Africa's Most Wanted
Charles Taylor is an accused war criminal. A U.N.-backed court wants him. Washington is dithering
In Washington last week, the White House suddenly found itself under pressure, even from some usually friendly Republicans, over its demurral in helping to bring an indicted war criminal to justice. Former Liberian President Charles Taylor has been living the high life in Nigeria since 2003, when he was forced out of the Liberian capital of Monrovia as part of a U.S.-brokered deal--despite the fact that a special United Nations-backed court had indicted him as a war criminal. Now Taylor is making trouble once again, the court says, meddling in the outcome of the upcoming Liberian elections and plotting to assassinate the president of Guinea.
So when Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo came calling at the White House last week, Republicans, Democrats, and some of the nation's major newspapers called on President Bush to demand that Nigeria turn Taylor over to the court. For the Bush administration, it was a delicate dance with a fragile ally; at the end of the day, there were vague commitments by Bush and Obasanjo to work together to hold Taylor accountable. Behind the scenes, though, there was a lot more going on--in particular, a raging debate over the extent of al Qaeda's influence in West Africa and the question of whether U.S. law enforcement agencies are taking the issue seriously.
President Bush summoned Obasanjo to the Oval Office last Thursday, ostensibly to discuss bilateral issues--Nigeria is one of America's biggest sources of oil, and Obasanjo has taken what the Washington Post called "modest but praiseworthy" steps to fight corruption there. Taylor, however, was clearly the elephant in the room. He is believed to have been involved in stoking civil wars in Liberia, Guinea, Ivory Coast, and Sierra Leone. In March 2003, the U.N.-backed body, the Special Court for Sierra Leone, indicted him for leading a civil war there in which his forces allegedly raped, dismembered, and killed tens of thousands of innocents in their bid to control the country's vast diamond mines. In August 2003, American officials helped broker a deal that allowed Taylor safe passage to Nigeria in order to stabilize the chaotic situation in Liberia. At the time, the officials vowed that the Liberian strongman would be brought to justice later. Obasanjo, however, has been reluctant to hand Taylor over to the U.N.-sponsored court without evidence of Taylor's continuing criminal behavior. A host of close observers, meanwhile--including many on Capitol Hill--believe the Bush administration has not pushed Obasanjo hard enough.
Confronted with the administration's seeming ambivalence, the court's representatives recently decided to get tough. Over the past few weeks, they have reignited a debate over their controversial findings--which the Bush administration says are unsubstantiated--that Taylor has long had ties to members of al Qaeda, including nine of the men involved in the 1998 bombings of the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. The court has also charged that Taylor sold "conflict" or "blood" diamonds from his Sierra Leone mines to these men before and after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center, in exchange for cash and guns. Al Qaeda operatives were especially interested in converting their assets into diamonds, the court asserts, because commodities like diamonds cannot be easily traced by law enforcement, unlike funds deposited in banks. The court's investigators contend that the FBI has dropped the ball on investigating these ties. "In my opinion, the FBI has no interest in pursuing al Qaeda in West Africa," says the U.N.-backed court's chief investigator, Alan White, a former police officer and senior Pentagon investigator. "They have discounted this from Day 1."