FREETOWN, Sierra Leone – Al-Qaida suspects in the deadly 1998 bombings of two U.S. embassies took shelter in West Africa in the months before the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, converting terror cash into untraceable diamonds, according to findings of a U.N.-backed court. The allegations came as part of the Sierra Leone war crimes court’s investigation of former Liberian President Charles Taylor, alleged have been a middleman between al-Qaida and West Africa’s multimillion-dollar diamond trade.
“We have in the process of investigating Charles Taylor … clearly uncovered that he harbored al-Qaida operatives in Monrovia (the Liberian capital) as late as the summer of 2001,” said David Crane, the court’s lead prosecutor. “The central thread is blood diamonds.”
Other international investigators told the AP the three suspects are Mohammed Atef of Egypt, Fazul Abdullah Mohammed of Comoros and Sheikh Ahmed Salim Swedan of Kenya. Fazul and Swedan are believed in East Africa; Atef was killed in fighting in Afghanistan.
All were on the FBI’s most-wanted terrorist list in connection with Aug. 7, 1998 car bombings that killed 231 people at American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. Al-Qaida claimed responsibility for both attacks.
The three took shelter in Liberia in June and July of 2001, according to the international investigation findings obtained by the AP.
Crane, a veteran U.S. Defense Department lawyer, said he had no information on whether any funds from alleged al-Qaida diamond dealings were used to carrying out the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and Washington.
FBI teams have repeatedly traveled to West Africa to investigate allegations of al-Qaida diamond dealings here.
No charges are known to have been brought in any court as a result of any of the probes into alleged West Africa-al-Qaida links. U.S. government officials say they have found little or no evidence to support those allegations.
The illicit international trade in so-called blood diamonds draws on generally high-quality gems from Sierra Leone.
The trade helped fund many of West Africa’s wars of the 1990s, and is increasingly under international scrutiny as a suspected means of finance for terror.
The United States estimates that between $70 million and $100 million still are smuggled out of Sierra Leone each year, despite the coming of peace and international accords to block illicit trafficking.
U.S. and U.N. authorities and international rights groups have long believed Taylor was a top conduit for smuggled West Africa diamonds. Taylor is alleged to have used diamonds acquired in Sierra Leone to bankroll the 1989-1996 insurgency that brought him to power in neighboring Liberia.
He is the most prominent of 11 surviving suspects indicted by the U.N.-Sierra Leone court, which opens its first trials Thursday. The tribunal was established to prosecute alleged crimes against humanity during a vicious 10-year war over control of Sierra Leone and its diamond fields.
Charges among the war crimes court’s 17-count indictment accuse Taylor of trading guns with and aiding Sierra Leone’s insurgency.
Taylor fled Liberia in August, after the international indictments, as armed opposition forces laid siege to his capital and the international community pressed for his departure.
The ousted Liberian leader now lives in exile in Nigeria, which offered him asylum from the U.N.-Sierra Leone indictment.
Taylor has repeatedly denied the charges against him. His spokesman in Nigeria did not immediately respond to requests for comment Tuesday.
The U.N.-Sierra Leone court and rights groups have pressed unsuccessfully for Nigeria to yield Taylor for trial.
The demand raises unease among some African and Western diplomats, who fear bringing the onetime warlord out of exile for prosecution may jar the region’s unsteady peace.
Crane, in the Sierra Leone capital of Freetown, said he had “documentary” and “direct evidence” of al-Qaida’s West Africa dealings.
The international investigation findings obtained in part by the AP concluded that flight records and some undisclosed evidence in Europe appeared to support the accounts of pre-Sept. 11 al-Qaida diamond business in Liberia.
Crane said he gave the information that his own team uncovered to the United States, European and other North American countries.
“Now, what other countries, and it’s not just the United States, choose to do with that is clearly up to them,” Crane said.