On April 22, 1999, a Sierra Leonean refugee named Sulaiman Jusu was attempting to make his way to the Liberian capital of Monrovia with his extended family, fleeing a rebel incursion into northwestern Liberia, when their convoy was stopped at a checkpoint near the St. Paul River. The refugees hoped they would be waved through with no more than a routine shakedown: underpaid officers taking what they could from vulnerable people. But these were no ordinary police. Members of the dreaded Anti-Terrorist Unit, they separated the men from the women, stripping them down to their underwear. While the captives waited by the side of the road, a mess of SUVs pulled up, and a furious man got out. Waving a pistol, he accused the men in the refugee group of being the very rebels they were fleeing. Jusu watched as his brother-in-law and others were shot execution-style, then dragged away and dismembered. Two of their heads were posted on stakes near the road.

Many accounts of the Liberian civil war describe such episodes of violence in morbid detail, the assumption being that Liberia is a place so removed from the world that the practices of yesteryear—cannibalism, heads on stakes, and black magic—still prevail. In American Warlord, investigative journalist Johnny Dwyer takes a different tack. Atrocity here never feels gratuitous. By beginning with Jusu’s experience, Dwyer is free to tell another, much more complicated tale, moving backward and forward with narrative deftness, without losing sight of its moral and legal underpinnings.

Jusu’s story was first told in his testimony in the case of United States v. Belfast. The defendant, Roy Belfast Jr., (a k a Charles Taylor Jr., a k a Chucky), the furious armed man at the checkpoint, is the American-born son of Charles Ghankay Taylor, the guerrilla leader turned Liberian president. Jusu’s testimony was a key piece of evidence in the case against Chucky, who was convicted in 2008 and has the distinction of being the only person ever convicted under American anti-torture laws. (Chucky’s father was convicted four years later by the Special Court for Sierra Leone for crimes against humanity there.) It’s an unusual situation: a combatant in a foreign civil war being tried in an American court. Chucky might be the only person to have faced prosecution for the atrocities in a war in which 250,000 people were killed and many more displaced.

The central story of American Warlord could be the plot of a young-adult novel, a twisted bildungsroman about a juvenile delinquent running with a bad crowd, and whose tough facade hides a vulnerable soul. Chucky is born in 1977. After his father abandons the family to pursue his political ambitions in Liberia, the young Chucky is raised by his Trinidadian-American mother, Bernice Emmanuel, and his well-meaning stepdad, Roy Belfast Sr. Their marriage begins to falter in the late ’80s, around the time that Charles Taylor starts appearing on the nightly news as the leader of a rebellion intent on overthrowing the despotic rule of Liberian President Samuel K. Doe.

In 1991, Chucky receives a call at home in Orlando, Florida, inviting him to Liberia to visit a father he doesn’t know. His mother—charmed by her ex’s transformation from a feckless student at Bentley College in Waltham, Massachusetts, to a charismatic revolutionary leader, and worried about her then-14-year-old son’s increasingly dark path at home—decides they will go together. It’s unclear how much the pair knew what they were walking into. In the summer of 1992, the Liberian war was in a stalemate: Taylor controlled most of the countryside, while Monrovia, the Liberian capital, was run by a government of national unity and protected by African peacekeepers. Though little reported in the West, the civil war had led, by this point, to the deaths of many thousands of civilians.

The town of Gbarnga, Taylor’s wartime capital, is a strange setting for a family reunion. Here, Chucky meets another kind of teenager: Liberian boys who’d been forcibly removed from their families at an early age and now roamed the city, armed with automatic weapons, while waiting to be deployed to the front—the child soldiers of the popular imagination. Chucky also discovers that he’s the crown prince of something known as Taylorland, a large swath of rural Liberia rich in timber, rubber, and minerals, with its own currency and strict hierarchy. But the title comes with its own baggage, and pretty soon Chucky is compelled to vie for his father’s attention alongside the sycophants and war criminals that compose his extended family and Taylor’s court. The battle-hardened young men—former child soldiers—revere Taylor as a father figure, calling him papé.

By summer’s end, Chucky is back in Orlando, irrevocably changed. Soon after, he attempts suicide, an event that rattles his mother but is kept secret. After another brush with the law leads to his being confined under house arrest, he manages to win the affection of a neighborhood girl named Lynn. Their relationship, which begins with lazy Florida afternoons spent listening to music and talking on the phone for hours, will span one of the most tumultuous decades in Liberian history; through Dwyer’s interviews with Lynn, that relationship becomes an invaluable window onto the inner workings of the Taylor regime until its collapse at the hands of American-backed rebels in 2003.

A few years after his first visit to Gbarnga, 17-year-old Chucky bungles a mugging and is charged with four felonies, including aggravated assault with a firearm. No longer a juvenile, he now faces hard time in prison. After posting his bail, Bernice sends him back to West Africa, telling Charles Taylor over the phone, “Now, it’s your turn.”

* * *

While Chucky was growing up under the care of Bernice and Roy Belfast, Charles Taylor Sr. had abandoned his life as a college student to take up a bureaucratic position in the Liberian government after the 1980 coup. Allegations of corruption prompted him to flee to the United States, only to be arrested and placed in a maximum-security prison in Massachusetts. His prison break has long been a point of speculation in Liberia, and Taylor enjoys cultivating the sense of conspiracy around it. During his war-crimes trial in The Hague, Taylor claimed that a series of shadowy figures helped him escape as part of a CIA plot. Dwyer’s research suggests a less cinematic scenario: an old prison with a record of escapes, coupled with Taylor’s ability to charm people into doing his bidding, including sneaking in hacksaws and arranging a getaway car. From Massachusetts, he fled the country and eventually turned up in Libya, where he was trained by Muammar el-Qaddafi before resurfacing in Liberia in 1989 as the leader of a fighting force.

By the time of Chucky’s second trip to Gbarnga, around 1994, the combat is fierce, and there’s no guarantee of safety from the shells that rain down occasionally. Finding himself in the middle of a war, Chucky remakes himself as a warrior, suggesting in letters to Lynn that he has become a central figure in West African politics. To earn the esteem of his father, Chucky must at least match the performance of Benjamin Yeaten, Taylor’s surrogate son in the rebel hierarchy and a notorious character in West African security circles. (Even today, Yeaten is rumored by Monrovian newspapers to be planning his own invasion, biding his time with a guerrilla army in the forests along the border with Ivory Coast.) After Taylor enters into a power-sharing agreement with the other warlords and moves to Monrovia, an attempt is made on his life. This spurs Chucky to put together a unit of loyalists under his command, as a way of winning his father’s respect and also to indulge his own violent fantasies. He even designs the Anti-Terrorist Unit’s cartoonish insignia of a cobra and a scorpion himself.

Much of what is known about Chucky’s time as leader of the unit comes from three sources: Dwyer, whose seven years of Freedom of Information Act requests yielded documents from the State Department, the Defense Department, and the National Security Council; the Liberian Truth and Reconciliation Commission, where people close to Taylor confessed their crimes in exchange for immunity; and the court documents from United States v. Belfast. Despite years of contact via e-mail, letters, and phone, Dwyer failed to secure an in-person interview with Chucky or to discuss much about his past. (In the epilogue, Dwyer suggests that their communication involved threats against him.)

Lynn, who moved to Liberia to become Chucky’s wife shortly after graduating from high school, was largely left in the dark—or knowingly kept herself in the dark—about the Taylor family’s more macabre doings. Every time it seems that she can no longer stand living in the middle of a civil war or putting up with Chucky’s abusive behavior, she tries to save him—including walking into the final siege of Monrovia with a toddler in tow. Yet she remains in a state of denial. In one rather remarkable moment, a foreign mercenary awaiting an audience with Chucky becomes concerned by the presence of Lynn, a Korean-American teenager with a pet dog, as she makes small talk with him in the foyer. When he asks what she’s doing in the middle of a brutal war, it complicates her sense of her surroundings.

Unsurprisingly, Chucky is an erratic commander, mixing what he’s learned from first-person-shooter video games with the advice of paid foreign advisers, high-priced vultures of the modern global security industry, who train the Anti-Terrorist Unit in a makeshift academy dubbed the College of Knowledge. As US prosecutors would later determine, the “college” boasted various instruments of torture, including cages sunk into the wet ground that were used not only on suspected rebels and political opponents, but also on ATU officers who failed to obey orders.

* * *

One of the central motifs of American Warlord is how the fate of a small African country became ensnared in uniquely American pathologies. Since its founding by the American Colonization Society in the 19th century, Liberia has absorbed and synthesized the contradictions of its early backers, an odd coalition of American abolitionists, free blacks, white racists, and Christian missionaries, all of whom had different reasons for supporting a republic of black Americans on the coast of West Africa.

Liberia has long been a place for outsiders to pursue visions of liberation. Before Chucky, there was Col. Elwood Davis, an African-American who, after leaving the US Army, moved to Liberia to lead the “Frontier Force” in the early 20th century. He was tasked with pacifying the Liberian hinterland and bringing it under the control of the settler state. Davis achieved this with incredible brutality, burning villages and slaughtering indigenous women and children. It was partly this ruthlessness that charmed Graham Greene when he met Davis during a visit to Liberia in 1935, which he recounts in Journey Without Maps. In Chasing the Devil, Tim Butcher describes the meeting as “the equivalent of bumping into Ratko Mladic,” the infamous Bosnian Serb war criminal.

The sprawling American embassy compound in Liberia sits, symbolically enough, beside a Masonic temple at Monrovia’s highest point. The country has a strong cultural and institutional connection to the United States, much deeper than the soft-power clichés of pop music or Nike Air. In the last few democratic elections, presidential aspirants were judged by their alma maters, Harvard and DeVry University. Power is said to stem from membership in the Fraternal Order of Masons, and diaspora communities in Minnesota, Staten Island, Atlanta, and New Jersey are discussed as extensions of Liberia itself. It’s a country where small tweaks to American policy—the diversity visa lottery, preferred immigration status, deportation rules—can have huge ripple effects. Anytime a shipment of American deportees hits the tarmac in Liberia, it’s reported with photos in the newspapers and becomes fodder for tea-shop gossip.

Today, Chucky Taylor resides in an American prison, where he’s serving a 97-year sentence for torture. In Liberia, he has an almost mythical status as a monster: the personification of his father’s regime, an era of brutality for most people and fantastic wealth for a few. Even so, he still has his defenders in Liberia, who relish the occasional prison interview he gives on Liberian radio.