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New Details Emerge about al-Qaida Connection to West Africa - 2004-08-11


More details emerged this week on the activities of al-Qaida in West Africa, especially in Liberia, where terrorists allegedly have been closely working with the government in the diamond trade.

The new information on al-Qaida is part of a report by the United Nations-backed war crimes court in Sierra Leone, leaked to foreign media.

It is being described as a watered down version of what was given to the U.S. commission investigating the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States.

It details how half a dozen senior al-Qaida operatives worked closely with top officials in Liberia onwards from 1999 during the rule of former Liberian President Charles Taylor. It says they were basically given a safe haven to make illicit diamond deals.

Mr. Taylor, who left power last year in exchange for asylum in Nigeria, stands accused of having sold diamonds from rebels he backed in Sierra Leone until 2002. He has denied this and has refused to appear in court.

The head prosecutor in Freetown, David Crane, says his investigators easily traced back some of the illicit diamond trade to al-Qaida.

"When you place an international legal entity in a part of the world that has not really known the rule of law for many, many, many, years you're going to find all sorts of actors moving in and about what I would call a dark corner of the world and there are many of them and this just happens to be one," he said. "Certainly, al-Qaida have been here for a couple of years and they have been using diamonds to wash their money and so, yes, they certainly have a presence here. There's specific and direct evidence to that effect."

Mr. Crane says terrorists then easily re-sold smuggled diamonds.

Some investigators, from non-governmental groups like London-based Global Witness, believe al-Qaida's diamond proceeds, estimated at least $15 million, helped finance the 2001 terrorist attacks.

The author of the recently released book Blood from Stones: The Secret Financial Network of Terror, former West Africa-based journalist Douglas Farah says the court's findings substantiate his own reporting.

He alleges U.S. intelligence neglected what was happening in Liberia, despite the close ties between the two countries.

"It's one of the things that is so embarrassing to the U.S intelligence community that there's one place in West Africa where they could've had a handle on events happening and should have had a handle of events, it was in Liberia but they essentially paid very little attention to Taylor and his multiple criminal activities for many years," he commented.

After years of civil war in Sierra Leone and then Liberia, it was, however, the U.S government who pushed for sanctions against Liberia and then demanded Mr. Taylor leave power a year ago.

U.N. peacekeeping operations in both Liberia and Sierra Leone seem to leave little room for the terrorists to maneuver for now.

But Mr. Farah thinks al-Qaida operatives could move to nearby areas in West Africa, which remain essentially lawless.

"You have most of the Congo which is not occupied by a state, you have much of Mauritania, Chad, Niger and even parts of Ivory Coast which are now no longer really under state control," he said. "It's in those gray areas, those stateless areas where it's so easy to hide, where intelligence gathering is so difficult, that they can use easily as their rear-guard areas and I think they will be increasingly exploiting those as they become pressured in their more traditional areas."

Diamonds are not everywhere, however, and a new certification system tries to prevent the sale of precious gems from conflict areas, making illicit trading more difficult.

In Mali, Niger, Chad and Mauritania, four vast, largely uncontrolled countries described as possible rest and recovery areas for terrorists, the U.S. military has started anti-terrorism training with national armies. Some analysts say these countries are cooperating because they are getting free training and equipment, and not because they are committed to eradicating possible terrorist threats.

Emmanuel Sowatey from the Ghana-based African Security Dialogue and Research group says most governments in the region have more pressing matters to deal with than terrorists.

"The threat of terrorism, because it's not as strong as the instabilities being spread in the sub-region by rag-tag armies, you know rebel forces, the issue of terrorism is not as important as dealing with the Ivorian crisis, trying to strengthen democracies in our countries," he said.

Mr. Sowatey points out the region itself has not been a target of attacks, but that this could change as more and more of the world's oil comes from West Africa.

Analysts interviewed for this report also fear future African terrorists could be spurred on by hard-line Islamic clerics who have been setting up mosques, charities and schools throughout impoverished Muslim areas in West Africa.

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