- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 2, 2004

FREETOWN, Sierra Leone — Al Qaeda suspects in the deadly 1998 bombings of two U.S. embassies took shelter in West Africa in the months before the September 11 attacks, converting terrorism cash into untraceable diamonds, according to findings of a U.N.-backed court.

The findings came as part of the Sierra Leone war-crimes court’s investigation of former Liberian President Charles Taylor, accused of acting as a middleman between al Qaeda and West Africa’s multimillion-dollar diamond trade.

“We have, in the process of investigating Charles Taylor, … clearly uncovered that he harbored al Qaeda operatives in Monrovia [the Liberian capital] as late as the summer of 2001,” said David Crane, the court’s lead prosecutor. “The central thread is blood diamonds.”

Mr. Crane, a veteran U.S. Defense Department lawyer, said he had “documentary” and “direct evidence” of al Qaeda’s West Africa dealings.

Other international investigators said the three suspects are Mohammed Atef of Egypt, Fazul Abdullah Mohammed of Comoros and Sheik Ahmed Salim Swedan of Kenya. Fazul and Swedan are thought to be in East Africa; Atef was killed in fighting in Afghanistan.

All were on the FBI’s most-wanted terrorist list in connection with Aug. 7, 1998, car bombings that killed 231 persons at American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. Al Qaeda took responsibility for both attacks.

The three took shelter in Liberia in June and July of 2001, according to the international investigation findings obtained by the Associated Press.

FBI teams repeatedly have traveled to West Africa to investigate suspicions of al Qaeda diamond dealings.

No charges are known to have been brought in any court as a result of any of the probes into suspected West Africa-al Qaeda links. U.S. government officials say they have found little or no evidence to support the suspicions.

The illicit international trade in so-called blood diamonds draws on generally high-quality gems from Sierra Leone.

The trade helped fund many of West Africa’s wars in the 1990s, and is increasingly under international scrutiny as a suspected means of financing terror.

U.S. and U.N. authorities and international rights groups long have thought that Mr. Taylor was a top conduit for smuggled West Africa diamonds. He is accused of having used diamonds acquired in Sierra Leone to bankroll the 1989-96 insurgency that brought him to power in neighboring Liberia.

He is the most prominent of 11 surviving suspects indicted by the U.N.-Sierra Leone court, which opens its first trials today. The tribunal was established to prosecute crimes against humanity during a vicious 10-year war over control of Sierra Leone and its diamond fields.

Charges among the war-crimes court’s 17-count indictment accuse Mr. Taylor of trading guns with and aiding Sierra Leone’s insurgency. The ousted Liberian leader lives in exile in Nigeria, which offered him asylum from the U.N.-Sierra Leone indictment.

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