President Bush’s beleaguered administration makes much of cracking down on home-grown support of al-Qaeda and other terrorists. But it is now facing pressure to expand the search beyond individuals to businesses — especially mining or oil companies that operate in politically unstable parts of the world.
This follows allegations that militant islamic group Abu Sayyaf was one of several Philippine groups, some with links to al-Qaeda, that were paid £1 million for protection by a small American mining company, Echo Bay Mines. Abu Sayyaf, which more often earns money by kidnapping for ransom, was implicated in the major bomb plot thwarted a fortnight ago in Manila.
Echo Bay executives in Denver knew about the blood money, claims Allan Laird, former manager at the company’s Kingking gold mines on the island of Mindanao. The one-time engineer, a Bush voter in 2000, says he informed the Departments of Homeland Security and Justice last May and was brushed off.
The allegations are reported in an article in the May-June issue of Sierra magazine, operated by America’s oldest and largest environmental group, the Sierra Club. Founded by John Muir, the organization has long been engaged in a struggle with the mining industry.
“My company was dealing directly with terrorists,” said Laird, 62, in an interview with the ABC television program Nightline on Thursday. “We should not be supporting terrorism under the guise of corporate security.”
Former Echo Bay chairman Richard LeClerc, now retired in Las Vegas, dismisses Laird as vengeful because he was laid off last year.
But if accurate, Laird’s tale points to a blind spot in the war on terror, further bungling by US law enforcement and more than a little hypocrisy. After inquires by ABC News, the US Justice Department did a U-turn on Thursday and announced that it will investigate Laird’s accusations. Two Democratic Congressmen, Ed Markey and Mark Udall, are calling for a congressional probe.
“I am concerned that this particular company may have supplied funds and materiel to known terrorists associated with al-Qaeda,” said Markey, a senior congressman, in a furious letter to Attorney General John Ashcroft. He suggested that other US companies, especially in mining or oil and gas, might be paying off terrorists, unwittingly or not. In America, supporting a terrorist organization logistically or financially is illegal. The controversial USA Patriot Act, passed shortly after the attacks on September 11, 2001, extended the statute of limitations.
“If you harbored a terrorist, if you fed a terrorist, if you hid a terrorist, you’re just as guilty as a terrorist,” President Bush said in a speech in February, 2002.
The mining industry is intimately tied to the land, often in remote rugged parts of the world. Some of these companies do pay “revolutionary taxes”, as well as bribe government officials, in volatile parts of the world.
“It’s absolutely par for the course,” says Zachary Abuza of Simmons College, a political scientist and expert on south-east Asian terrorism. Most plots linked to bin Laden have involved the Philippines, from the plan in 1995 to bomb 11 passenger jets over the Pacific to the blasts in Bali two years ago.
Laird says he was aghast that the company’s newly hired security officials — mostly ex- military men — had set up a system of paying for protection with cash, or even weapons. They met with local terrorists almost weekly.
Laird, whose predecessor had quit in disgust, sent numerous and increasingly frantic memos. One of his warnings prompted a reply, he says, from a supervisor, John Anthony.
“You need to be more discreet in some of your observations... and [in] the distribution of such a report which could be incriminating under certain scenarios,” Anthony said.
Laird, retired and living in Colorado, finally decided to alert the authorities last year. The whistle-blower’s conscience was weighing on him.
“I’m not comfortable with myself, with what took place,” said Laird. “I have to live with myself and sometimes that’s hard. If you can’t do business in the Philippines properly or anywhere else in the world, don’t do it.”
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