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 itinto an international confrontation, using its veto power to preventan American conservationist group from presenting what it called"actionable information" that tied top Saudi and United Arab Emiratesleaders to al Qaeda.
UN officials called the Saudi move to ban the U.S group, which hadofficial United Nations observer status, "unprecedented." The UNactually tried to facilitate the appearance of the U.S. group at lastFriday's meeting in Geneva of the 54th Standing Committee of theConvention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). Thatmay have been a first in UN history.
The conservationist group, the Union for the Conservation ofRaptors (UCR), said it was prepared to present "new evidence" ofongoing smuggling operations that tied top Saudi and United ArabEmirates leaders to al Qaeda.
In a letter outlying their proposed testimony, the UCR said thatit would present evidence of bribes paid to UN officials by UAE andSaudi officials in order to allow the smuggling of huntingfalcons.
In exchange for the bribes &endash; which I am told totaled over ahalf-million dollars - the UN official authorized the shipment ofsmuggled falcons by the UAE and the Saudi government to royal huntingcamps in Central Asia, where the Arab rulers "met with top al Qaedaofficials and international arms dealers," said UCR spokesman AlanParrot.
The UCR also accused a top Saudi official, Prince Bandar binSultan bin Abuldaul Aziz, of having used his diplomaticimmunity to "smuggle falcons to his father and uncle" in SaudiArabia.
At the time, Prince Bandar was the Saudi ambassador to Washington,and his father was the Defense Minister. The UCR said that the SaudiEmbassy paid a $150,000 fine in the U.S. Department of Justice inrelation to the falcon shipments.
The threat of exposing Prince Bandar's alleged involvement in thefalcon trade is probably what triggered the unusual Saudiintervention last week in Geneva, since Prince Bandar continues to bea prominent member of the royal family and a key power broker.
The UCR testimony at the 54th Standing Committee of the Conventionon International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) was scheduledfor last Friday, but Parrot says he received an email on Thursday,Oct. 5, while attending a conference in Mexico, that the UN hadacceded to the Saudi demand and was "canceling our request totestify."
Parrot and two renowned biologists who work with UCR &endash; Dr.David H. Ellis and Dr. Peter Lindberg - had already booked tickets toGeneva and were about to board their flight when the emailarrived.
The month long falconry camps are "al Qaeda's boardroom," Parrotsaid in his letter to the CITES secretariat.
"Those same royal falconry camps for which the U.S. CITESSecretariat makes administrative allowances that permit import/exportlicenses to be issued, provide ongoing material support to al-Qaeda'sleaders," he wrote.
"Cars, cash, weapons, and medicine are transferred to al-Qaeda inthese camps," which "continue as the venue of first-choice forclandestine meetings between al-Qaeda and U.S. "allies" from SaudiArabia and the UAE," Parrot added.
The luxury hunting camps provided an extraordinary opportunity fortop al Qaeda leaders, including Osama Bin Laden, to meet with topArab princes and solicit money from them, while engaging in theirfavorite sport: hunting the Houbara bustard with peregrine andGyrofalcons.
Former White House counter-terrorism official Richard A. Clarketold the 9/11 Commission that the United States was planning to bomba royal falconry camp in Pakistan where Osama Bin Laden was presentin the late1990s, but called off the raid because a senior governmentminister from the United Arab Emirates was also present.
Bin Laden and his top aid, Ayman al-Zawahiri, no longer come tothe month-long hunts, but continue to send personal representativeswho are "treated with extraordinary deference," Parrot told me.
The UCR has sought for years to get the United Nations to enforcethe CITES agreement and crack down on falcon smuggling, and hasprovided information to the United States government on the ongoingal Qaeda fund-raising efforts at the camps.
"We have direct eye-witnesses in the camps who are telling us thatrepresentatives of bin Laden continue to come into these camps, andwalk away with luxury cars and cash even today," Parrot said.
Because the camps must be licensed by the United Nations CITESsecretariat, Parrot and his group have focused on exposing theillegal 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 tribalaffairs of just fifty years ago.
For example, one of the largest royal falconry camps was leasedfor ten years from the government of Kazakhstan for $50 million, theUCR says, and inludes much of the open rolling steppes of WesternKazakhstan.
From there, "caravans consisting of several hundred Toyota LandCruisers and Nissan Patrols ravel south to Uzbekistan andTurkmenistan to hunt the Houbara with falcons," Parrot said. "That'swhere they met weapons merchants and UBL-representatives."
Parrot says that that Saudi and UAE royals have imported Hummersfrom a company in Massachussetts, in order to hunt big game in Africausing machine-guns mounted on specially-built racks.
A prominent machine-gun manufactuer took out a booth at aninternational hunting exposition in Abu Dhabi last fall, and wasoverwhelmed 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 severalyears to cease funding the royal falcon hunting camps in CentralAsia, because they are a known fund-raising venue for al Qaeda/
Until today, the UAE has refused those U.S. requests. And now, inan unusual manner, the Saudi government has shown that it, too, hassomething to hide in these falcon camps.
The UCR says it has extensive documentation, including video-tapedeye-witness testimony, that shows beyond any reasonable doublt thedirect 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 tothe U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, John Bolton, because ofhis outspoken condemnation of UN corruption.
Let's hope they succeed before Bolton's recess appointment expiresthis coming January.
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