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.