On the dusty trash strewn streets of the Sierra Leonean capital, Freetown, men, women, and children with missing arms and legs wander aimlessly through half-completed concrete buildings. The surrounding hills are covered with hastily constructed shanties made of corrugated iron, plastic, or any other material that can be turned into shelter. Further a field in the countryside, villages lay barren and evoke only the horrific memories of an almost decade-old civil war. This war-torn West African society, which every passing day teeters on collapse, is the last place in which one would expect the “cat and mouse” game between the West and Islamic extremists to unfold. As the al-Qaeda network morphs from a defined terrorist group into an amorphous ideology of “al-Qaedism,” Sierra Leone–because of its historical ties to terrorism, internal dynamics, and external influences–could soon be pushed to the forefront of the war against terrorism.
Sierra Leone has a history of harboring Islamic militants. The first group to find sanctuary in the country was Hezbollah. From the 1980s onwards, Hezbollah agents, aided by the local Lebanese population, have operated out of Sierra Leone. In 1986, Yasser Arafat entered into negotiations with former President Joseph Momoh to build a PLO training camp on an island off of the coast of Freetown . Further evidence of the ties arose when The United Nations Mission in Sierra Leone (UNAMSIL) released a report on the relationship between al-Qaeda, Charles Taylor, and the infamous Revolutionary United Front of Sierra Leone (RUF). The report showed that in the months prior to 9/11, al-Qaeda and the RUF, with Charles Taylor serving as conduit, traded money and weapons for diamonds. Sierra Leone’s historical ties to Muslim extremists appear to still be intact. According to a December 2004 article in Freetown’s African Champion, two al-Qaeda operatives returning from Pakistan were arrested while trying to enter Sierra Leone . Moreover, in July 2005 three Middle Eastern “businessmen” with suspected ties to terrorist groups were arrested near the Liberia-Sierra Leone border .
These are unlikely to be isolated incidents. Indeed, as the United States and its allies deny terrorists safe havens in the Middle East, Asia, and the Sahel countries, the Muslim states of West Africa will likely become destinations for Islamic terrorist groups. Due to its internal features, Sierra Leone is a likely destination for terrorists. Together, the country’s demographics, corruption, and unregulated territories and industries create an environment where terrorists can operate with almost total impunity.
Sierra Leone is a multi-racial society. Although the vast majority of people are of African descent, there are also Lebanese, Pakistani, and Indian communities. 60 percent of the population is Sunni Muslim, 30 percent follow indigenous religions, and the remaining ten percent is a mixture of Christians and Shi’ite Muslims of Lebanese descent . These demographic factors combined with a substantial Lebanese presence enable terrorists to operate in Sierra Leone.
The Lebanese merchant class has historically served as the link between this small West African state and the broader radical Islamist movement. Hezbollah and now al-Qaeda have used their contacts within this community to acquire documentation, travel certificates, and financing for terrorist operations. These activities are aided by the corrupt government of Sierra Leone.
Similar to most states in Africa, Sierra Leone struggles with endemic corruption at all levels of society, especially at the governmental level. The most recent case of the government’s collusion with individuals linked to terrorist groups involves a British national named Paddy McKay, who is wanted in the UK for alleged involvement with al-Qaeda. According to a report in the Freetown Peep, Paddy McKay with the help of Khalil Lakish, a Sierra Leonean of Lebanese descent who is also under investigation for bribery of government officials and ties to Hezbollah, obtained Sierra Leonean registrations for four planes with fraudulent information. The planes have since been tied to terrorist activity. According to two separate reports in The Independent and the Freetown Peep, McKay, who they allege also has ties to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Algeria’s Jamaat al-Islamia, has been using the Sierra Leonean registered planes to traffic illicit diamonds and distribute weapons to the Middle East and the Horn of Africa.
Francis Bockari, the Permanent Secretary in the Ministry for Transportation and Communication stated that “McKay enjoys a normal and professional business relationship with the department of Civil Aviation and the Government of Sierra Leone… all airline operators are properly registered and do not have any terrorist connections” . This incident highlights the relationship between the global terrorist infrastructure, the local Lebanese merchant class and corrupt Sierra Leonean government officials. According to another report in the Freetown Peep, al-Qaeda has sought to use their local connections to acquire Sierra Leonean passports on several occasions . Sierra Leone’s internal environment offers one final advantage to terrorists: lack of government oversight over the diamond industry that is predominately monopolized by unscrupulous Lebanese merchants.
The diamond industry has long been a source of revenue for the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah and more recently al-Qaeda. Douglas Farah of The Washington Post and the UNAMSIL mission in Sierra Leone have conducted extensive research on the links between al-Qaeda, Charles Taylor, and the RUF. Since the end of Sierra Leone’s civil war, the country has experienced a “diamond boom,” according to Mohammed Deen, the Minister of Mines . In 2004, the country “officially” exported $130 million worth of diamonds; however, according to UN special envoy Daudi Mwakawago, the diamond industry in Sierra Leone actually exported somewhere between $300 million and $500 million in 2004 . These figures indicate that between one-half to two-thirds of the diamond industry is not regulated. In an industry where some of the traders are already known to have ties to terrorist groups, and where the elements of the former RUF still control the diamond mining regions, it is likely that al-Qaeda will again return to Sierra Leone’s diamond mines if they have not already.
Despite the presence of over 17,000 UN troops, much of the interior of the country remains ungoverned . Decades of civil war have left the country’s transportation network in tatters. This lack of control can create an opportunity for al-Qaeda. Furthermore, with the UN scheduled to completely withdraw in December 2005, a major barrier to terrorist infiltration will have been removed.
External forces have historically played a significant role in shaping Sierra Leone, for better or worse. Sierra Leone’s last insurgency was sparked by Muammar Qadhafi’s destabilizing external influence. Qadhafi trained rebel leaders like Foday Sankoh and Charles Taylor to be foot soldiers for his pan-African revolution. Sankoh initially justified his insurgency by proclaiming himself the liberator of the Sierra Leonean people from a corrupt government. People followed until they realized he was as corrupt as the government in Freetown. By then, he controlled the diamonds and could, in effect, wage war on Freetown indefinitely. This situation would have persisted without the intervention of British forces.
In 2000, rebel forces began an offensive on UN forces before moving on Freetown. British Prime Minister Tony Blair deployed 800 British soldiers to secure the airport and provide logistical support for the UN troops. British forces remained in Sierra Leone until 2003 to train the Sierra Leone Army. The British intervention and the subsequent UN mission (UNAMSIL) were successful insofar as they resuscitated a failed state and gave its people a chance for a better life. On December 20, 2005 the UN will withdraw completely, leaving behind a modicum of a state where the underlying conditions of corruption and destitution, which led people to initially join the RUF in 1991, still exist today. The country suffers from endemic poverty, where the Sunni Muslim masses are disproportionately poorer than theLebanese Shi’ites and black Christians; the government is unashamedly corrupt; West Africa as a region is awash in weapons; unemployed child soldiers with no education roam the streets and religious fervor is on the rise. Given this terrible state of affairs, it is not surprising that Daudi Mwakawago, Sierra Leone’s UN envoy, described the situation as “very explosive” .
Sierra Leone is a Muslim country on the precipice where external pressures, like in the past, will decisively influence the country. The U.S. and UK are the two largest contributors of development aid . The British, in particular, have worked with the Sierra Leone government at all levels to improve government transparency and effectiveness. The Islamic Republic of Iran and Saudi Arabia have also aided Sierra Leone’s recovery by funding the construction of mosques, Islamic education and cultural exchanges . While there is nothing to suggest that these activities have had anything but a beneficial effect, the West needs to ensure that the influence of Iran and Saudi Arabia does not promote extremism.
In the final analysis, Sierra Leone remains on the periphery of global terrorism, but it is important that policymakers begin to examine the factors and possibilities discussed here–even as the U.S.-led war on terrorism is focused on the Middle East and Southeast Asia.
1. Farah, Douglas, Blood from Stones. New York: Broadway Books, 2004, p. 23.
2. “Sierra Leone: Police Reportedly Arrest Al-Qa’ida Suspects along Guinean Border,” The African Champion, December 24, 2004.
3. “Terrorists Enter Liberia, National Security Source Confirms,” The News (Monrovia), July 19, 2005.
4. CIA: The Word Factbook 2005 ed. https://www.cia.gov/cia/publications/factbook/geos/sl.html
5. “International: Profiles of Airline Companies Connected to Arms Dealer Paddy McKay” AFP Report, December 22, 2004. The AFP report summarizes reports in Freetown local papers during a month long investigation. The papers cited are The Independent (Freetown), September 1, 2004; the Freetown Peep, September 2, 2004; the Concord Times (Freetown), September 2, 2004.
6. “Al-Qaida Terrorists Seek our Passports… Presidential Affairs Minister Confirms to Symposium,” Freetown Peep, August 22, 2003.
7. “Sierra Leone: Mines Minister Says Country in Midst of ‘Diamond Boom’,” Agence France Presse, July 12, 2005.
8. “Call For Transparency on Mineral Exports,” The Independent (Freetown), April 8, 2005.
10. “Peacekeepers Prepare to Leave Sierra Leone,” AP, October 4, 2005.
12. Freetown Sierra Leone Broadcasting Service, transcript of the September 26, 2005 and January 15, 2004 broadcasts.