Saturday, August 7, 2004

DAKAR, Senegal — A series of witnesses place six top al Qaeda fugitives in Africa buying diamonds in the run-up to the September 11 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-September 11 attacks on U.S. targets, dealt directly with then-President Charles Taylor 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 safe houses of Monrovia, the blighted capital of what was then a rogue nation.

Al Qaeda’s purported 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.

The dossier, apparently prepared by U.N.-backed investigators for presentation recently to the September 11 commission and other officials in Washington, 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.

Separately, one U.S. intelligence official said 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.

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 attacks. The September 11 commission estimates the 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.

The roster of al Qaeda fugitives purportedly witnessed in Liberia ahead of September 11, 2001, include Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, a Tanzanian wanted in the 1998 bombings of two U.S. embassies in Africa and arrested July 25 in Pakistan.

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

• Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, a native of East Africa’s Comoro Islands, accused in 1998 and 2002 al Qaeda attacks in East Africa. The United States has placed a $25 million bounty on Mohammed.

• Egyptian Mohammed Atef, a purported Osama 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.

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