Al-Qaeda in Africa

A series of witnesses place six top al-Qaeda fugitives in Africa buying up diamonds before the September 11 attacks on the United States, according to a confidential report by United Nations-backed prosecutors.

The first-person witness accounts detailed by the prosecutors add to long-standing claims that al-Qaeda laundered millions of dollars in terror funds through African diamonds before launching its deadliest offensive.

Al-Qaeda figures, including those already wanted in pre-September 11 attacks on US targets, dealt directly with Liberia’s former President Charles Taylor and other leaders and warlords in what was then a rogue West African nation from 1999 onwards, according to witness accounts of meetings and sightings in the blighted Liberian capital’s seedy hotels and safe-houses.

Al-Qaeda’s alleged aim: to snap up diamonds for easily convertible, untraceable resources after the first US-led moves in 1999 froze al-Qaeda bank accounts and other conventional assets worldwide.

The al-Qaeda links to Africa remain one of the most unsettled areas in international investigations into the terror group, splitting US officials and the intelligence community on the quantity and quality of the evidence.

The dossier—apparently prepared by United Nations-backed investigators for recent presentation to the US September 11 commission and other key officials in Washington—moves the matter forward by citing sources corroborating in detail accounts of al-Qaeda’s Africa links that were previously aired by media and independent watchdog groups.

“It is clear that al-Qaeda has been in West Africa since September 1998 and maintained a continuous presence in the area through 2002,” the UN-backed war-crimes investigators in West Africa, led by American David Crane, said in the confidential report.

Separately, one US intelligence official who believes the overall claims said that evidence of an al-Qaeda-Africa diamond link now was “close to overwhelming”.

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, estimated al-Qaeda proceeds from the diamond dealings at $15-million (12,2-million euros).

The roster of al-Qaeda fugitives allegedly witnessed in Liberia before September 11, 2001, include names that have since become infamous.

Among them is Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, a Tanzanian wanted in the 1998 bombings of two African US embassies, and arrested on July 25 in Pakistan after an intense gunbattle.

Other al-Qaeda figures placed in Africa by direct sources cited in the dossier:

  • Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, a native of East Africa’s Comoros Islands, accused in 1998 and 2002 al-Qaeda attacks in East Africa. Mohammed is wanted under a $25-million US bounty.

  • Egyptian Mohammed Atef, an alleged Osama bin Laden military chief, killed in Afghanistan in 2001.

  • Pakistani Aafia Siddiqui, the only prominent female figure in al-Qaeda, considered by the US to be a likely “fixer” for the group in the United States and elsewhere. Media reports have said al-Qaeda ordered Siddiqui to Monrovia to iron out problems between other al-Qaeda operatives.

  • Kenyan Sheik Ahmed Salin Swedan, wanted in 1998 attacks in East Africa.

  • Egyptian Abdullah Ahmed Abdullah, wanted in the 1998 attacks.

    While most are alleged to have gone to ground outside Africa after the September 11 attacks, the dossier suggests Abdullah may have remained active.
    It cites “source information” saying Abdullah was engaging in the West African diamond smuggling business in neighbouring Guinea.

    Witnesses say Liberia’s former President Taylor himself gave al-Qaeda operatives entry to the shady West African world of guns, cash and diamonds before September 11, according to the dossier.

    Taylor, who has since been ousted, allegedly brought together rebels, state leaders and Islamic extremists under the common goal of cash.

    Accounts in the report include an alleged September 1998 get-together at Taylor’s executive mansion where middlemen introduced Taylor and Abdullah.

    The Liberian leader later allegedly directed the al-Qaeda figure to rebels controlling fine-gem mining next door, in diamond-rich Sierra Leone, sources are quoted as telling investigators.

    Ghailani and Mohammed met Taylor the next year in his private home in Liberia’s capital, Monrovia.

    Abdullah later ordered Ghailani and Mohammed to do al-Qaeda’s diamond-buying, “because they were of African descent and would not arouse any suspicion,” the dossier quotes one of its main sources as saying.

    Other accounts include a “highly credible source” as placing former al-Qaeda number two Atef and Ghailani in Monrovia in 1999 and 2000, at times meeting with diamond-dealing rebels.

    Neither this dossier nor other official accounts to reach the public made the next step: indicating any direct proof that al-Qaeda used diamond profits to fund the September 11 attacks.

    The September 11 commission estimates the 2001 attacks cost more than a half-million dollars (400 000 euros).

    The newest dossier was put together by prosecutors trying war crimes in Sierra Leone, where rebels waged a 1991-2002 terror campaign bent on gaining control of that country’s government and diamond fields.

    Taylor, accused of backing the rebels, is the UN-Sierra Leone court’s top surviving indicted suspect.

    The UN tribunal is pushing for Taylor’s extradition from Nigeria, where he fled after opposition forces and international pressure routed him from Liberia’s capital in August 2003.

    Those making the link between al-Qaeda and Africa diamonds charge the US government has turned its back on the case in part over discomfort over the CIA’s own alleged Cold War-era links to Taylor.

    One problem for those trying to put together a case of al-Qaeda links in Africa is that much of the evidence has come from disreputable figures involved in the dealings themselves. When Americans gave one of the key sources a polygraph test early on, he failed.

    There was other corroborating evidence at the time, but circumstantial: Western officials told the AP and others they had noted an unmistakable, puzzling tightening of the region’s diamond markets at the time al-Qaeda was allegedly cornering millions in small- and medium-size gems.

    Other evidence has emerged more recently.

    It includes “communication intercepts”—such as phone calls linking alleged al-Qaeda middlemen and diamond-dealers -‒ said intelligence officials, investigators and analysts.

    Al-Qaeda suspects captured since September 11 also have supported the al-Qaeda-Africa-diamond link, intelligence officials and analysts said.

    UN-backed investigators, including lead prosecutor David Crane, a former US Department of Defence lawyer, have been anxious for the United States to recognise the al-Qaeda-diamond link, hoping it would spur US pressure for Taylor’s extradition on the war-crimes indictments.

    A United Nations-backed investigator went before the September 11 commission at least once to present the war-crimes’ court’s evidence on al-Qaeda in West Africa, commission spokesperson Al Felzenberg confirmed, without identifying the investigator.

    The commission’s final report, however, made clear its position: “No persuasive evidence exists that al-Qaeda ... funded itself through trafficking in diamonds from African states engaged in civil wars.”

    “We’re confident in the thoroughness of our staff in assessing what they were given, and we stand by the report and their conclusions,” Felzenberg said on Friday. - Sapa-AP

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