By Chris Hansen Correspondent
NBC News
updated 4/29/2005 6:47:47 PM ET 2005-04-29T22:47:47

At a time when the United States has thousands of forces hunting Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in Iraq, international investigators say the United States is ignoring another terrorist outlaw — former Liberian President Charles Taylor, who's hiding in plain sight in West Africa.

This is a place most Americans and their government haven't paid much attention to. It is war-torn, remote and desperately poor. But that might be about to change. War crimes investigators have uncovered evidence that al-Qaida terrorists — before and after 9/11 — were using West Africa as a hideout and as a place to launder money.

And they say Charles Taylor has been helping them. Taylor, who is allegedly responsible for the murder, rape and mutilation of 1.2 million people, was indicted more than two years ago for war crimes and crimes against humanity. The charges forced him from power in Liberia.

"Today, I leave you with these parting words, God willing, I will be back," Taylor told Liberian supporters in 2003.

But a U.S.-brokered agreement allowed him to retire to an estate in Nigeria.

"It's very important that the American people know that there is a threat in West Africa and it's not being dealt with," says Al White, a former Pentagon official and now the chief investigator for the special court for Sierra Leone, the U.N.-backed tribunal that indicted Taylor. "Charles Taylor is a terrorist. He used diamonds as a tool and instrument to help fund not only his operations, but also he allowed al-Qaida to use the diamonds to fund their operations."

Despite repeated requests from the international community, Nigeria's president has so far refused to turn Taylor over to the special court for prosecution.

And the United States — which considers Nigeria a crucial ally and oil supplier — has been reluctant to push. President Bush welcomed Nigeria’s president to the United States in 2004.

So now, in a bid to shame Nigeria and the United States into action, the special court is going public with evidence that Taylor helped al Qaida "recoup, refit and refinance" before and after 9/11.

David Crane is the court's chief prosecutor. He believes that Taylor himself was personally involved in these dealings with al-Qaida operatives by "physically handing over diamonds for cash."

The 9/11 commission, however, disagreed.

"The conclusion of the commission was that there was simply no persuasive evidence of a link between al-Qaida and diamonds," says Lee Hamilton, vice chairman of the commission.

How can Hamilton be so sure?

"We relied on very careful investigative work. If diamonds were used to finance al-Qaida operations, we would have been able to track that," he says.

White, the chief war crimes investigator, says U.S. officials failed to interview credible witnesses.

"The 9/11 commission missed the boat. I'll just be very candid," he says.

Is he suggesting that the 9/11 commission, the FBI and the CIA are all wrong when it comes to this and he’s the one who's right?

"What I'm suggesting is the facts speak for themselves," says White.

The Bush administration says it continues to examine the Taylor/al-Qaida link and is optimistic he'll soon be occupying a jail cell in Sierra Leone.

"We feel confident that it will happen because it has to," says Pierre-Richard Prosper, the ambassador-at-large with the State Department's Office of War Crimes Issues. "We have no choice. Charles Taylor cannot escape justice. The atrocities, the acts that he's accused of, are just too great for us to walk away from such an effort."

Al White, however, worries that the clock is ticking in a part of the world where al-Qaida is becoming increasingly active.

Could West Africa become the next Afghanistan?

"Absolutely," says White. "And if we fail to act, and act soon, mark my words, that's exactly what's going to happen."

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