Intelligence officials say diamond pipeline enriches bin Laden

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Intelligence officials say diamond pipeline enriches bin Laden

By Douglas Farah The Washington Post

FREETOWN, Sierra Leone The terrorist network led by Osama bin Laden has reaped millions of dollars in the past three years from the illicit sale of diamonds mined by rebels in Sierra Leone, according to U.S. and European intelligence officials and two sources with direct knowledge of events.

The FBI says key operatives in bin Laden's al-Qaida network worked with diamond dealers to buy gems from Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebels at below-market prices and sell them for large profits in Europe.

Since July, the sources said, the diamond dealers have changed their tactics, buying far more diamonds than usual and paying premium prices for them. Investigators say that is a strong indication that al-Qaida, perhaps anticipating its accounts would be frozen after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in the United States, sought to protect its money by sinking it into gemstones, a commodity that is easy to hide, holds its value and is almost untraceable.

"When prices go up and supply goes up, it means someone is seeking to launder or hide cash, and we believe that is the case here," a U.S. official said. "Diamonds don't set off alarms at airports, they can't be sniffed by dogs, they are easy to hide and are highly convertible to cash. It makes perfect sense."

U.S. and European intelligence officials, overwhelmed after Sept. 11 and with few agents in West Africa, said they realized only recently how important the diamond flow was to fund al-Qaida and other terrorist organizations.

"I now believe that to cut off al-Qaida funds and laundering activities you have to cut off the diamond pipeline," a European investigator said. "We are talking about millions and maybe tens of millions of dollars in profits and laundering."

The diamonds are mined by RUF rebels, who became infamous during the civil war for hacking off the arms and legs of civilians and abducting thousands of children and forcing them to fight as combatants. Sierra Leone's diamond fields, some of the richest in the world, were the principal prize in this country's brutal civil war, and they have been under RUF control for the past four years.

Diamonds are smuggled across the porous Liberian border to a safe house protected by the Liberian government, sources said. The diamonds are exchanged for briefcases of cash brought by diamond dealers who fly several times a month from Belgium.

The diamond dealers are selected by Ibrahim Bah, a Libyan-trained former Senegalese rebel and the RUF's principal diamond dealer, the sources said. The buyers' identities are known only to Bah and a few others.

Like bin Laden, Bah spent several years in the early 1980s fighting alongside Muslim guerrillas against the Soviets in Afghanistan.

Bah then joined the Iranian-backed Hezbollah militia to fight Israeli forces in southern Lebanon before returning to Libya at the end of the 1980s. In Libya, Bah met and trained several men who would go on to lead rebellions in West Africa, including Charles Taylor of Liberia and RUF founder Foday Sankoh of Sierra Leone.

Now, according to intelligence sources and two people who have worked with him, Bah acts as a conduit between senior RUF commanders and buyers from both al-Qaida and Hezbollah.

Bah, who lives in the West African nation of Burkina Faso, declined through intermediaries to be interviewed for this article.

A U.N. panel of experts estimated the market value of RUF "blood diamonds" sold in 1999 to be about $75 million. But since Sierra Leone's government and the RUF agreed to a cease-fire last year, diamond mining has accelerated. Taylor, who is now Liberia's president, has denied involvement in illicit diamond dealings.

"Even if only 10 percent went to terrorist organizations, you are talking about millions of dollars in virtually untraceable funds, every year," said a European investigator. "That is enough to keep a lot of people going."

http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/nationworld/134361642_diamond020.html

-- Martin Thompson (mthom1927@aol.com), November 02, 2001

Answers

I am starting to wonder if this al-Qaida network might be some kind of multinational corporation or maybe an Islamic mafia.

-- Martin Thompson (mthom1927@aol.com), November 02, 2001.

Then again, maybe this entire story has been made up or exaggerated to provide an excuse to shut down one of the only diamond producers that deBeers does not control.

-- neil (nmruggles@earthlink.net), November 02, 2001.

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