Thu, 10 Mar 2005

Failed states protect al-Qaeda

Jinichi Matsumoto, The Asahi Shimbun, Tokyo

Loretta Bondi, director of the Cooperative Security Program at the Center for Transatlantic Relations at Johns Hopkins University, asked me if I knew Liberia had made a lot of money from its ties with the terrorist group al-Qaeda.

Liberia is a small country in western Africa with a population of about 3 million. With almost no resources to speak of, it is one of the world's poorest countries, and it relies on registering foreign ships that fly Liberian flags of convenience to earn much-needed foreign currency. The per capita gross annual income is a meager US$150 (15,750 yen). How can such a country make a fortune?

Al-Qaeda provided weapons to Liberia's rogue president and had it agree to the purchase of diamonds in return, Bondi said.

Charles Taylor, Liberia's president from 1997 to 2003, was once arrested in the United States for embezzling public funds. He escaped from prison, returned to his country and joined a civil war as a way to rise to power.

Taylor maintained ties with anti-government guerrillas in Sierra Leone, Liberia's western neighbor, from the time of the Liberian civil war. Sierra Leone is a well-known producer of diamonds. Taylor supplied the rebels with weapons and ammunition and received payment in diamonds. As a result, diamonds worth billions of dollars flowed into Liberia.

Taylor beat out his opponents to become president in 1997. As soon as he took office, he started lining his pockets. The registry fees for ships that flew Liberian flags of convenience were deposited in Taylor's personal account instead of government coffers. He also kept the diamonds he took from Sierra Leone for himself. Liberia's case is a classic example of what is known as a "failed state."

Al-Qaeda emerged as the buyer of the diamonds, and their sale is said to have made a profit of nearly $10 million in the four years from 1998.

A Russian named Victor Bout, a former KGB agent, sold the diamonds in Europe and the United States. Bout established an airline company in Dubai and set up regular flight routes linking Liberia, Afghanistan and Europe.

Such dubious figures are common to failed African states. More often than not, al-Qaeda lurks in their shadows.

Chased by anti-government rebels, Taylor was forced to flee to Nigeria in August, 2003. But Liberia still remains a failed state and the al-Qaeda connection is still believed to be alive.

The minimum duty of a state is to secure the safety of its people. If failed states that have neither the will nor the capability to protect their people are left as they are, they immediately become a base for dangerous forces.

The east African nation of Somalia, which is in a state of anarchy, is a typical example.

On Nov. 28, 2002, in Kenya, which shares its northern border with Somalia, a car driven by a suicide bomber crashed into an Israeli-owned hotel in the coastal city of Mombasa, killing 16 people, including Jewish tourists.

Around the same time on the same day, an Israeli passenger plane that took off from Mombasa airport was targeted in a missile attack. Thanks to such defense mechanisms as flares and aluminum chaff, the missile narrowly missed the target.

After the incident, a group of Islamic radicals affiliated with al-Qaeda claimed responsibility for the attempted attack. The CIA believes perpetrators went into action using missiles and ammunition they had stored in Somalia.

In Kenya, the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi was also bombed on Aug. 7, 1998. More than 200 people died. Also in this attack, Somalia is believed to have served as a terrorist base.

Somalia, whose government is dysfunctional, has no passport control. Anyone arriving on Somalia's shores by boat can enter or leave the country without a passport. Terrorists are free to bring in bombs and missiles. Since there is no police presence, they would not be searched. In failed states, anything goes.

Bondi said there are many other failed states. Afghanistan, which was al-Qaeda's first base, was made a failed state by the former Soviet Union.

Iraq, which did not tolerate the presence of Islamic radicals in the past, has now become a haven for them. In this case, unless the United States is careful, it could be blamed for making a failed state out of Iraq.