Tag Archives: Charles Taylor

American Warlord

All the advantages of being the president’s son yielded very little in the way of easy profits for Chucky. Even with the deck stacked entirely in his favor, he failed to distinguish himself in the field of hustlers, entrepreneurs, and monopolists in Taylor’s Liberia. In business, as with the [Anti-Terrorist Unit (ATU)], Chucky seemed to be the biggest obstacle to his own success.

That’s from American Warlord, Johnny Dwyer’s new book about Charles Taylor’s son Chucky. It’s more than a book about Chucky, though. It’s among the best-researched books on Liberia, and probably the only page-turner. Dwyer offers new details and insight into countless topics of Liberia intrigue.

Chucky’s story starts in Massachusetts, where he was born to a Trinidadian woman named Bernice. Charles Taylor abandoned the family early on and started engaging with Liberian diaspora politics during the Tubman era.


Chucky had an unremarkable childhood in Florida. He made his first trip to Africa as a teenager in 1992 to reunite with his father, who was in Gbarnga. Chucky hung out with Taylor’s fighters and ventured around Bong. Apparently at one point he asked for permission to, and then did, kill a prisoner.

Chucky’s return to Florida did not go well. He tried to kill himself. He got into fights. He was arrested after pointing a gun at a man’s head following a robbery. Facing jail time, Bernice asked Taylor to take him. Taylor placed Chucky in school in Ghana, but he had trouble there. Taylor then moved him to Monrovia, where he was promptly suspended for slapping a classmate.

In 1996 Chucky requested his father’s permission to set up a private security force to protect Taylor and his men, a force that would come to be known as the Anti-Terrorism Unit (ATU). Chucky set up a training base in Gbatala, but quickly realized he did not command the respect of the boys and men he was supposed to be training. They had battle experience and he did not. Nor did he compensate for this in exceptional leadership ability. It appears Chucky started committing violent acts to instill fear and respect for his leadership among ATU fighters, and this included horrifically violent hazing, sometimes result in death.

What Chucky did and told others to do is to list some of the most horrific abuses committed during the war. Chucky ordered his own people tortured for small accidents. His father was frequently cleaning up his messes and trying to keep his crimes out of the media; after all, the ATU was (for a while) a secret, unconstitutional militia.

Dwyer’s account of Chucky’s life is remarkable, but American Warlord is equally worth reading for insight into other aspects of modern Liberian events. Did the CIA help Charles Taylor break out of jail in Massachusetts? Based on new details Dwyer provides, my sense is no. Taylor appears to have broken out of prison – a prison that experienced several escapes previously – with a friend. In Ghana he found that people assumed the only way you escape jail in the US is with CIA help. When this narrative worked for him, he used it, when it didn’t, he didn’t.

Did the ATU knowingly support al Qaeda pre-9/11? Here again the answer seems to be no. The ATU seemed to think the two al Qaeda guys at Gbatala were no different from the ordinary sketchy foreign businessmen who found Liberia advantageous for a certain sort of business.

Did the US arm LURD rebels in Guinea? This was a question I always thought was interesting, but now it seems inconsequential. We provided military training to LURD and this training heavily influenced the balance of power between LURD and Taylor. Relatedly, I always used to think America overstated its role in getting Taylor to leave. I now see that our support of LURD and total unwillingness to help Taylor in any way was at least in large part responsible for Taylor stepping down.

There are also stories that I never even knew to be curious about. The only American official left at the US Embassy in Liberia after Tubman’s murder claims (not corroborated) that he simply showed up at the Executive Mansion to see what was going on, and appointed members of the military junta that followed, including Doe.

There’s so much more. Chucky had an American girlfriend who moved to Liberia during the war to be with him. Chucky’s post-war stint in Trinidad trying to record hip-hop is one of those truth-is-stranger-than-fiction things. Dwyer recounts Chucky’s reaction to Lord of War, a film that based a character on him. Dwyer tells us about Chucky’s Florida trial, which is interesting on so many levels not least that the case against Chucky for torture was being prepared during the Bush administration by at least one Justice Department official who was herself allegedly tied up in a scandal related to Abu Ghraib. And just when you’ve finished the book and are feeling sad there’s no more (though of course happy there’s no more because Chucky is in prison) Dwyer offers a moving appendix on his sources.

American Warlord comes out April 7. Pre-order it here.


Charles Taylor and Firestone

The part of the PBS/ProPublic documentary Charles Taylor and Firestone that was really shocking was the extent to which Firestone supported Taylor in the early 1990s. They could not operate without his permission, so (in hindsight, I guess, though the decision seemed pretty black and white at the time too) they really should have just not operated until things stabilized. Instead, they chose to cooperate with Taylor, who was of course at the time a warlord and not president. From the accompanying article:

The company signed a deal in 1992 to pay taxes to Taylor’s rebel government. Over the next year, the company doled out more than $2.3 million in cash, checks and food to Taylor[…].

While Firestone was operating:

Taylor used [Firestone] for the business of war. Taylor turned storage centers and factories on Firestone’s sprawling rubber farm into depots for weapons and ammunition. He housed himself and his top ministers in Firestone homes. He also used communications equipment on the plantation to broadcast messages to his supporters, propaganda to the masses and instructions to his troops. […]

For Taylor, the relationship with Firestone was about more than money. It helped provide him with the political capital and recognition he needed as he sought to establish his credentials as Liberia’s future leader.

The effect of Firestone’s cooperation with Taylor on the war is unknowable. After all, Firestone needed to cooperate with him precisely because he already controlled so much of the country in 1991. In the short term, though, it seems clear things would have been more difficult for Taylor had they just stayed out of the country for a few more years.


Site to search Charles Taylor trial transcripts

SayIt (a website that I’m not completely sure I understand) has a page where you can easily search the entirety of transcripts from the Charles Taylor trial. H/t to Matt.












From the “About” section of the site:

Warning – the transcripts contain large volumes of graphic, harrowing testimony about war crimes. We encourage readers looking for a casual browse to try the Leveson Inquiry or Shakespeare Plays instead.



Cyril Allen: “If [the British] try to make Taylor uncomfortable […] we can make Liberia very uncomfortable for [them] through our traditional values.”

Below is an excerpt from an AFP article on Charles Taylor. Taylor’s wife says he is upset both about daily strip searches and being treated the same as everyone else at a British maximum security prison. (h/t to Johnny Dwyer)

But the leader of [Taylor’s] NPP party in Liberia this week threatened Britons living in the west African nation with reprisals over his treatment.

“If they try to make Taylor uncomfortable where he is, we can make Liberia very uncomfortable for some of their citizens through our traditional values,” NPP chairman Cyril Allen told journalists in the capital Monrovia.

“They are roaming around our interiors, they are roaming around our country, and this government cannot protect them.

“You cannot take our traditional leader and treat him like a common British criminal. If they don’t stop treating our (leader) in a manner that is unacceptable to us, we are going to fight back.”


Interpretations of aiding and abetting

Analysis from Alpha Sesay on the Charles Taylor appeal ruling, via the Trial of Charles Taylor blog:

Before today’s judgment, there was a lot of anxiety among observers about whether the recent decision of the Appeals Chamber of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in the case of Momčilo Perišić would have an impact on Taylor’s case. In the Perišić case, the ICTY Appeals Chamber reversed the Trial Chamber’s decision that convicted Perišić for aiding and abetting the commission of serious crimes. The Appeals Chamber in Perišić decided that for a person to be convicted for aiding and abetting, it is not sufficient that his conduct had “substantial impact” on the commission of crimes, but rather, that his conduct was “specifically directed” to the commission of said crimes.

The Trial Chamber in Taylor’s case had also dismissed a “specific direction” requirement and had said it was sufficient that Taylor’s conduct had a “substantial impact” on RUF/AFRC crimes in Sierra Leone. In today’s judgment, the Special Court’s Appeals Chamber judges said they were not persuaded by the ICTY’s finding that “specific direction” is an element of aiding and abetting.


Taylor Defense hopes alternate judge will testify

Charles Taylor’s defense team hopes to call the alternate judge (the guy who tried to say something after the verdict was announced, but the live feed was cut off) to testify during the appeals process. From The Daily Observer, quoting the defense appeal motion:

“The defense intends to call as witness on appeal, former Special Court Justice El Hadji Malik Sow. He is expected to testify on his statement that there were “no deliberations” as is alleged in Ground of Appeal 36 of the notice of Appeal, including his presence (or lack thereof) at any purported deliberations amongst the justices of Trial Chamber II.”


Human Rights Watch report on Taylor trial

Highlights from a new Human Rights Watch report on the Charles Taylor trial:

  • The indictment could have been narrower, and still representative of crimes committed. This would have shortened the length of the trial.
  • There were far too many crime-based witnesses, given that the defense did not deny that many awful things happened during the Sierra Leone war. Even if the defense did deny certain crimes, as some have alleged, the prosecution did not need to call 59 crime-based witnesses. This is almost twice the number of linkage witnesses who testified for the prosecution.
  • The report lists several lessons that similar trials could learn from the Taylor trial. The first lesson: “Appointing judges with substantial complex criminal trial experience could contribute significantly to effective courtroom management.”

On camera cancer beams and Taylor’s doctorate

Nicholas Jahr has written the most interesting article I’ve seen on the Charles Taylor trial. (h/t to Dan)

“My name is Dankpannah Dr. Charles Ghankay Taylor, the 21st President of the Republic of Liberia.” Taylor’s first words on the witness stand […]

“Ghankay” […] means “one who is strong.” Taylor picked up the doctorate after he was elected president, while visiting Taiwan, a gift from the Chinese Culture University for granting the country diplomatic recognition.

He first claimed the title “Dankpannah” back in 1997, when he married Jewel Howard (now a senator in Liberia, and the chair of Taylor’s National Patriotic Party). Nobody had heard the honorific until it was used in their wedding vows, which raised some eyebrows. Despite its indigenous ring, its origins are unclear. It suggests Taylor was recognized as the leader of the Poro, the initiation societies of Liberia’s bush, except historically the Poro didn’t have a single leader, certainly not before the mid-20th century, when the Americo-Liberian elite began trying to centralize control over the tradition. On cross-examination, the prosecution argued Taylor wasn’t even the rightful possessor of the title.

More telling is what Taylor left out of the equation: His full given name is Charles McArthur Taylor, a fact he himself mentioned in passing the following day. That makes him sound more like one of the aforementioned Americo-Liberians, a descendant of the freed slaves who “founded” Liberia. […] By dropping “McArthur,” Taylor downplayed his Americo-Liberian origins […], and played up the image of the African leader under interrogation.

On Taylor taking the stand in his own defense for weeks:

As Taylor continues to hold forth uninterrupted day after day, week after week, it’s hard to escape the sense that an implicit deal has been struck: the prosecutor won’t object, Griffiths will appear to ride herd, and Taylor will say his piece. No one will be able to say he didn’t have the chance to make his case; no one will be able to challenge the orderliness, the legitimacy of his prosecution.

On a strange discussion of a camera:

Taylor’s one lunatic moment on the stand comes out of nowhere […]. Griffiths is questioning him about his government’s arrest of documentarian Sorious Samura and his crew nine years earlier on charges of espionage. Taylor says that the interview Samura had scheduled was “an attempt to kill me.” But he goes further: “A major Western intelligence source” informed his government that the camera Samura would use to tape the interview “contained some beam or something that fired at me would, over a period of time, lead to cancer.” As Taylor was told: “The camera is going to be your demise.”

Griffiths did not follow up. Of course, the source might simply have meant that Taylor was liable to betray himself on film, or that mere reporting was more of a threat to his rule than any rebellion. Then again, Fidel Castro has claimed that in 1971 the C.I.A. designed a camera with a gun inside to take him out. In 2001, two men posing as documentary filmmakers assassinated Ahmed Shah Massoud in Afghanistan; their camera was packed full of explosives (Taylor would later claim he’d been briefed about this, although it occurred a year after Samura’s arrest; the prosecution seized on that as evidence of perjury). Cancer-beams aside, the claim wasn’t quite as crazy as it might seem. Or maybe it was simply an attempt to stoke Taylor’s paranoia. It was one of the few hints of the Taylor so often portrayed in the international media: a man enthralled by superstition and dark portents.

There is a justifiably damning critique of former prosecutor David Crane, who Jahr shows was unqualfied (before the Taylor trial, he had no courtroom experience) and made bad prosecutorial decisions (e.g. the decision to indict Hinga Norman). Jahr quotes an official who suggests no one could fight Bush’s nomination of Crane because of US financial support to the Special Court.


Thoughts on the Taylor trial appeals

Both prosecution and defense have appealed Charles Taylor’s verdict and sentence. Taylor was found guilty only of aiding and abetting the RUF. The prosecution is appealing on the grounds that the judges committed errors of fact in failing to find Taylor individually criminally responsible for RUF crimes. The prosecution also is asking that the sentence be increased from 50 to 80 years.

The defense appeal is more complicated, and contains 45 grounds for appeal that allege various ways in which the judges erred in fact and law. The Trial of Charles Taylor blog summarizes:

Included in the numerous grounds of appeal are findings of the judges that Taylor was involved in planning attacks on Kono, Makeni, and Freetown in late 1998 and early 1999, the Chamber’s finding that he assisted the commission of crimes by providing medical assistance to rebel forces in Sierra Leone, that he assisted the commission of crimes by providing a guesthouse for RUF rebels in Liberia, that the jail term of 50 years that Taylor has been sentenced is “manifestly unreasonable,” that the judges “erred” in their failure to consider Taylor’s expression of sympathy as grounds of mitigation, that there were irregularities in the proceedings based on the statement made by the Alternate Judge El-Hadj Malick Sow that the there had been no deliberations among the judges, and that Justice Julia Sebutinde’s participation in the proceedings after she had already become a judge of the International Court of Justice was irregular.

It’s funny the defense chooses to question Justice Sebutinde’s presence on the bench, given that she ruled in favor of Taylor on various issues much more frequently than the other judges and was the defense’s strongest ally in the courtroom.

Taylor is guilty of far more than aiding and abetting the RUF, and 50 years in prison is too short. But I am sympathetic to the first part of the defense appeal. Defense argues that the judges relied too heavily on uncorroborated hearsay and did not sufficiently consider witness credibility. These critiques are in line with Tim Kelsall’s assessment of the Special Court ruling at the CDF trial, where he observes that the judges did things like ignore contradictions in witness testimony.