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Mid-1996-October 2001: Ariana Airlines Becomes Transport Arm of Al-Qaeda and Taliban

In 1996, al-Qaeda assumes control of Ariana Airlines, Afghanistan’s national airline, for use in its illegal trade network. Passenger flights become few and erratic, as planes are used to fly drugs, weapons, gold, and personnel, primarily between Afghanistan, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Pakistan. The Emirate of Sharjah, in the UAE, becomes a hub for al-Qaeda drug and arms smuggling. Typically, “large quantities of drugs” are flown from Kandahar, Afghanistan, to Sharjah, and large quantities of weapons are flown back to Afghanistan. [Los Angeles Times, 11/18/2001] About three to four flights run the route each day. Many weapons come from Victor Bout, a notorious Russian arms dealer based in Sharjah. [Los Angeles Times, 1/20/2002] Afghan taxes on opium production are paid in gold, and then the gold bullion is flown to Dubai, UAE, and laundered into cash. [Washington Post, 2/17/2002] Taliban officials regularly provide militants with false papers identifying them as Ariana Airlines employees so they can move freely around the world. For instance, one flight on a Ariana small plane in 2000 lists 33 crew members. A former National Security Council official later claims the US is well aware at the time that al-Qaeda agents regularly fly on Ariana Airlines. (However, US intelligence will not learn of the widespread use of forged Ariana IDs until after 9/11.) The CIA learns of Bout’s connection to Ariana and the Taliban in 1998, but takes no action (see 1998). The US presses the UAE for tighter banking controls, but moves “delicately, not wanting to offend an ally in an already complicated relationship,” and little changes by 9/11. [Los Angeles Times, 11/18/2001; Farah and Braun, 2007, pp. 139] Much of the money for the 9/11 hijackers flows though these Sharjah, UAE, channels. There also are reports suggesting that Ariana Airlines might have been used to train Islamic militants as pilots. The illegal use of Ariana Airlines helps convince the United Nations to impose sanctions against Afghanistan in 1999, but the sanctions lack teeth and do not stop the airline. A second round of sanctions finally stops foreign Ariana Airlines flights, but its charter flights and other charter services keep the illegal network running. [Los Angeles Times, 11/18/2001] About nine of the 9/11 hijackers work at the Kandahar airport in 2000, which is Ariana’s main hub (see Summer 2000).

Entity Tags: Taliban, United Arab Emirates, United Nations, Al-Qaeda, Ariana Airlines, Victor Bout

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

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