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Jesse Jackson, Pat Robertson, and Charles Taylor


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Dirty diamonds

By Michael Barone

What do Jesse Jackson, Pat Robertson, and al Qaeda have in common?

The answer is: They all have been associated with the bloody Liberian dictator Charles Taylor.

The al Qaeda connection is the one that has most recently come to light. In a November 2 Washington Post article, Douglas Farah reported that "the terrorist network led by Osama bin Laden has reaped millions of dollars in the past three years from the illicit sale of diamonds mined by rebels in Sierra Leone." Al Qaeda has been buying the diamonds at below-market rates in Africa and selling them for higher prices in Europe. Diamonds are easy to transport and smuggle, and diamond transactions are hard to trace; al Qaeda evidently increased its purchases in July, presumably in anticipation of its bank accounts being frozen. The diamonds are mined in Sierra Leone by the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebels, who famously hacked off the arms and legs of hundreds of people and built up an army of boys. Since 1998, the diamonds have been sold for cash in Liberia to al Qaeda agents by the RUF's diamond dealer, alleged to be a Libyan-trained Senegalese rebel. There is big money here: A United Nations panel estimated RUF diamond sales in 1999 at $75 million. Farah writes that Taylor receives a commission on each sale in Liberia; Taylor has repeatedly denied this.

Taylor runs a regime that, according to Amnesty International, routinely imprisons, tortures, and rapes citizens for offenses like participating in peaceful demonstrations. Taylor has been the major supporter and arms provider to the RUF and its leader, Foday Sankoh. In a lengthy and well-documented article in the July 2000 New Republic, Ryan Lizza describes how Taylor's regime has had the enthusiastic and effective support of Jesse Jackson. As Bill Clinton's special envoy to Africa, Jackson in late 1998 pressed the president of Sierra Leone to "reach out" to Sankoh–"a man," Lizza wrote, "who built his Revolutionary United Front (RUF) by systematically kidnapping children and forcing them to murder their parents. ... Once children were conscripted, their loyalty was maintained through drugs–they were injected with speed, which numbed their sensitivity to violence and rendered them dependent on their adult suppliers–and violence. When conscripts tried to escape, RUF leaders amputated their limbs. Refugees even accused the RUF of cannibalism." Taylor, who had taken power by starting a rebellion in Liberia in 1989 and building his own Small Boys Unit, had gone to the same revolutionary school as Sankoh.

Jackson first met Taylor in 1998, in what was billed as a friendly meeting, and in November 1998 called for the Sierra Leone government to "reach out to these RUF in the bush battlefield." In January 1999 the RUF launched an attack Freetown, Sierra Leone's capital and, as Lizza recounted, "burned down houses with their occupants still inside, hacked off limbs, gouged out eyes with knives, raped children, and gunned down scores of people in the streets." Even so, Jackson strongly supported the July 1999 Lome agreement, pushed through by the Clinton administration, which made Sankoh vice president, placed him in charge of a commission overseeing Sierra Leone's diamonds, and granted amnesty to the RUF for all crimes. In May 2000 the RUF took U.N. peacekeepers hostage, and the Clinton administration sent Jackson to mediate. As Lizza told the story: "the Sierra Leonean government told him it could not guarantee his safety. One group of prominent Sierra Leonean democracy activists warned Jackson, 'Our people will greet your presence in the country with contempt, and we'll encourage them to mount massive demonstrations in protest.' During a conference call with Freetown leaders in which he tried to explain himself, Jackson was openly attacked as a RUF 'collaborator.' His trip to Sierra Leone was canceled." Only later were the hostages released and Sankoh captured; Taylor cpontinued to arm the RUF, who have remained in control of the diamond areas.

Pat Robertson's tie to Charles Taylor is based on a financial connection. In 1999 Robertson's Freedom Gold company signed a deal to mine an area in southeastern Liberia. The Liberian government, i.e. Taylor, has a 10 percent interest in Freedom Gold. "I pray that this investment may become a wonderful blessing to the people of Liberia," Robertson said in a press release. More likely the government's 10 percent share will go to maintain Taylor's of the Sierra Leone diamond trade–and its big customer, al Qaeda. Colbert King of the Washington Post has written two columns criticizing Robertson for associating with the likes of Taylor. In reply, a Freedom Gold vice president faxed King, "Freedom Gold Limited was formed in response to Liberia's need to spur economic activity after their long and devastating civil war. Dr. Robertson remains a friend of Liberia and is working to alleviate the suffering of the Liberian people. Dr. Robertson's first and foremost goal is to spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ to all nations."

Robertson and Jackson, both candidates for president in the 1980s, have not had a good time in the post-September 11 season. On Robertson's 700 Club program days after September 11, Jerry Falwell said, "I really believe that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People for the American Way–all of them who have tried to secularize America–I point the finger in their face and say, 'You helped this happen.' " Said Robertson, "Well, I totally concur, and the problem is we have adopted their agenda at the highest levels of our government." For this both were roundly criticized, not least by conservatives, and both apologized. Jesse Jackson's first initiative after September 11 was to volunteer to go to Afghanistan and mediate with the Taliban. First he suggested that he had been asked by the Taliban; then he said that he had been contacted by family members of Americans held captive by the Taliban; then he said it didn't matter who asked him, he was available to help. Unsurprisingly, U.S. officials said his services weren't needed. Then near the end of October, he suggested that children should not go trick-or-treating on Halloween. In November, he appeared on BET Tonight and said, among other things, "We are really killing a lot of innocent people." "By saying on the one hand we have global terrorism but by focusing on one cave man in one country, it seems to me that they're looking at this crisis through a keyhole rather than a door." On targeting Saddam Hussein, "Even to threaten him in this way is in fact to misread his own capacity to respond perhaps chemically and biologically."

It is impossible to believe that Jesse Jackson or Pat Robertson were aware that their friend and business ally Charles Taylor's regime was helping fund al Qaeda by selling it diamonds. But they should have known that they were dealing with, and aiding, a very unsavory character indeed. At a time when their recent comments make their erstwhile presidential ambitions seem preposterous, they would both do well to break their ties with Charles Taylor and denounce his regime for aiding and abetting terrorism–before people start asking which side they are on.

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