Former Liberian president Charles Taylor sold conflict diamonds to known al-Qaeda operatives that may have been used to finance the September 11 attacks on the United States, according to a confidential report from the UN-backed war crimes court in Sierra Leone. “It is clear that al-Qaeda had been in west Africa since September 1998 and maintained a continuous presence in the area through 2002,” said the document, produced by the office of prosecutor David Crane.
The document, gleaned from press reports, witnesses to sightings of al-Qaeda operatives in Liberia and interviews with a single, unnamed source, is the latest effort to link the global terror network to conflict diamonds mined during the civil war that ravaged the west African state for a decade.
But more tellingly, according to Washington Post reporter Douglas Farah, who first revealed many of the links between Taylor and the terror group, it shows the flagrant intelligence shortfalls in truly understanding al-Qaeda’s connections to Africa.
“The United States has not perceived itself to have a strategic interest in sub-Saharan Africa on the terrorism front until very recently,” Farah said in a 5 August interview with allAfrica.com.
“The development not only in Liberia of a functioning criminal state is not a secret to anyone who has been to the region or who lives in the region. The whole scenario is part of the neglect by the outside world.”
What it is not, said former US ambassador to Sierra Leone Joseph Melrose, is a smoking gun.
“You can’t say it hasn’t happened, but you can’t prove evidence in court because it is circumstantial evidence,” he told AFP by telephone from Pennsylvania.
“But there is a long tradition in the diamond sector (of shady dealings) and they have to acknowledge that some of these blood diamonds could be terror diamonds.”
Taylor, a warlord who rose to the presidency in 1997 after a seven-year rebellion, is at the centre of the intricate relations between al-Qaeda and Sierra Leone’s Revolutionary United Front rebels.
Citing the watchdog group Global Witness, the document states that Taylor’s government “facilitated access for al-Qaeda operatives into Sierra Leone and Liberia in exchange for diamonds and weapons.”
According to US officials quoted in a 4 August article by the Boston Globe, Taylor was also paid protection money by al-Qaeda operatives, among them Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, a Tanzanian national who was arrested 25 July in Pakistan after a blazing gunbattle.
Ghailani, a key planner in Osama bin Laden’s network, is accused of masterminding the 1998 US embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania.
The court dossier alleges he met several times in 1999 with Charles Taylor at his residence in Monrovia, around the time of an armed uprising to rid Liberia of Taylor that finally ended in August last year.
Another top al-Qaeda player with connections to Liberia is Abdullah Ahmed Abdullah, a senior financial officer included on the US Federal Bureau of Investigation’s most wanted list.
Witnesses told the Washington Post that he arrived in Liberia in September 2000 and established a good relationship with Ibrahim Bah, a top RUF commander who served as a go-between between the RUF leadership and Taylor.
The dossier’s most voluble source, who remains unidentified, said that it was Bah who arranged for Abdullah to buy millions of dollars worth of diamonds from Taylor that had been mined in Sierra Leone.
Those diamonds were smuggled out through channels arranged by Taylor or Samih Ossaily and Aziz Nassour, both of whom are in custody in Belgium awaiting trial for their shady dealings in Sierra Leone.
Taylor, a US-educated preacher who has long boasted that he was an agent of the US Central Intelligence Agency, has so far eluded trial at the war crimes court on charges he trained and armed the rebels who launched their uprising from Liberia in 1991.
Massive international pressure sent Taylor into exile in Nigeria, where President Olusegun Obasanjo has steadfastly resolved to keep him until Liberia itself reclaims the former warlord for trial at its own war crimes court.
Court observers say the dossier presented by Crane to the US commission investigating the September 11 attacks was a bid to boost pressure on the US government to force Nigeria to hand Taylor over for trial.
But the commission did not heed the report, going so far as to deny that there was “no persuasive evidence that al-Qaeda funded itself by trading in African conflict diamonds”.
“Try as they might, they just can’t get Taylor,” a Western diplomat told AFP. “They even throw out the al-Qaeda connection and they still can’t get him.”