rebels of Angola and the teen-age army of Liberia's former tyrant, Charles Taylor.
He has been blacklisted by the U.S. Treasury from doing any business in the United States, faces an arrest warrant for money laundering in Belgium, and was aggressively pursued by the Clinton administration. "We were trying to take him out of business," says Witney Schneidman, an Africa expert who worked in the State Department at the time.
But now the Bush administration has hired at least one company tied to Bout's network for the war effort in Iraq. Records obtained by Mother Jones show that as recently as August, Air Bas, a company tied to Bout and his associates, was flying charter missions under contract with the U.S. military in Iraq.
Air Bas is overseen by Victor Bout's brother, Serguei, and his long-time business manager, Richard Chichakli, an accountant living in Texas; in the past, payments for Air Bas have gone to a Kazakh company that the United Nations identifies as "a front for the leasing operations of Victor Bout's aircraft."
Concerns about Bout's work for the United States date back to May, when Senator Russ Feingold asked the Pentagon and the State Department to scour their files for any evidence of contracts with companies tied to Bout. An inquiry conducted by the State Department found, according to a State Department source, that "there were allegations that raised our concerns, and we shared those concerns with the Department of Defense." Months later, however, the Pentagon has yet to respond, and officials there would not say whether they are looking into the State Department's concerns.
Air Bas, meanwhile, has continued to fly U.S. military missions into Baghdad and the northern Iraqi air base of Balad, landing most recently on August 4, according to refueling records kept by the Defense Energy Support Center (DESC). The records make no mention of the specific Pentagon unit that employs Air Bas, though they confirm, according to the DESC, that the flights have been approved by military commanders for "official government purposes."
Officials with the Army and Air Force said they knew of no contract with Air Bas; Central Command and the Marines did not return Mother Jones' calls. "We deal solely with the prime [contractors]," says Cynthia Smith, an Army spokeswoman. "We don't have any control over who they get to subcontract."
Chichakli, for his part, says Air Bas "is a contractor of the United States Army. That is something I don't think I will discuss with you." He says Victor Bout has no ties to the company.
According to the U.N., Air Bas was established in 2002 in Texas and quickly set up offices in the United Arab Emirates, in the same building where Victor Bout had once operated another airline, Air Cess. As an umbrella company for several Bout enterprises, Air Cess had become notorious during the 1990s for its role funneling weapons and cargo to militias in Angola. Both Serguei Bout and Chichakli helped run Air Cess, according to U.N. reports.
After the company went out of business, Chichakli and Serguei Bout founded Air Bas, purchasing several Air Cess planes. The U.N. concluded in a 2003 report on arms trafficking in Somalia that Air Bas was a "front operation" that the Bout family was using to maintain a presence in the Persian Gulf.
Rumors of Bout doing work for the Bush Administration have circled through the diplomatic and intelligence communities for a few years. Following the 2002 arrest in Belgium of a Bout associate, Sanjivan Ruprah, the Netherlands-based International Peace and Information Service reported that Ruprah's seized laptop computer held a letter to a Federal Bureau of Investigation contact detailing plans for Bout to exploit ties to the Northern Alliance to help the U.S. efforts to overthrow the Taliban.
"Victor and I have discussed various aspects of coordination with yourselves regarding Afghanistan," Ruprah wrote to the FBI, according to the report. "We have very good relationships [with anti-Taliban forces]." The FBI did not respond to requests for comment.
In late 2002, an investigator for the Washington-based Center for Public Integrity reported that Chichakli had told him that Bout had been flying U.S. troops into Afghanistan. In an interview with Mother Jones, Chichakli denied saying anything about a Bout role in Afghanistan.
Victor Bout is believed to be living in Russia, where he has been isolated since 2000 when international publicity of his activities forced him into seclusion. Born in Tajikistan, he is known to carry at least five passports and use as many aliases.
Speaking from his offices in Richardson, Texas, Chichakli said the continued concern over Bout's activities was unfounded. He declined to put Mother Jones in touch with Bout. "Victor said if anybody calls you, unless it's Jesus himself, with an ID, don't bring him to me," Chichakli said.
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