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Liberia's former president, a friend to terror?

Investigators fear al-Qaida may have moved into another hot spot, one they say is fast becoming a terrorist outpost: West Africa. Have U.S. officials missed — or dismissed — a vital link in the terror network?
Did former Liberia President Charles Taylor go into business with al-Qaida? In this photo, Taylor waits during the swearing-in ceremony of Liberia's new President Moses Zeh Blah at the presidential palace in Monrovia, Liberia, 11 August 2003. Taylor later boarded a Nigerian government plane that took him into exile.
Did former Liberia President Charles Taylor go into business with al-Qaida? In this photo, Taylor waits during the swearing-in ceremony of Liberia's new President Moses Zeh Blah at the presidential palace in Monrovia, Liberia, 11 August 2003. Taylor later boarded a Nigerian government plane that took him into exile. Georges Gobet / AFP - Getty Images file
/ Source: Dateline NBC

Even before the recent bombings in London, it was the question many Americans were asking: Is our government doing everything it should to stop terrorism?

A "Dateline" investigation reveals that some of the world's most dangerous terrorists may have found a new safe haven, a new source of money, and are thriving unchecked.

Have U.S. officials missed — or dismissed — a vital link in the terror network?

A global war on terror?
On September 11, 2001, President Bush put America’s enemies on notice: “We will make no distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbor them,” he said.

And in the days that followed, he defined who our enemies are in the war on terror. “Every nation in every region now has a decision to make: Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists,” the president said.

He sent American forces to Afghanistan to destroy al-Qaida’s sanctuary. When he deemed Saddam Hussein a threat, he sent troops to Iraq. He enlisted nations around the globe to help target al-Qaida terrorists. 

But some investigators fear al-Qaida may have moved into another hot spot, one they say is fast becoming a terrorist outpost: West Africa.

West Africa is a place most Americans and their government haven’t paid much attention to—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 a place to launder money. And they say U.S. inaction has allowed al-Qaida to move into West Africa.

“Right now, it’s a safe haven for terrorist activity,” says Al White, who for 16 years served as a senior investigator at the Pentagon, handling sensitive intelligence and law enforcement matters. “They are actively setting up shop. They’re training in various countries over there. They’re recruiting.” 

White says West Africa could become the next Afghanistan. “If we fail to act, and act soon—mark my words, that’s exactly what’s going to happen,” he sais.

White says, those terrorists may be planning new attacks on America. 

"Mad Max Thunderdome" in West Africa
For the last three years, White was on loan from the Pentagon to the special court for Sierra Leone, set up by the U.N. to prosecute war crimes that took place when Charles Taylor was president of Liberia. 

Taylor allegedly sent a rebel force into neighboring Sierra Leone to seize that country’s diamond mines, in a conflict that resulted in the murder, rape and mutilation of 1.2 million people.

And in 1998, White says, Charles Taylor went into business with al-Qaida. 

“This man is a terrorist,” White says of the former Liberian president. “He’s also aided and abetted al-Qaida operatives. Now he’s actively working with these people again. If we don’t bring him to justice immediately, there will be some significant consequences in the future.”

But why would al-Qaida flock to West Africa in the late 1990s? According to investigators, it’s simple.

"There was no accountability, there was no rule of law. And so, it was literally Mad Max Thunderdome here in West Africa for 10 years," says David Crane, who served as a high-level Pentagon and defense intelligence official and was that U.N. court’s chief prosecutor. 

He says al-Qaida found a friend in Charles Taylor who was looking to sell the diamonds he’d seized in Sierra Leone. The group turned to diamonds, he says, because they’re virtually untraceable — the perfect currency for terror financing.

Hansen: Do you believe that Taylor himself was personally involved in these dealings with the al-Qaida operatives?Crane: Yes.Hansen: In what way?Crane: Physically handing over diamonds for cash.Hansen: And you have witnesses who have seen this?Crane: Yes. We don’t make this stuff up. This is stuff that is told to us by our informants who have been living and breathing in this area for decades.

Both Crane and White say they have developed information that proves al-Qaida has been, and still is operating in West Africa.

“We’ve been able to positively identify ten of the 21 FBI’s most wanted terrorists, operating actively and freely in West Africa, from 1997 up to modern day,” says White.

And they say they have the witnesses to prove it. Witnesses that include Charles Taylor’s own brother-in-law — Cindor Reeves.

Al-Qaida presence
Reeves, who “Dateline” interviewed in disguise, is currently in witness protection. He told investigators that as a trusted insider, he escorted Taylor’s special guests around Liberia, including a man who went by the name “Mustafah.”

Although Reeves didn’t know it at the time, he now believes that “Mustafah” was, in fact, Abdullah Ahmed Abdullah, the alleged mastermind of the 1998 al-Qaida bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.

Cindor Reeves: I know the man. I didn’t just see him one day in ‘98. He came back the second time, he came back the third time, and we stayed together for more than two, three months.Hansen: You’re positive that this man was actually Abdullah Ahmed Abdullah? Reeves: Exactly. A 100 percent positive.

He says other al-Qaida operatives were there as well—all with cash in hand to buy diamonds from Liberia’s president, Charles Taylor. Reeves told us the men first stayed at a hotel in the capital, Monrovia, before moving to the safe house. On the wall of the safe house is a photo of a familiar face.

Hansen: And who did this picture turn out to be?Reeves: Osama Bin Laden.Hansen: Osama Bin Laden?Reeves: Yeah. 

Shortly after September 11, Reeves told his story to Doug Farah, who at the time was a reporter for the Washington Post.

Doug Farah: I said, you know, “You gotta be kidding right?” He said, “No, I knew—I know these people.” And I sold diamonds with them. And my first thought was, ‘Well then, how would you ever verify this, right?’ And I said, ‘You know, I only have my reputation. You only have your reputation. If you’re lying to me on this, we’re both hamburger meat.’”

Farah’s article piqued the interest of officials in Washington D.C. But the CIA and FBI said they found his source, Cindor Reeves, unreliable. Still, the FBI, under pressure from Congress, continued to investigate.

“We couldn’t establish that al-Qaida had in fact been involved in conflict diamonds,” says Dennis Lormel, who headed the FBI’s terror financing section.

What about all this information that Charles Taylor had provided safe haven for some al-Qaida operatives?

“We investigated that,” says Lormel. “The people around Taylor and other people denied that that ever happened.”

But as “Dateline” discovered, one of the people the FBI relied on to discredit the story was Ibrihim Bah, who Middle Eastern intelligence sources tell “Dateline”has longstanding terrorist ties of his own in Afghanistan, Lebanon and Libya.

The 9/11 Commission investigation
The 9/11 Commission, which conducted its own investigation, agreed with the FBI.

Vice Chairman Lee Hamilton: Our conclusion, the conclusion of the commission was that there was simply no persuasive evidence of a link between al-Qaida and diamonds.Hansen: We have talked to the chief prosecutor and the chief investigator for the Special Court of Sierra Leone. They remain adamant that not only were al-Qaida operatives in Liberia but they were—Hamilton: We don’t deny that.Hansen: That they were—Hamilton: Yeah.Hansen: —trying to do diamond deals with Charles Taylor and others.Hamilton: We don’t even deny that. Trying to do is one thing, doing it is another.  We were not charged with the responsibility of finding out what people were trying to do, we were charged with the responsibility of finding out what they did.

The commission’s mandate was narrowly focused on the events and failures directly leading to 9/11. 

But Al White, who was the war crimes tribunal’s chief investigator says, when it comes to al-Qaida in West Africa, the 9/11 Commission didn’t look hard enough.

"The 9/11 Commission missed the boat. I’ll just be very candid," says White.

White says the 9/11 Commission failed to interview credible witnesses offered by the court.

"How can you assess the credibility of someone you’ve never talked to?" questions White. "That’s what I find suspicious. And that’s what I find quite frankly unprofessional."

The 9/11 Commission says while it may not have interviewed the court’s witnesses, the FBI did, and that both the FBI and the 9/11 Commission concluded they were not credible. 

But could it be that the 9/11 Commission — along with the CIA and FBI — just got it wrong?

"Dateline" in Liberia
Mike Shanklin is a U.S. intelligence veteran. Now retired, Shanklin headed the CIA’s operations in Liberia in the 1990s, at a time when Taylor was coming to power.

“Dateline” asked Shanklin, who had previously been consulted by the special court, to come on our behalf to Sierra Leone and Liberia to help sort out allegations of al-Qaida’s presence and diamond-dealing in the region. Together, we uncovered evidence that U.S. officials appear to have missed.

“Al Qaida, Bah, Taylor, they were there,” says Shanklin. “There is no question in my mind these people were there. They were there during the period in question. And clearly they were involved in some sort of a diamond business. That’s a fact.” 

Ironically, Shanklin says, a few years ago, a top Liberian security official—unaware that his boss, Charles Taylor might have been doing business with al-Qaida—naively launched an investigation into the terrorist group’s activities in Liberia. 

But the investigation ended before it could begin.

“Charles Taylor quashed it, said, ‘You don’t need to worry about this.’ And that was the end of it," says Shanklin.

Several witnesses at the hotel (where al-Qaida operatives are said to have met) confirmed to “Dateline” that al-Qaida fugitives had stayed there as guests about six years ago.

What’s more, a senior Liberian official told “Dateline” that around the same time, a couple of unwitting Liberian investigators apparently went to the hotel and tried to have the men arrested —again, not realizing they were guests of their president, Charles Taylor.

“Taylor had the government investigators arrested… and freed the al-Qaida operatives,” says Shanklin.

Hansen: What does that say about the relationship between the al-Qaida operatives and Charles Taylor?Shanklin: Well, it certainly says that Charles Taylor didn’t want these people under arrest

What’s most ominous is that the special court’s former chief investigator believes al-Qaida is still active in the region. And he’s desperately trying to convince the U.S. government to do something about it.

“They’re here. They’re absolutely here," says White. "I can’t tell you the number. But, what I can tell you is that there’s a significant presence in West Africa. I don’t know exactly what the al-Qaida operatives are doing. That’s what concerns me. And, again, the problem is that’s not my mission. It’s the FBI’s mission to come over and find that out.”

Is the U.S. government doing enough?
There is one man who could settle the disagreement over al-Qaida’s presence and diamond-dealing in West Africa: former Liberian president Charles Taylor. 

Two years ago, after the special court charged Taylor with 17 counts of war crimes committed in Sierra Leone, the U.S. helped broker a deal in which Taylor left office in Liberia and went into exile at this estate in Nigeria.

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 vital ally and oil supplier — has seemed reluctant to really press the issue.

But Al White, who’s just finished a three-year stint in West Africa, says Charles Taylor is still conspiring with terror suspects, and that bringing him to justice may be the only way to prevent further bloodshed.

Al White: We’ve lost three years. Three years of time in actively pursuing these terrorists. Can we afford to waste another three years by denying that they’re presence is over there?Hansen: And what has al-Qaida gained in those three years?White: [In the three years] they’ve gained momentum. They have absolutely no problem pursuing their agenda and training in West Africa because they’re off limits.

Shanklin agrees: “We’re fighting a war and we’re talking about going after al-Qaida. We had an opportunity to go after al-Qaida here. Maybe we didn’t do it as aggressively as we should have. Charles Taylor was dealing with these people. And we should be doing something about Charles Taylor. This isn’t tough. This doesn’t even fall in the category of tough. This is pretty easy. Let’s do it.”

There is new evidence that Charles Taylor may be meddling in his former nation’s coming election, and thus violating the terms of his exile agreement. With that in mind, the United States has joined the chorus of nations requesting that Taylor be turned over to the U.N. War Crimes Tribunal. Taylor’s host, the Nigerian president, still refuses to cooperate.

With additional reporting from NBC producer Adam Ciralsky.