MAC/20: Mines and Communities

Blood Money - Former Exec: American Company Paid Terrorist Group to Protect Overseas Interests

Published by MAC on 2004-04-13

Blood Money - Former Exec: American Company Paid Terrorist Group to Protect Overseas Interests

By Brian Ross and Rhonda Schwartz

April 13th 2004

Before his company sent him overseas, Allan Laird, a former Denver-based mining executive, had never heard of Abu Sayyaf. Watch Brian Ross' report tonight on World News Tonight at 6:30 p.m. ET and Primetime Thursday at 10 p.m. ET.

As Laird quickly learned when he arrived in the Philippines, Abu Sayyaf is one of the world's most-feared terrorist organizations, closely connected to Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda network.

Laird said he also soon discovered the company for whom he formerly worked, Echo Bay, was regularly paying Abu Sayyaf and other terror groups in the Philippines in exchange for protection of its gold-mining operations. Laird calls the practice "corporate support of terrorism."

Laird took his story to the Sierra Club, the conservation group known for its opposition to the mining industry. Marilyn Berlin Snell, a reporter for the club's bimonthly magazine Sierra, is reporting Laird's story this week.

Today, in a moral victory for Laird, the Department of Justice reversed course and reactivated the investigation into Echo Bay's business practices.

"My company was dealing directly with terrorists. It must have been close to $2 million [U.S. dollars]. Maybe more," Laird said.

Laird said he believes that the funding provided by his former company cost American lives. That funding, he says, continued until the company closed its mining operations in 1997.

In May of 2001, Gracia and Martin Burnham, missionaries from Wichita, Kan., were celebrating their 18th wedding anniversary trip at Dos Palmas Resort off Palawan Island in the Philippines when they were kidnapped by Abu Sayyaf and taken to the jungles of Basilan Island.

"My goal is to go home alive to my children," Martin Burnham said while in captivity on a videotape recorded by a reporter for a television station in the Philippines, who was given permission to visit the hostages.

He never did. After 376 days of captivity, Martin was killed in a firefight when the Filipino Army made a rescue attempt. "I looked back and saw Martin and he was white," Gracia told ABCNEWS. "And that's when I knew he was dead."

Guillermo Sobero, 40, of Riverside County, Calif., traveled to the same Philippines resort to scuba dive when he was kidnapped by Abu Sayyaf the same day as the Burnhams. He, too, pleaded to go home to his children, but Abu Sayyaf beheaded him.

"They're vicious killers and they need to be dealt with," said Guillermo's brother, Alberto Sobero.

‘Buying Safety’

Laird was sent to the Philippines in 1996 by Echo Bay as project manager of a start-up gold mine on the island of Mindanao, home turf for the terrorists, who demanded what Echo Bay called "revolutionary taxes."

By paying off the terrorists, Laird said, the company was "buying safety for the people inside and for the project."

But the price was high. In addition to the cash, Laird said the company provided the terrorists with weapons, medical treatment for the wounded, and access at times to a beachfront company guest house used to hide key terror leaders.

To read a receipt Laird claims as proof of a terrorist pay-off, click here.

"[The company's security personnel] hid them from the search of the authorities, when there was a military operation going through the region where the site was situated, to prevent them from being captured and caught by government forces," Laird said.

Laird claims his story is supported by the meticulous records he kept, which include signed receipts he says are from terror leaders and security reports detailing weapons deliveries.

To read one of the security reports that Laird cites as evidence, click here.

"The security group was close enough, and most intimately involved, with these groups that they knew when external shipments of arms, illegal arms, were being made," said Laird. "And my people knew that. The military didn't know that."

Blowing the Whistle

In repeated e-mails and reports he said he sent to top company executives in Denver, Laird spelled out what he called illegal activity.

In one report, he states flatly the company was paying off "terror groups connected to Osama bin Laden."

"I wanted absolute, big, wide footprints so that people in Denver, and on the site, understood and knew what was going on," said Laird. "I told the bosses, 'We were paying off.' I told my superior. I sent e-mails. I wrote in reports. I was absolutely adamant that I was to bring to the attention of people who made ultimate decisions in Echo Bay that they knew, without any doubt, what was going on."

Laird said he received one message from an executive in Denver, which was quite clear: "You need to be more discreet in some of your observations regarding Corrupt Practices Act, et cetera. The distribution of such a report could be incriminating under certain circumstances."

"He's saying, 'Shut up, don't say anything. Don't do anything. Just be quiet,'" Laird told ABCNEWS.

Providing money or material support for terrorists is a clear violation of U.S. law, as President Bush has made clear. "If you harbor a terrorist, you're a terrorist," he said during a November 2001 address to troops at Fort Campbell in Kentucky.

But Laird was in for another surprise when he took his allegations and documents last year to both the Department of Justice and the Department of Homeland Security. "About four, five months after I'd met with Homeland Security, I contacted the agent that I'd met earlier and asked him what was happening. And he said, 'well, we've decided not to pursue this,'" said Laird.

But in e-mails from the Homeland Security agent, Laird was told that federal prosecutors in Denver had no interest in pursuing the case because they believed the statute of limitations had expired. Today, in response to inquiries by ABCNEWS, the Justice Department said that was incorrect, and the investigation was reactivated.

Former Company Chairman Responds

Echo Bay Mines has since been taken over by a Canadian company, Kinross Gold Corporation, which says it was unaware of the allegations. The former chairman of Echo Bay, Robert LeClerc, who now lives in Las Vegas, told ABCNEWS that Laird never raised the allegations until he and others were laid off in the take-over by Kinross.

"I think it's the world of illusion according to Mr. Laird," LeClerc said. "And I suppose the biggest comment I could make is that he really initiated all of this by trying to extract some money from the company when he and others were terminated."

But Laird's documents tell another story — that he raised the issue within weeks of arriving in the Philippines in 1996.

Allegations Outrage Victims’ Families

Alberto Sobero — the brother of the Californian who was beheaded by Abu Sayyaf — says he's outraged to hear Laird's allegations.

"That's shocking and outrageous," said Sobero. "It almost amounts to treason. It's unbelievable that a United States company would pretty much give funding and money to a self-declared enemy of the United States." Gracia Burnham says she hopes Laird's story will bring justice: "I hope the people in charge of these things at the Justice Department or whoever gets ahold of this story will work to the best of their ability to bring about justice," she said.

For Laird, the images of the victims of Abu Sayyaf will not go away.

"I'm not comfortable with myself with what took place," he said. "I have to live with myself and sometimes that's hard."

Laird said when he looks back at his former company's business practices, Echo Bay should have left the Philippines earlier.

"[It should have] pulled up the stakes. Pulled the stakes and got the hell out of there. You know? If you can't do business in the Philippines properly or anywhere else in the world, don't do it."

ABCNEWS' Maddy Sauer contributed to this report.

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