Special for the Armenian Weekly
The recently leaked e-mails of Italy-based Hacking Team (HT) contain a number of revelations. One of them is that HT marketed or sold its malware used to spy on computers and smart phones to governments or government-connected entities in Russia, Turkey, and the United States, among others. (Armenia was not among the clients.) Between 2013 and 2015, one of HT’s clients was the Ministry of National Security (MNS, formerly known as KGB) of Azerbaijan, known to regularly engage in political witch hunts and persecutions domestically, as well as efforts to spy on Armenian entities.
Tbilisi-based journalist Mike Runey has already detailed some of the technical difficulties that MNS ran into while trying to use HT’s malware. What has not yet been reported is the role of a curious middleman that the Azerbaijani government engaged in its dealings with HT. While MNS was the end user of the malware, the payments—some $384,000 in total—were arranged via another entity, the Horizon Global Group of Abik Charukhchev (also spelled Charuhchev and Чарухчев in Russian).
According to local media reports, as of 2007 Charukhchev was a department chief at Azerbaijan’s Technical University (the former Polytechnic Institute) when he was picked to head a tiny community of Georgian Jews in Baku. Although not fluent in English and unable to communicate directly with HT, MNS insisted that Charukhchev be treated as HT’s formal client. Officials in post-Soviet countries typically use such arrangements in part to hide their direct involvement and, more importantly, to siphon off a portion of the budget funding for contracts.
What was unusual is that Charuhchev’s entity Horizon Global Group was allegedly registered in the United States, using P.O. Box 4379, Rancho Palos Verdes, CA 90274 as its address. A search of the California Secretary of State online database has not confirmed that Horizon Global Group is registered in the state. But a Google search for the address revealed that Abik Charukhchev, or possibly someone on his behalf, used the same P.O. Box address and Charukhchev’s name for a Bank of America checking account that was originally opened at the 203 N. Glendale Ave branch of the bank in Glendale, Calif.
Why would an individual, who serves as a front man for the Azerbaijani National Security Ministry’s financial dealings, go to a city that has the largest Armenian population in U.S. to open a bank account? A legitimate suspicion is that this was an attempt to spend money in Glendale—perhaps using a safe deposit box that could come with a checking account—for purposes that somehow relate to what Azerbaijan’s Ilham Aliyev claims is his country’s number one enemy: the Armenian Diaspora.
What is known is that since opening its consulate in Los Angeles in 2006, Azerbaijan has sought to actively lobby California politicians. Azerbaijani officials regularly visit California, and a number of California politicians have taken advantage of free trips to Azerbaijan, opposed state-level legislation advocated by the Armenian community, and sought state proclamations on Azerbaijan’s behalf.
However, a more informed answer can only come from a law enforcement investigation of the bank account and associated persons.