The governments of Liberia and Burkina Faso facilitated an al-Qaida plot to funnel diamonds and weapons through west Africa before and after the September 11 attacks, it was reported yesterday.
A joint investigation by European intelligence agencies has uncovered an elaborate web of bribery and clandestine deals which allowed Osama bin Laden's terror group to hide financial assets in the region, according to the Washington Post.
The paper said the Liberian president, Charles Taylor, received $1m (£625,000) to harbour senior al-Qaida operatives after the attacks in New York and Washington in September 2001.
The Islamists are said to have shuttled between areas under Mr Taylor's protection and the presidential compound in Burkina Faso while buying $20m worth of diamonds, effectively cornering the market in west Africa's precious stones. At the same time they sought sophisticated weapons, including anti-aircraft missiles.
President Blaise Campaore of Burkina Faso and Mr Taylor deny the accusation, which is included in a summary of the joint intelligence findings.
The European investigators, who lost track of the diamonds after they left west Africa, were quoted criticising the CIA for not responding to the information they shared.
Since Mr Taylor triumphed in Liberia's civil war, the country has been run as his fiefdom and the UN has banned him and his aides from international travel. Gangsters and smugglers have flocked to the capital, Monrovia.
Al-Qaida's effort to hide assets in the region appears to date from 1998, after the bombings of the US embassies in Tanzania and Kenya led to an international effort to freeze its bank accounts and other assets.
Two al-Qaida operatives on the FBI's wanted list allegedly toured diamond fields in Liberia and Sierra Leone and supervised the trade from a military camp in Liberia.
The report named three men - a Lebanese diamond merchant, his cousin and a Senegalese mercenary - as conduits who linked the Islamists to the Liberian leadership and a company in Belgium which polished and sold the stones.
In 2000 the firm is said to have sold diamonds worth $14m. Calls from its headquarters and a satellite phone were traced to Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran and Iraq.
In January 2001 the Islamists and their conduits rented a large house in Monrovia which became their base. In the summer of that year two alleged al-Qaida operatives, Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani and Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, allegedly stayed in the compound of the president of Burkina Faso in the capital, Ougadougou, before moving to Camp Gbatala, a military camp in Liberia near Mr Taylor's private farm. For that the Liberian president was allegedly paid $1m.
After September 11 the Pentagon sent a special forces team to neighbouring Guinea to snatch the pair, but the plan was scrapped when their identities could not be confirmed.
Simultaneously, the Islamist cell allegedly tried to buy weapons from an Israeli arms dealer in Panama. An intercepted email from the Israeli to a Russian arms merchant, listing assault rifles, ammunition, ground-to-air missiles and 200 rockets for multiple rocket launchers, said the consignment was for "our friends in Africa".