DAKAR, Senegal – A series of witnesses place six top Al Qaeda (search) fugitives in Africa buying up diamonds in the run-up to the Sept. 11 (search) attacks, according to a confidential report by U.N.-backed prosecutors obtained by The Associated Press.
The first-person 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 some already wanted in pre-Sept. 11 attacks on U.S. targets, dealt directly with then-President Charles Taylor (search) and other leaders and warlords in the West African country of Liberia from 1999 onwards, according to the accounts. The witnesses told of meetings and sightings in the seedy hotels and safehouses of Monrovia, the blighted capital of what was then a rogue nation.
Al Qaida's alleged aim: snapping up diamonds in order to have easily convertible, untraceable resources after the first U.S.-led moves freezing Al Qaeda bank accounts and other conventional assets worldwide in 1999.
Claims of Al Qaeda's Africa diamond links remain one of the most unsettled areas in international investigations into the terror group, splitting U.S. officials and the intelligence community on the quantity and quality of the evidence.
The dossier, apparently prepared by U.N.-backed investigators for presentation recently to the Sept. 11 commission and other officials in Washington, moves the matter forward. It shows that sources interviewed by prosecutors are corroborating in detail accounts of links between Al Qaeda and West Africa that news media and independent watchdog groups have previously reported.
"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 U.N.-backed war-crimes investigators in West Africa, led by American David Crane, said in the confidential report obtained by the AP.
Separately, one U.S. intelligence official told the AP that evidence of an Al Qaeda-Africa diamond link now was "close to overwhelming."
The official estimated Al Qaeda proceeds in the diamond dealings at $15 million.
The roster of Al Qaeda fugitives allegedly witnessed in Liberia ahead of Sept. 11, 2001, include names that have since become infamous.
They include Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, a Tanzanian wanted in the 1998 bombings of two African U.S. embassies, and arrested July 25 in Pakistan after an intense gunbattle.
Other al Qaida figures placed in Liberia 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 U.S. bounty.
— Egyptian Mohammed Atef, an alleged Usama bin Laden military chief, killed in Afghanistan in 2001.
— Pakistani Aafia Siddiqui, the only prominent female figure in Al Qaeda, considered by the United States to be a likely "fixer" for the group in the United States and elsewhere. Media reports have said Siddiqui was in Monrovia to iron out problems between other Al Qaeda operatives.
— Kenyan Sheik Ahmed Salim Swedan, wanted in the 1998 attacks in east Africa.
— Egyptian Abdullah Ahmed Abdullah, wanted in the 1998 attacks.
While the others are alleged to have largely scattered outside Africa after the Sept. 11 attacks, the dossier suggests Abdullah may have remained active — citing "source information" linking Abdullah to diamond smuggling in neighboring Guinea.
Witnesses depict Liberia's former president, Taylor, himself giving the Al Qaeda operatives entree to the shady West African world of guns, cash and diamonds before Sept. 11.
Taylor, who has since been ousted and is now in exile in Nigeria, 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 him to Abdullah.
The Liberian leader subsequently directed the Al Qaeda figure to rebels controlling the mining of fine gems in neighboring, diamond-rich Sierra Leone, the investigators quote sources as saying.
The following year, Ghailani and Mohammed met Taylor at his private home in 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.
The report also cites a "highly credible source" as placing former Al Qaeda No. 2 Atef and Ghailani in Monrovia, at times meeting with diamond-dealing rebels, in 1999 and 2000.
However, neither this dossier nor other official accounts to reach the public have offered any direct proof that Al Qaeda used diamond profits to fund the Sept. 11 attacks. The Sept. 11 commission estimates the 2001 attacks cost Al Qaeda more than a half-million dollars to pull off.
The current 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 U.N.-Sierra Leone court's top surviving indicted suspect. The 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 U.S. 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 for evidence of Al Qaeda in Africa diamond-dealing: much of the evidence cited has been from the disreputable figures involved in the dealing themselves.
When Americans gave one of the key sources a polygraph test early on, he failed, the AP was told.
There was other corroborating evidence at the time, but circumstantial: a tightening of the region's diamond markets at the time Al Qaeda was allegedly cornering millions in small- and medium-size gems, according to Western officials.
Other evidence is emerging more recently, intelligence officials, investigators and analysts told the AP. They said the evidence includes phone calls linking alleged Al Qaeda middlemen and diamond-dealers, and information from Al Qaeda suspects captured and interrogated since Sept. 11.
U.N.-backed investigators, including Crane, have been anxious the United States recognize the Al Qaeda-diamond link — hoping it would spur U.S. pressure for Taylor's extradition on the war-crimes indictments.
One such investigator went before the Sept. 11 commission to present the war-crimes' court's evidence on Al Qaeda in West Africa, commission spokesman Al Felzenberg confirmed, without identifying the investigator.
The commission's final report made clear its position, however: "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 Friday.