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Liberia's Taylor gave aid to Qaeda, UN probe finds

Page 3 of 3 -- The official said the Liberian strongman was personally paid at least $1 million by Al Qaeda for his assistance: ''He was helping them launder money through the diamond mines."

Current and former US officials believe there were missed opportunities in the late 1990s and in the months after the 2001 attacks to unravel what was a key Al Qaeda hub. Mohammed, for example, is believed to have later masterminded an attack on a seaside hotel in Mombasa, Kenya, in December 2002 that killed three Israelis and 10 Kenyans and a failed attempt to shoot down an Israeli jetliner taking off from Mombasa the same day.

''For some reason our intelligence people have been very anxious to disprove this as happening, something that can't be disproven," said Joseph Melrose, who was US ambassador to Sierra Leone until September 2001.

As recently as June 2003, the FBI reported to the US General Accounting Office that there was no Al Qaeda presence in West Africa, despite what intelligence and military officials say was a plan to capture Ghailani and Mohammed in the weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks using a US special forces team stationed in nearby Guinea. That mission was called off, although it is unclear why.

After meeting with war crimes investigators in February of this year, the FBI concluded that Al Qaeda did have extensive ties with Taylor and his armed forces, the UN investigators said.

Some specialists suggest the United States did not take seriously the reports of Al Qaeda's links to Taylor -- and has not pressed for his trial in Sierra Leone because of his longstanding ties with the intelligence community.

''I've heard that he was on the US payroll," Melrose said. ''It's very possible some of these other characters [in the Taylor regime] have been, too."

According to Douglas Farah, a senior fellow at the National Strategy Information Center in Washington and author of ''Blood from Stones," an account of the terrorist trade in precious stones in West Africa, Taylor bragged that ''he worked for the CIA for years."

''Why hasn't the United States pressed for his handover to Sierra Leone?" he asked. ''The United States is funding most of it and the high-powered prosecutors are led by people" from the Defense Department. ''To get [Nigeria] to get Taylor turned over we're not going to do anything."

Bender can be reached at bender@globe.com. 

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