Feature

A Warlord’s Last Chance

Why Liberian ex-president Charles Taylor thinks there was an international conspiracy against him.

MICHAEL KOOREN/AFP/Getty Images
MICHAEL KOOREN/AFP/Getty Images

Charles Taylor has always been an opportunist.

In the late 1980s, the Liberian warlord-turned-president used the killing of his mentor, Gen. Thomas Quiwonkpa, as a springboard to launch his own revolution. In 1997, he deployed the same rebel army that had torn Liberia to pieces during the civil war as a political machine to mobilize votes for a popular election. And several years into his presidency, Taylor leveraged the bloodletting in Sierra Leone to turn the world’s attention to the region and find an audience with the United States.

So as his war crimes trial at The Hague winds down, it should come as no surprise that Taylor is finding opportunity in a final moment of adversity. During closing arguments on Feb. 9, when the prosecution hoped to wrap up more than two years of testimony from 115 witnesses, Taylor used the occasion instead to rehash the narrative of his political demise: that he is the victim of an international conspiracy.

The drama came during closing arguments, when Taylor’s defense counsel, Courtenay Griffiths, stormed out of the court, followed soon after by his client, to boycott a proceeding the defense has decried as biased since the trial opened nearly four years ago. (This was a repeat performance; Taylor’s original counsel opened the trial by walking out on the first day of the proceedings in 2007.) From the first day of his trial, Taylor’s defense has claimed that the proceedings are rigged against him. Specifically, the Liberian ex-president has charged that the United States, Britain, and a legion of other entities from the IMF and the World Bank to Human Rights Watch and journalists like the Washington Post‘s Douglas Farah, engaged in a conspiracy to remove him from power.

For a man accused of nearly a dozen crimes against humanity, from terrorism, murder and rape to sexual slavery and the conscription of child soldiers, the notion of Taylor’s victimhood appears remarkable. Taylor, who rose from beginnings as a rebel and warlord in Liberia to win the nation’s presidency, is the first African head of state to be tried before an international tribunal for crimes against humanity; the charges he faces stem from his alleged involvement with the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), a rebel group that terrorized neighboring Sierra Leone throughout the 1990s, killing and displacing thousands, hacking the arms and hands off of countless others.

But there is some history — and a shade of fact– behind Taylor’s conspiracy theories. Over the last three years of research for my book, I have used the Freedom of Information Act to request the declassification of 564 U.S. diplomatic cables relating to Charles Taylor — more than 3,000 pages of documents. Several of the documents appear to implicate the Liberian president in the crimes for which he now stands trial, but they also illustrate an effort akin to what Taylor describes: a campaign orchestrated by the United States through the U.N. Security Council to use sanctions and diplomatic pressure to destroy his regime.

Where Taylor sees conspiracy, others may simply see politics at work. In either light, the State Department cables illustrate that once Taylor disobeyed Washington on Sierra Leone, the U.S. government pursued Taylor, his inner circle, as well as members of his family — including his son Chucky, an American citizen, who is currently serving a 97-year sentence for torture committed under his father’s administration — with nearly every political means at its disposal.

The most recent fodder for Taylor’s defense has come in the form of two U.S. diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks — supposed proof of this international conspiracy against Taylor. The courtroom walkout stemmed from the court’s rejection of Taylor’s closing argument brief — a document Taylor’s counsel submitted 20 days late, a delay the team to attributed waiting for the court to rule on motions related to material disclosed in the cables.

Griffiths called the matter of the cables "central to our case" in an interview with Radio France International after he left the courtroom, saying, "Mr. Taylor had, since 2000, been saying that certain powerful countries were out to get him." The content of those cables, the defense claims, raises "inescapable and axiomatic concern that the impartiality and the independence of the court may have been compromised."

The two cables, both from 2009, do provide insight into U.S. interests in bringing Taylor to trial. One cable, attributed to U.S. Ambassador to Liberia Linda Thomas-Greenfield, recommended: "The international community must consider steps should Taylor not be sent to prison for a long time. We should look at the possibility of trying Taylor in the United States." The cable continues, "All legal options should be studied to ensure that Taylor cannot return to destabilize Liberia."

The defense holds these statements up as evidence that the court has improperly close connections to Washington. This is not a new charge: Americans have played a central role in the Special Court for Sierra Leone since its conception, funding the tribunal with more than $76 million since it became operational in 2002. David Crane and Alan White, both ex-Pentagon officials, served as the court’s first prosecutor and chief investigator, respectively, building the case against Taylor. Though neither the Special Court nor ex-government men answered to Washington, Taylor’s sympathizers always viewed their leadership as inseparable from the aims of the U.S. State Department. Crane eventually unsealed the indictment of Taylor — much to the consternation of officials in the U.S. embassy in Monrovia — while the Liberian president attended peace talks in Accra, Ghana, in June 2003. At that time, Taylor accused the U.S. government of attempting to effect a coup when he was out of the country.

Cables declassified under my request provide more discrete evidence of the international effort to marginalize Taylor. Among the most striking documents is a cable, drafted in December 2000. Under the subject "Liberia: Undermining Charles Taylor," Washington indicated that it was working on a "long-term campaign" against Taylor and solicited the Monrovia embassy’s input and "assistance in developing information required to weaken and discredit the Taylor regime internationally." The cable goes on to explain that the United States hoped to rally support for sanctions against Taylor’s government. "The success of our efforts at the UN will depend in large measure on our ability to convince other UN members of what we already know — that Charles Taylor is instigating cross-border conflict, trafficking arms, looting resources (Liberia’s and neighboring nations’) and, in general, sowing instability throughout West Africa."

The cable marked a turning point in the U.S. government’s strategy toward Taylor. Previously, Foggy Bottom had tried, unsuccessfully, to engage the Liberian president, encouraging him to rein in his support for the RUF. The Clinton administration had even enlisted high-profile help, including the diplomat Howard Jeter and the Rev. Jesse Jackson, as special envoys on the issue. Taylor reveled in the attention, but it had little impact on his actions. After the efforts of those emissaries failed, Under Secretary of State Thomas R. Pickering flew to Monrovia in July 2000 to offer Taylor one "last chance" to fall in line on the issue, according to a cable. Despite being confronted with evidence that arms were flowing in from Liberia and diamonds were flowing out of Sierra Leone, Taylor evaded the charges, instead trying to charm the diplomat, borrowing a reference from Patton to say he was "not as big a SOB [son of a bitch] as had been reported."

After the cable, which was signed by the then-deputy assistant secretary of state for African affairs, William M. Bellamy, the Clinton administration pursued a new strategy: to discredit the regime publicly. Describing Taylor as being "in a category by himself" among African strongmen, the cable makes clear that in order for sanctions to pass through the Security Council, the United States needed to position the Liberian president as a "a cunning and effective warlord whose brutal rule terrorizes millions in Liberia and Sierra Leone."

To develop the State Department’s campaign, Bellamy sought further information from the embassy in Monrovia on sources of Taylor’s power, income and support, his vulnerabilities and fears, an assessment of how functional his political network was — and notably, whether there was an opposition that should be supported. Foggy Bottom also requested detailed evidence of Taylor’s connections to the RUF, arms and diamond trafficking, and timber exploitation. "Demonstrating conclusively that Taylor is the driving force behind much of the violence and deepening human misery in the region is an important, ongoing [U.S. government] priority," the cable reads.

When I interviewed him on Feb. 14, Bellamy, who is currently the director of the National Defense University’s Africa Center for Strategic Studies, emphasized that the cable was not in any way connected to the subsequent formation of the Special Court. When the cable was written, he explained, "We were not even sure that this court was going to get up and running."

"I don’t think there was a policy to make an example of Taylor, to hold Taylor up to the international community to say ‘Look at what can happen to you if you do the kinds of things Charles Taylor did,’" he said. "It was specifically to find a way to stop the bleeding, to get this crisis under control in West Africa."

Regardless the intention, however, the December 2000 cable marked the beginning of a protracted and, ultimately, successful campaign to isolate Taylor. A little more than a year later, another cable, titled "Our Game Plan on Liberia," outlined a strategy for a "post-Taylor era in Liberia." The United States, working closely with the U.N. Security Council, ratcheted up the pressure on Taylor with sanctions while depriving his government of the lifeblood the Liberian state has relied on for much of its existence: cash from donor nations like the United States. American aid to Liberia during Taylor’s administration, which was largely humanitarian assistance, withered from $37 million in 1997 to $6 million in 2003.

A July 2002 State Department cable illustrates just how adamant Foggy Bottom became about not engaging Taylor during those years. When the chair of the Sierra Leone sanctions committee, Ambassador Adolfo Aguila-Zinser of Mexico, suggested dialing back the pressure on Taylor in favor of "limited, constructive engagement," U.S. diplomats at the United Nations were nonplussed. "[Aguila-Zinser’s] lack of experience and detailed knowledge of the region could produce unwanted results," the cable reads. It suggests a State Department briefing "might help Aguilar-Zinser to reformulate his views based on reality."

Although the cables do demonstrate Washington’s resolve to unseat Charles Taylor, they also implicate Taylor, at times dramatically, for his involvement with the RUF. A May 2000 cable describes a visit from the Clinton administration’s special envoys, Jeter and Jackson, to discuss Sierra Leone with Taylor. After Jackson closed the meeting in prayer, the delegation stepped from the room in the Liberian executive mansion to see RUF leader Sam Bockarie waiting outside. Upon seeing Taylor, Bockarie saluted.

In another December 2000 cable,  the Monrovia embassy detailed its intelligence on Taylor’s role in Sierra Leone. According to a redacted source, "The RUF was essential for Liberia’s defense … Charles Taylor created the RUF during the Liberian Civil War and set up Foday Sankoh as its leader because ex-GOSL [Government of Sierra Leone] had allowed ECOMOG [the West African peacekeeping force] to attack [Taylor’s] NPFL positions from bases in Sierra Leone."

Taylor even admitted his role in the conflict, according to an October 2002 cable attributed to U.S. Ambassador John W. Blaney, who has declined comment. As a one-on-one meeting with Taylor showed, the relationship between the George W. Bush administration and Liberia had grown so tense that Blaney found it necessary to assure Taylor that the United States had no intention of assassinating him. Taylor’s response was telling, according to the cable: "He said quietly that this was good to hear and a very important message … He went on to launch a long defense for his past behavior. Yes, he had been involved in Sierra Leone, and deeply regretted it. But Washington did not understand the context of that involvement."

While a fascinating footnote to history, these cables will make little difference in the outcome of Taylor’s long and tortuous trial. It’s not clear what impact an international conspiracy would have on the verdict, even if the defense managed to prove it. And in fact, that hasn’t been the defense’s strategy — aside from broad, sweeping rhetoric. Until the emergence of the WikiLeaks cables, Taylor’s defense strategy never explicitly sought to unearth facts of the alleged conspiracy against him — perhaps because proof of international conspiring against Taylor would beg the question of why the West found it necessary to do so. The answer is simple: Taylor was a brutal warlord.

Instead of seeking to prove a conspiracy, Taylor’s attorneys sought to dispute evidence presented by the prosecution and, through the former Liberian president’s testimony, to distance Taylor from responsibility for the crimes alleged in the indictment. This effort has been problematic. The defense testimony attempted to present an alternate narrative to events alleged in the indictment. Yet as supposedly questionable as the prosecution’s witnesses were, the defense’s witnesses raised even more red flags. On Feb. 3, the prosecution accused Taylor’s team of seeking to bribe witnesses who testified against the former Liberian president to recant their statements.

But Taylor did succeed in one thing, perhaps, in all this: yet another delay in the case that has dragged on for nearly four years already. The conclusion of Taylor’s trial is postponed indefinitely — the only hearing scheduled is a disciplinary session for Taylor’s attorney on Feb. 25.

That should give Taylor more than enough time to put in a few more parting words for his enemies.

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