WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The head of Sierra Leone’s U.N.-backed war crimes court says al Qaeda is operating freely in West Africa and the terror group is dealing in “conflict diamonds” under the protection of Liberian President Charles Taylor.
David Crane, the American chief prosecutor for the U.N.’s special court for Sierra Leone, said his team had evidence Taylor was harbouring al Qaeda and this information had been passed on to the appropriate law enforcement authorities.
“I know that they (al Qaeda) are moving about. I know that they are trading in diamonds, washing money and being protected by Charles Taylor,” Crane told Reuters after addressing an American Bar Association breakfast.
Al Qaeda, led by Saudi-born Osama bin Laden, is accused by the United States of being behind the September 11, 2001 attacks against America and is also suspected of masterminding this week’s suicide bombings on compounds in Saudi Arabia.
“No one is checking on them,” Crane said. “This is a place where they come to relax because no one is bothering them and I am talking about all of West Africa. We have ignored it and now we may be ruing the day.”
A former inspector general at the Pentagon and assistant general counsel for the Defence Intelligence Agency, Crane said his court had not taken any action against Taylor and he declined to discuss what might happen.
Taylor, a Liberian war lord, came to power in 1997 after a devastating civil war in which an estimated 200,000 people died. The country never recovered from that war and a new rebellion erupted in 2000.
The U.N. Security Council two years ago put an arms embargo, a ban on diamond exports and a travel ban on Taylor and his top associates for fuelling civil war in neighbouring Sierra Leone through a guns-for-gems trade.
Crane said it was time for the world to look more closely at West Africa and its “terrorist” links.
“West Africa is a place where terrorists go to rest, relax, refit and refinance and then they go back and do what they’ve got to do. We’ve got to start looking more closely at West Africa, particularly the United States,” he told the meeting.
He said the war crimes tribunal was not actively investigating al Qaeda but being bases in Sierra Leone meant it was exposed to “all kinds of crimes and conspiracies and cabalas” in the region.
Crane’s court is probing crimes in Sierra Leone’s decade-long conflict which was formally declared over last year. So far, the court has arrested six “big fish,” including the sitting Minister of the Interior Sam Hinga Norman.
He said the general cause of the tragedy in Sierra Leone was diamonds, which Crane said were cynically controlled by outside “international actors,” rebels and others who were able to wreak havoc among a terrorised population.