More on Charles Taylor and Al Qaeda

The link between Charles Taylor and Al Qaeda has been getting more traction in the media, thanks to the ongoing hearings of the Sierra Leone special court and, apparently, a few new government sources. The Boston Globe article mentioned on NPR this morning goes over the basics that I’ve mentioned before: Taylor’s government provided a safe haven to a number of Al Qaeda members, and helped them launder money through the illegal diamond trade. But the article also brings to light a new piece of information:

The Defense Department approved a special forces raid to capture Al Qaeda leaders under Taylor’s protection in 2001, but called it off and never reactivated the plan, the US officials said in recent interviews, on condition of anonymity. Meanwhile, senior leaders of Al Qaeda continued to receive Taylor’s protection.

That was after September 11, by the way. So why is this information just coming out now? As noted in the Globe article, and in more detail in a Post opinion piece by Douglas Farah and Richard Shultz, the CIA has been reluctant to corroborate any evidence of a link because it reflects badly on them—Taylor was a CIA informant for years, and the U.S. backed his anti-Doe activities in the Eighties and his bid for power in the Nineties. (We sure know how to pick ‘em, don’t we?) But it wasn’t just the CIA. Also from the Globe:

“For some reason our intelligence people have been very anxious to disprove this as happening, something that can’t be disproven,” said Joseph Melrose, who was US ambassador to Sierra Leone until September 2001.

As recently as June 2003, the FBI reported to the US General Accounting Office that there was no Al Qaeda presence in West Africa, despite what intelligence and military officials say was a plan to capture Ghailani and Mohammed in the weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks using a US special forces team stationed in nearby Guinea. That mission was called off, although it is unclear why.

Yes, that Ghailani, the one who helped plan the embassy bombings and was recently captured (with remarkable timing) in Pakistan.

Let’s chalk up the failures here:

  • Mine: I wish that I had been on the Taylor-AQ connection last year, during the runup to his ouster, but I didn’t mention it then. At the time I was aware of shady diamond dealings, but wouldn’t have necessarily guessed a terrorist link. And yet the information was out there, just not readily available. Which brings us to …
  • The media’s: If I had access to Lexis-Nexis I’d go back to July of 2003 and see how many people interviewed Douglas Farah and at least put the notion of the CT-AQ link out there. But it’s certainly the case that the idea got no significant media attention. It’s their job to make connections like that. But most egregious, of course …
  • The government’s: If Special Forces were ready to go in and nab these guys, then clearly someone was aware of Al Qaeda operatives in Liberia. This makes the CIA and FBI’s denials of that link a classic case of miscommunication at best and deceit at worst. There may yet be a reasonable explanation for why special forces didn’t act in September 2001, though I’m hard pressed to think of what it might be. But there are no good reasons why the government itself didn’t raise the issue of Taylor’s relationship to the war on Al Qaeda in July 2003. No good reasons, but obvious ones: the focus was on Iraq, and the Bushies didn’t want another matter—even one involving the people who actually attacked us—to get in the way. Fessing up to what they knew about Taylor would have required more direct action in Liberia. Instead they went along with a plan to put him in a box and hoped the world would forget.

    Thankfully, the world isn’t forgetting. It looks more and more likely that Taylor will get his day in court, though there are plenty of hurdles in the way. The U.S. elements who want him cooped up can just leave it to Obasanjo to oppose extradition, and will only need to get involved if that fails. As has always been the case, the easiest way for it to happen would be if the Liberian government called for it (though goodness knows what pressure is being placed on them behind the scenes not to do so). And, as has also always been the case, enough media coverage could force action. Here’s hopin’.

    UPDATE: One important thing I forgot to mention: because of FBI and CIA reluctance, the 9/11 Commission report doesn’t conclude that West African diamonds were a significant source of Al Qaeda funding. Douglas Farah responds to that, and answers a number of other questions, in this interview.