We’ve written a fair amount about Richard Chichakli, the mysterious accountant who spent 19 years in Richardson but is now living in exile because of his alleged connections to Viktor Bout, the world’s most notorious gunrunner. Last we left Chichakli, U.S. District Judge David Godbey in Dallas had dismissed a lawsuit in which Chichakli asserted that his civil rights had been violated by the U.S. government -- which, besides authorizing a dawn raid on his home and office in April 2005, has also frozen his assets and prevented him from doing business in the United States.
This week, we received a copy of the recently released Merchant of Death, an investigation into Bout’s gunrunning organization. Chichakli pops up here and there in its pages -- first in the prologue, where he defends Bout as a decent man who has been wronged by “hostile officials, intelligence agencies, and journalists.”
The authors of the book, respected journalists Douglas Farah and Stephen Braun, paint an entirely different portrait.
They describe Bout as a “phantom Russian” who “emerged from a murky post-Soviet intelligence background and quietly amassed a huge fleet of aging Russian cargo planes. His intelligence contacts, aircraft, and access to sophisticated weapons helped him forge lethal alliances across the Third World. Before long, he sat atop an immense and complex empire: a relentless international war machine able to deliver anything from AK-47s and missile launchers to artillery and attack helicopters, along with millions of rounds of ammunition to anyone willing to pay. And pay they did, in Rwanda and Congo, in Liberia and Sierra Leone, in Sudan and Afghanistan, and many stops in between.” (Bout also supplied the Taliban, and amazingly, the U.S. military and private contractors in Iraq, even though U.S. intelligence had been tracking him for years.)
Chichakli makes his first significant entrance in the book on page 55. According to the authors, Chichakli came from a “large, influential Syrian family that he later described as decimated by a wave of politically motivated murders and jailings.” He studied in Saudi Arabia, where he befriended Osama bin Laden, a man he later described as “a lot of fun.” In 1986, he moved to Texas, obtained U.S. citizenship and served in the first Gulf War, earning several decorations.
Upon completion of his army service, he returned to the Middle East, where he was hired to run a free-trade zone at the Sharjah International Airport. The airport was trying to become a major cargo center, and it hoped to lure foreign air cargo companies with financial incentives.
“The U.S. attaché there laughed at us,” Chichakli says in the book. “He didn’t think it would work out.”
But the attaché' was wrong: The free-trade zone took off, and by 2003 there were more than 2,300 companies that did business there. According to the book, Chichakli was a big reason why: “A trim, blunt-spoken man known among friends as “Stone Face” for his somber countenance, Chichakli moved easily among Russian airmen and emirati princes, sheikhs, and moneymen, constantly talking up the virtues of his free-trade zone.”
Bout moved his air offices to the zone and the two became close friends. “We used to sit ass to ass on the runway and smell the kerosene,” the book quotes Chichakli as saying. Then, write the authors:
When Chichakli left his free-trade-zone job in 1996, he began doing consulting work for Bout. Returning to the Dallas suburb of Richardson, he earned an accounting degree at the University of Texas, Dallas, and began working as a CPA. According to a 2000 resume cited by U.S. Treasury officials, Chichakli identified himself as the controller and chief financial officer for Air Cess, Air Pass, and Centrafican Airlines -- all key Bout-linked firms. (Chichakli later denied those roles, insisting the resume was a fake.)
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Chichakli’s name pops up a few other times in the book, but he is a bit player in Bout’s global gun-running network.
I’ve spoken to Chichakli on the phone and via e-mail, and he insists he had nothing to do with any illegal activities. To hear his side of the story, visit his Web site.
Regardless of what you think of Chichakli, Merchant of Death is a fascinating book, and it paints a pretty damning picture of Bout, who, according to the authors, “has fueled internecine slaughter in Africa and aided both militant Islamic fanatics in Afghanistan and the American military in Iraq.”
How did a self-described boring accountant from Richardson ever get mixed up with a guy like that? That’s a story only Richard Chichakli can tell. --Jesse Hyde