It was supposed to be one of those international "ho-hum" conferences, dedicated to endangered species.
But in a surprise move, the government of Saudi Arabia turned it into an international confrontation, using its veto power to prevent an American conservationist group from presenting what it called "actionable information" that tied top Saudi and United Arab Emirates leaders to al Qaeda.
UN officials called the Saudi move to ban the U.S group, which had official United Nations observer status, "unprecedented." The UN actually tried to facilitate the appearance of the U.S. group at last Friday's meeting in Geneva of the 54th Standing Committee of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). That may have been a first in UN history.
The conservationist group, the Union for the Conservation of Raptors (UCR), said it was prepared to present "new evidence" of ongoing smuggling operations that tied top Saudi and United Arab Emirates leaders to al Qaeda.
In a letter outlying their proposed testimony, the UCR said that it would present evidence of bribes paid to UN officials by UAE and Saudi officials in order to allow the smuggling of hunting falcons.
In exchange for the bribes &endash; which I am told totaled over a half-million dollars - the UN official authorized the shipment of smuggled falcons by the UAE and the Saudi government to royal hunting camps in Central Asia, where the Arab rulers "met with top al Qaeda officials and international arms dealers," said UCR spokesman Alan Parrot.
The UCR also accused a top Saudi official, Prince Bandar bin Sultan bin Abuldaul Aziz, of having used his diplomatic immunity to "smuggle falcons to his father and uncle" in Saudi Arabia.
At the time, Prince Bandar was the Saudi ambassador to Washington, and his father was the Defense Minister. The UCR said that the Saudi Embassy paid a $150,000 fine in the U.S. Department of Justice in relation to the falcon shipments.
The threat of exposing Prince Bandar's alleged involvement in the falcon trade is probably what triggered the unusual Saudi intervention last week in Geneva, since Prince Bandar continues to be a prominent member of the royal family and a key power broker.
The UCR testimony at the 54th Standing Committee of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) was scheduled for last Friday, but Parrot says he received an email on Thursday, Oct. 5, while attending a conference in Mexico, that the UN had acceded to the Saudi demand and was "canceling our request to testify."
Parrot and two renowned biologists who work with UCR &endash; Dr. David H. Ellis and Dr. Peter Lindberg - had already booked tickets to Geneva and were about to board their flight when the email arrived.
The month long falconry camps are "al Qaeda's boardroom," Parrot said in his letter to the CITES secretariat.
"Those same royal falconry camps for which the U.S. CITES Secretariat makes administrative allowances that permit import/export licenses to be issued, provide ongoing material support to al-Qaeda's leaders," he wrote.
"Cars, cash, weapons, and medicine are transferred to al-Qaeda in these camps," which "continue as the venue of first-choice for clandestine meetings between al-Qaeda and U.S. "allies" from Saudi Arabia and the UAE," Parrot added.
The luxury hunting camps provided an extraordinary opportunity for top al Qaeda leaders, including Osama Bin Laden, to meet with top Arab princes and solicit money from them, while engaging in their favorite sport: hunting the Houbara bustard with peregrine and Gyrofalcons.
Former White House counter-terrorism official Richard A. Clarke told the 9/11 Commission that the United States was planning to bomb a royal falconry camp in Pakistan where Osama Bin Laden was present in the late1990s, but called off the raid because a senior government minister from the United Arab Emirates was also present.
Bin Laden and his top aid, Ayman al-Zawahiri, no longer come to the month-long hunts, but continue to send personal representatives who are "treated with extraordinary deference," Parrot told me.
The UCR has sought for years to get the United Nations to enforce the CITES agreement and crack down on falcon smuggling, and has provided information to the United States government on the ongoing al Qaeda fund-raising efforts at the camps.
"We have direct eye-witnesses in the camps who are telling us that representatives of bin Laden continue to come into these camps, and walk away with luxury cars and cash even today," Parrot said.
Because the camps must be licensed by the United Nations CITES secretariat, Parrot and his group have focused on exposing the illegal smuggling of falcons. "If the licenses stop, the camps stop," he said.
Falconry is an ancient, noble sport. Like fox-hunting in Britain, it has attracted royal patrons for generations.
But today's royal falcon hunts bear no resemblance to the tribal affairs of just fifty years ago.
For example, one of the largest royal falconry camps was leased for ten years from the government of Kazakhstan for $50 million, the UCR says, and inludes much of the open rolling steppes of Western Kazakhstan.
From there, "caravans consisting of several hundred Toyota Land Cruisers and Nissan Patrols ravel south to Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan to hunt the Houbara with falcons," Parrot said. "That's where they met weapons merchants and UBL-representatives."
Parrot says that that Saudi and UAE royals have imported Hummers from a company in Massachussetts, in order to hunt big game in Africa using machine-guns mounted on specially-built racks.
A prominent machine-gun manufactuer took out a booth at an international hunting exposition in Abu Dhabi last fall, and was overwhelmed with requests from Arab royals, Parrot said.
"The Arabs are made about using machine-guns to hunt big game," the company salesman told a UCR representative at the show.
The United States has asked the United Arab Emirates for several years to cease funding the royal falcon hunting camps in Central Asia, because they are a known fund-raising venue for al Qaeda/
Until today, the UAE has refused those U.S. requests. And now, in an unusual manner, the Saudi government has shown that it, too, has something to hide in these falcon camps.
The UCR says it has extensive documentation, including video-taped eye-witness testimony, that shows beyond any reasonable doublt the direct involvement of top Saudi and UAE officials with al Qaeda.
Isn't it time the United States government listened to them?
Isn't it time the United Nations enforced its own covenants?
Parrot says his group is now seeking to present its evidence to the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, John Bolton, because of his outspoken condemnation of UN corruption.
Let's hope they succeed before Bolton's recess appointment expires this coming January.