Thursday, July 01, 2004

Is this the explanation for the Bout scandal?

The Financial Times reports that US counter-terrorist efforts in West Africa are being strengthened after increased scrutiny of the former Liberian dictator Charles Taylor's alleged links with Hezbollah and al-Qa'ida. Reportedly, more staff have been assigned to help in financial investigations there, and a further legal attache (a FBI representative) is to be appointed. The September 11th commission surprised various people when it decided that al-Qa'ida did not finance itself through the illicit diamond trade, especially, it seems, the FBI itself and the Congressional committee that watches it:
A Federal Bureau of Investigation team this year found "pretty definite" evidence of a link between al-Qaeda operatives and the smuggling of Sierra Leonean diamonds, according to the head of the House of Representatives subcommittee that oversees the FBI. In an interview, Frank Wolf, chairman of the House commerce-justice-state and the judiciary appropriations subcommittee, expressed surprise at the September 11 committee's scepticism about the tie and said he would check that it had access to FBI reports on the issue.

Mr Wolf said he asked the FBI team to visit Liberia to investigate concerns about alleged dealings in diamonds by radical Islamic groups groups such as Hizbollah in Lebanon. The investigation established that al-Qaeda operatives visited Liberia to buy diamonds, although Mr Wolf warned that confidentiality laws prevented him from giving details.

"I can tell you that, to my satisfaction, there is a connection to al-Qaeda," Mr Wolf said. "Now the question is how much, how extensively, is it still going on?"
This may yet reveal important facts on the Viktor Bout scandal, as reported here back in May. To recap, it emerged that the well-known arms trafficker had been working for the US in some connection with Iraq, as well as his more usual clients (Charles Taylor, UNITA, various Congolese factions, Rwanda, the Taliban). The big question was the why, of course, which remains mysterious. The new development is the suggestion that Charles Taylor, whose regime in Liberia was pretty much dependent on the Bout organisation to export diamonds and timber and import armaments for its numerous wars, had links with the US of a nature that could have led to a blind eye being turned to terrorist-related activities there.
The text mentions that the al-Qa'ida representatives were in town during the same period as the Liberian shipping registry was sending huge sums of money to San Air, one of Bout's operations with a base in Texas (see here). Or, you could put it this way!
"Alex Yearsley, of London-based Global Witness, alleges that the CIA and FBI long had tried to publicly minimize links between conflict diamonds and Islamic militant groups, including al-Qaida. The U.S. security agents feared exposure of their own longtime links with Charles Taylor, the ousted Liberian leader who played a main role in West Africa's insurgencies and blood diamond trade, Yearsley said. Taylor received CIA payments until January 2001, Yearsley claimed in a telephone interview."
Laura Rozen quotes this crucial par from the FT, but careful readers will spot that it's missing from the FT article. In fact, everything after Yearsley's first sentence calling for a full report to be published has been snipped. The current version has only the following ultra-diplomatic formulation:
"Some observers have suggested the US is reluctant to admit that it failed to spot links between al-Qaeda and Liberia before the September 11 attacks."

I suppose it vanished into the legal department. Hmm....

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