One April morning, Richard Chichakli, a slender man of Syrian descent, was sitting behind his personal computer, checking e-mail and preparing for the day. His wife and teenage son were sleeping in another room of their modest brick home in Richardson. At 6 a.m., Chichakli says, he heard banging on his door. Then, without warning, he says, more than a dozen federal agents in bulletproof vests stormed into his house with guns drawn. Chichakli says an FBI agent told him they had permission to search the house. "They woke my wife and child with the muzzle of a gun," Chichakli says.
Not far away, another group of federal agents, also representing the U.S. Treasury and the FBI, were raiding Chichakli's office on Central Expressway. From a locked safe, Chichakli says, they seized more than $500,000 in valuables, including a boxful of diamonds and a stack of $1,000 bills.
For the last year and a half, Chichakli says, he has been trying to make sense of what happened that day. He insists that he is the victim of a witch hunt perpetrated by the U.S. government and that he is nothing more than a "boring accountant." But there are allegations that Chichakli, a 19-year resident of Richardson, was something much more sinister. According to the United Nations, Chichakli was an accountant to Victor Bout, who has been dubbed the "Merchant of Death." Widely regarded as the world's most notorious gun runner, Bout has sold guns to the Taliban and African warlords, according to U.S. and British intelligence agencies.
The raid of Chichakli's home and office was the result of a two-year investigation into Chichakli's relationship with Bout. On that day, April 26, 2005, the U.S. government announced economic sanctions against those that did business with Bout. As a result, Chichakli's assets were frozen. He could no longer open a bank account, get a job or do any sort of business in the United States because of his alleged relationship with Bout.
At least that's the story according to Chichakli. To date, no allegations against him have been made public. The Office of Foreign Assets Control, a division of the Treasury Department that enforces economic and trade sanctions against terrorists, cocaine kingpins and arms traffickers, will only say that Chichakli is part of an ongoing investigation.
"The accusers are 'unknown,' the charges are 'classified,' and the evidence is 'secret.' This is about fighting a ghost and dealing with the government manipulation of the laws," Chichakli writes on his Web site, chichakli.com, where he has posted many of the court documents filed in the case. "Picture a world where defendants are denied the right to face their accusers and even lawyers are prevented from seeing evidence used to justify a government prosecution, or even persecution. What is secret evidence? It is a weapon used by the U.S. government for the persecution of people who could not be prosecuted under the law."
Chichakli insists he is not the man the U.S. government has made him out to be, and he wants his day in court to prove it. Three months ago he filed a lawsuit to try to force the government to take their case against him to court. Last week, attorneys representing Office of Foreign Assets Control filed a 1,200-page response to the lawsuit, asking for it to be dismissed, according to Chichakli's Dallas lawyer, Clay Scott. Scott says he has yet to review the entire document, which stands 9 inches tall on his desk.
"There are all these references to Liberia, and I don't know what that has to do with Richard," Scott says. "They say they have some secret materials that the court can see but that I can't see. They're top secret."
Chichakli admits he knew Bout, a shadowy figure who may have worked for the KGB and is now reportedly worth hundreds of millions of dollars. In fact, the two were once so close that Chichakli hoped his son would marry Bout's daughter. But Chichakli says Bout is hardly a "Merchant of Death." Yes, he owns a fleet of Russian-made cargo planes, Chichakli says, but his freight is flowers and chickens, not assault rifles and bullets.
"Nothing I have seen, received or encountered suggested he was engaged in questionable activities," Chichakli says.
It's difficult to pin down exactly who Richard Chichakli is. According to a report by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, he was born in Syria in 1959, the son of a military commander and the nephew of the president of Syria, who had seized control of the government through a military coup.
From 1979 to 1986, Chichakli lived in Saudi Arabia, where he reportedly met Osama bin Laden. He told the journalists consortium that while studying at Riyadh University he used to "sit around and eat sandwiches and sing songs" with Osama bin Laden and his 40 siblings, back when "Osama was OK."
(Chichakli says the group's report is mostly made up. "Almost all of that article is wrong," he says. His uncle, for example, was never the president of Syria. Yes, he met a few of the bin Laden brothers while living in Saudi Arabia but never Osama. "As to the singing of songs, I sure sang onstage at the homecoming in Riyadh University with Saad bin Laden in 1978," he says.)
In 1986 Chichakli moved to Texas, where he gained U.S. citizenship, and in 1990, at the age of 31, he joined the U.S. Army, where he specialized in aviation, interrogation and intelligence. He also became an expert with a grenade launcher.
After his army service, Chichakli returned to the Middle East, where he became the commercial manager of the Sharjah Free Zones Authority in the United Arab Emirates (the U.A.E. has set up a number of free trade zones to give businesses an incentive to move there. Companies that operate in a free trade zone pay no tax and are exempt from customs and other fees).
While there, Chichakli met Bout, who had based his operations there. Chichakli has previously said the two became business partners during this time, but he now says they were just friends. As manager of the free zone, Chichakli reviewed business reports that Bout was required to periodically submit. He says his knowledge of Bout's business came from these reports, submitted between 1995 and 1996, and that nothing he saw during this time indicated that Bout was an arms trafficker.
In 1998, Chichakli says, Bout approached him to help him take a number of his companies public. Again, he says he saw nothing in Bout's business dealings that caused alarm. "Furthermore, his CPAs and lawyers were also involved, and their reports did not indicate the presence of any questionable activities except 'bad management,'" Chichakli says.
There is ample evidence, however, that Bout is an arms trafficker. U.S. spy satellites have captured Bout's cargo planes in war zones such as Liberia and the Congo. According to a 2004 U.N. report, Chichakli held key positions in several Bout-controlled companies, including one that was registered in Richardson. This company, called SanAir, was used between 2000 and 2001 to ferry weapons to war criminal Charles Taylor and his ragtag band of Liberian child soldiers, according to the report.
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But Chichakli says this report, written by Johan Peleman of Belgium, is full of fabrications and exaggerations. Peleman is out to get Bout, Chichakli says, because the two once did business together and their relationship soured. In fact, Bout once carried U.N. peacekeepers to East Timor at Peleman's request.
"The man in 2000 said Victor was an arms dealer, that same year he gave Victor a contract to fly U.N. peacekeepers to East Timor," Chichakli says. "I mean if you know this guy is a son-of-a-bitch arms dealer, why in the hell would you give him a contract to transport United Nations personnel? I think [Bout] is being used to cover for the real deal."
Chichakli says he and Bout are no longer friends and that they haven't talked in months. Bout is rumored to be living in Moscow in a luxury apartment. Chichakli initially moved to Moscow after the raid, but he is now living in Syria, hoping that he will one day be able to return to the United States, the country that he says he loves even though its government has upended his life and ruined his 20-year marriage.
"I am a firm believer in the U.S. justice system, and by volunteering to serve as a soldier in the U.S. Army more than 15 years ago, I have already proven that I am a patriot and willing to place my life on the line for my belief in the United States," he says. "All I am asking for is due process guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution. Take me to court, that's all I'm asking."