“We’re Not Going after Mandingos, or Gios,” Says U.S. Special Agent

Mohammed Jabbateh was never a photo freak and rarely posed for picture. In this never before published photograph taken by The AfricaPaper's James Fasuekoi at the ULIMO headquarters of Tubmamburg in early 1993, he posed with fighters of his Alligator Battalion. Photo: The AfricaPaper/James K. Fasuekoi.

Mohammed Jabbateh was never a photo freak and rarely posed for picture. In this never before published photograph taken by The AfricaPaper’s James Fasuekoi at the ULIMO headquarters of Tubmamburg in early 1993, he posed with fighters of his Alligator Battalion. Photo: The AfricaPaper/James K. Fasuekoi.

By James Kokulo Fasuekoi | The AfricaPaper

Brooklyn Park, Minn– Just weeks after a Liberian man was arrested in Philadelphia, Penn, on war crimes that caused 150,000 to 300,000 deaths, and thousands  displaced, a US Special Agent with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), said neither his agency nor the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has any interest in targeting a special group or tribe in the U.S. or abroad, in their effort to investigate grievous acts such as “war crimes” which contravene U.S. immigration law, possibly carried out in foreign countries by individuals now seeking asylum in the United States.

Investigating All

The Special Agent who prefers to remain anonymous made the comment April 30, as he addressed journalists, human rights activists, immigrant interest groups such as the California based Coalition for Justice in Liberia (CJL) and Liberians in Minnesota. The CJL had organized the conference to encourage Liberians in the U.S. to call Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s  (ICS) hotlines and share any helpful information about Mohammed Jabbateh, a former rebel leader with United Liberation Movement for Democracy in Liberia (ULIMO). Jabbateh was arrested April 13, and charged with Immigration fraud, perjury, and other crimes.

The US Special Agent said investigation of war crimes is not about ethnicity or just one country like Liberia, per se. He stressed that their focus is mainly on key players in the war.

“When we do these investigations, we don’t specifically focus on a particular group,” the Agent said. “We are not going to investigate all Liberians, or just focus on Liberia. We aren’t going after Mandingoes, or Gios.”

“If we get a lead, we investigate the lead, and it doesn’t matter whether it happened in New York, Africa, or South America. That’s what we do and if there’s enough evidence, we try to go forward with prosecution.”

The U.S Special Agent further stated that there are scores of other visa application fraud  and war crimes related cases that DHS is pursuing worldwide apart from Mr. Jabbateh’s  case.

“I know there has been lots of discussions in the Liberian community about the arrest of Tom Woewiyu and Mohammed Jabbateh. We also know how people in different communities are reluctant to talk about it and that’s understandable. But in the pursuit of justice, if nobody said anything there’s no justice.”

Investigation Mandated by US

The U.S. Special Agent said their work has been mandated by the U.S. to investigate foreign war crimes that violate US laws.

“We know in the past a lots of perpetrators have come to the United States and by doing so, they violated U.S. laws by lying about their past. So we are required and mandated by law to conduct these investigations,” said the Agent, specializes in the investigation of crimes committed in foreign wars .

The Special Agent cited the case of a Bosnia man and resident of Forest Lake, Minn., he helped cracked few years ago. According to him, the person was arrested for “visa fraud” but the DHS also investigated him for “murder” he allegedly committed prior to migrating to the U.S.

The agent’s comments was prompted by rumors in some quarters within Liberian immigrant communities that ethnic Mandingos could be the ones suffering much of the brunt of war crimes perpetuated by ex-warlords and their factions. His remarks come at the heels of DHS’s recent arrest of Jabbateh, a Mandingo man.

Accusation of War Crimes

Jabateh, a native of Liberia, aka “Jungle Jabbah,” is accused of participating or overseeing the killings of civilian-noncombatants during Liberia’s civil wars. He has been indicted for having reportedly “personally committed or ordered ULIMO troops under his command” to commit war crimes, including “the sexual enslavement of women, the murder and torturing of civilian noncombatants,” and “the conscription of child soldiers,” among other charges.

While Jabbateh’s lawyer argued otherwise, neither he nor his client could deny that Jabbateh served as ULIMO-K commander or that he wasn’t the man in the photograph exhibited by prosecution lawyers. The DA Office also displayed a picture of a logged-bridge located in the dense forest of western Liberia (territory it said, once controlled by Jabbateh’s forces), that bore the accused nom deguerre. They argued “Jabbateh” was such a “vicious” man that even a bridge at the site of where a battle once occurred, was named after him.

Alieu Kosiah, another former ULIMO-K rebel commander and Mandingo man like Jabbateh, was arrested November 2014 in Bern, Switzerland, for alleged war crimes he perpetrated against unarmed civilians in Liberia’s northern Lofa County region about the same period. Kosiah’s trouble came after seven Liberians filed complaints against him for alleged war crimes he committed in Lofa.

Frightened civilians flee ULIMO and NPFL war. Photo: The AfricaPaper/ James K. Fasuekoi.

Frightened civilians flee ULIMO and NPFL war. Photo: The AfricaPaper/ James K. Fasuekoi.

US’s Long term Goal for Arrests?

Questioned by a Liberian association head (who refused to be identified or pictured) as to what was the US own long term goals regarding the current wave of arrest of suspected war criminals, the agent responded, he has no answer, stating, his work ends with the conviction of the accused and the rest is left to his bosses and the U.S. to decide.

The agent expressed disappointment that the government of Liberia hasn’t yet considered acting on the Truth and Reconciliation Committee (TRC) recommendations. It had been hopped he said, that “Liberia would by now establish a war crimes court within her justice system or some type of court to implement the TRC’s recommendations,” meaning, suspected Liberian war criminals being deported to Liberia, would also face justice there and not be released into society as it is now.

“Unfortunately,” he pointed out, “that hasn’t happened yet.”

Nevertheless, he said, the U.S. and her allies “will continue to do what we can,” citing the Belgium case of Martina Johnson, and also that of Kosiah’s in Switzerland, as progress somewhat toward exposing and punishing suspected war criminals.

Fear and Security Concerns

When he had finished, Kirpatrick Weah, a witness in the George Boley’s case, expressed security concerns regarding people who might want to provide information or testify in the ongoing Jungle Jabbah’s case. He said, he raised this issue because of  continued harassment and “death threats” he experienced after he gave a public testimony in Boley’s case. Weah, a Grebo, alleged the “threat” was also extended to his family in Liberia, by known affiliates or supporters of Dr. Boley’s ethnic Krahns.

However, Liberia’s broadcast journalist, Al Jerome Chede countered Weah’s observation and argued that he didn’t see the need for an anonymous caller to worry about safety or fear of his or her life, especially where the witness won’t go on trial. “Unless  a person preferred to testify publicly as Weah did in Boley’s case, otherwise, people passing information anonymously don’t need such protection,” he said.

A third speaker, Seyon Nyanwleh, head of MOLAC, lauded the U.S. government for taking on a “task” he said, should have been carried out by the Liberian government and people, and promised his association would make a position statement at the United Nations in New York, relating to human rights and war crimes matters in Liberia come next September. The agent promised to relay those safety concerns discussed at the meeting to his bosses.

ULIMO-K not Target for Arrest

It is worth to note that the move by U.S., to arrest and prosecute people suspected to be perpetrators of genocides in foreign countries, isn’t only restricted to ex-guerrillas, of Mandingo ethnicity, in ULIMO-K. It appears to be the same for European countries like Switzerland and Belgium where similar arrests have been carried out by authorities.

Charles Taylor, for instance, an Americo-Liberian and leader of NPFL that initiated the war, is presently in jailed in Britain for alleged war crimes he masterminded in Sierra Leone while Dr. George Boley, a Krahn, and ex-LPC’s guerrilla leader, was arrested in the U.S. by DHS/ICE years ago, tried and deported to his native Liberia for his faction’s alleged involvement in human rights abuses.

Former NPFL’s defense spokesman, Tom Woewiyu, a Bassa, plus Taylor’s son, Chuckie Taylor, (Americo-Liberian), who ran his own army when his father was president, are all in U.S. custody in connection with their individual roles within the rebel NPFL army. An American-Belgian citizen, Michel Desaedeleer, also accused of collaborating with Taylor and the RUF in “enslaving people” and “pillaging blood diamonds” in Sierra Leone’s Kono District was arrested August 30, 2015, in Spain and placed in custody.

Though ex-NPFL artillery commander, Martina Johnson, a Mandingo, was arrested in Belgium for alleged war crimes she committed during the war in Liberia, her case looks somewhat exceptional. Martina who bears the native name, “Matenegbe” ( Martina, for short), is treated as an outcast within her own community. No Mandingo has ever cried out or complained since her arrest. But there could be a reason why. She affiliated with a rebel group that persecuted and killed her kins, from the start of the war in 1989. So, are other Mandingo fighters of NPFL, including Momoh Gebah, Taylor’s ex-bodyguard who clung to Taylor till the end.

Mandingo-LURD, MODEL Forces

Amid it all, by contrast, no footsoldier nor commander of the Mandingo-dominated LURD rebel forces or MODEL, (widely credited to have removed Taylor from  power), has so far been affected by these arrest exercises, something that apparently rules out any thought that these “arrests” are being carried out on ethnic or factional lines by the United States and its European allies. However, the absence of arrest within either faction doesn’t mean both warring factions,  just as the rest,  are cleared of human rights violations during the two wars.

Taylor Playing the Ethnic Card

While Charles Taylor’s NPFL singled out people of Mandingo origin for persecution and murder,  the fact remains Mandingos, and in some cases,  even Fula, all formed part of Taylor’s hardcore fighters and he Taylor often boasted about this and used same as an excuse, arguing, his NPFL would never huntdown Mandingos or make them subject of persecution.

Yet, Taylor’s former rebel NPFL, largely made up of Meh and Dahn ethnic followers from Nimba,  are said to be responsible for a large scale massacre of Mandingo civilians in Barkedu, 1990 in that chiefdom.

Besides,  NPFL also had scores of native Krahns within its hierarchy. Two most popular amongst them were, one Peter Fineboy, and Alex Kulu, the former LIMCO staff kidnapped along with British journalist Mark Huband by NPFL guerrillas as both rode a train headed to Yekepa, Nimba, in early 1990. Fineboy later became senator for Grand Gedeh under Taylor’s government and Kulu was made head of Liberian Refugees Repatriation and Resettlement Commission (LRRRC).

Kromah Adapts Taylor’s Style

ULIMO leader Alhaji Kromah during the war days. Photo- The AfricaPaper_James K. Fasuekoi

ULIMO leader Alhaji Kromah during the war days. Photo: The AfricaPaper/James K. Fasuekoi

ULIMO leader,  Alhaji Kromah, appeared too, to have adapted Taylor’s tactics later on in his fight to undercut Taylor’s NPFL strength.  While Kromah boasted his faction was ethically broad-based in the beginning of ULIMO struggle, his own tribal fighters were similarly accused of singling out certain tribes of Lofa, particularly, rival Lorma, for persecution,  murder,  and cultural genocide.

This situation even got worse based on well documented evidence when mainstream ULIMO split, and shortly followed by the emergence of predominant-Lorma Lofa Defense Force (LDF), which previously launched attacks on ULIMO-K along Lofa-Guinea border. Stephen Ellis’ acclaimed: “The Mask of Anarchy,” states that Guinean Kpelles, sympathetic to the plights of Liberian Lormas, joined LDF to fight ULIMO-K.

Former LDF guerrilla commander  interviewed in Lofa between 1998-2012, confirmed news that Kromah’s men staged ethnic and cultural genocides in Lofa mainly against civilians of the rival Lorma ethnic group. LDF fighters, plus other sources interviewed in Lofa during the same period said it was because of “atrocities” that prompted the formation of a vigilante style group by refugee-Lormas in order to protect lives and properties in Lofa. It consisted of two groups-a Guinean front,  and the Kakata-based LDF that later joined a coalition of five rebel factions.

Still, Alhaji Kromah, a cunning politician, together with his ULIMO-K hierarchy had always denied that a rival Lofa Defense Force actually existed in Lofa County, or that his Mandingo-dominated fighters persecuted and murdered civilian noncombatants during those tribal wars as reported by the country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission set up 2009 to probe genocides and help heal the wounds.

Certainly, the complicated ethnic dimension was just one of the many mysteries of the war which often got lost in Liberian war-politics.

The Missing Point in the Picture

From all indications, the United States and its European allies like Belgium and Switzerland,  remain keen on one thing which prompted the current sweep of suspected war criminals. They’ve vowed their countries won’t be “safe havens” for immigrants suspected to have participated in persecuting and killing people on the basis of cultural, ethnic, or religious differences  as such things run contrary to the core values of U.S. and international laws governing human rights.

No one agrees more than U.S. HSI Philadelphia special agent, Jack Staton, who happens to be on the Jabbateh case. “The United States has always welcomed refugees and those fleeing oppression, but we will not be a safe haven for alleged human rights violators and war criminals,” he told the mass media recently when the accused first appeared in court. Both Switzerland and Belgium seem to share the same view.

First War Crimes Symposium

It can be recalled in May 2013, CJL held its first symposium at Brooklyn Center, Minn., on the pursuit for justice against ex-Liberian warlords deemed by the TRC to bear greater responsibilities for genocides committed during the civil wars. Attendees at that event included key U.S. officials as well as FBI and DHS/ICE agents. Representatives from the U.S. Department of Justice, Center for Justice and Accountability (CJA), Center for Victims of Torture (CVT), were also present.

Among panelists were one of Liberia’s known Political Science professors, Alaric Tokpa and award-winning journalist Hassan Bility, (now head of Liberia based Civitas-Global Research Project), and this author. The conference ended with US Department of Justice officials and human rights campaigners making a vow that they would work concertedly to weed out “every suspected war criminal” hiding in the United States and elsewhere. TAP | Africa’s Newspaper of Record

James Kokulo Fasuekoi is Associate Editor for The AfricaPaper. A former Associated Press stringer stationed in West Africa, he worked as an embedded journalist during the 90s, covering wars in Liberia and neighboring Sierra Leone.  

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