Freetown — A new report released Wednesday by the Diamonds and Human Security Project evaluates probable links between Sierra Leone's large Lebanese merchant community and global terrorist networks in the context of near-collapsed state institutions and the traditional corruption of Sierra Leone's diamond industry. The 28-page report, entitled "War and Peace in Sierra Leone: Diamonds, Corruption and the Lebanese Connection", was written by Lansana Gberie, Project research associate, after three extended trips to Sierra Leone and other West African countries in 2001 and 2002.
The report focuses on the period since the massive UN intervention in 2000, but it traces the development of the Sierra Leone's diamond industry and the historical role that the Lebanese have played in corrupting it.
Various factions in Middle Eastern conflicts, including the Hezbollah and Amal (which was founded by a Sierra Leonean-born Lebanese Nabbi Berri), have in the past raised substantial funding from the Lebanese community in Sierra Leone through the diamond trade, and the report argues that although evidence of links between this diaspora community and the al qaeda terrorist network is "anecdotal," the allegations are "supported by generations of dubious activities" by some Lebanese diamond dealers and tangible proofs of contacts between some of them and Middle Eastern terrorists on the US Most Wanted List in recent years.
The report follows-up on allegations, made late last year by the Washington Post, that al qaeda may have been gained millions of dollars from the Revolutionary United Front's (RUF) diamond trade. The author traces the involvement of two Lebanese diamond dealers "with longstanding business and other interests in West Africa and the Congo," Aziz Nassour and Samih Ossailly.
Said to be cousins, the two have proven links to al qaeda, the report suggests. The report states that Ossailly first appeared in Sierra Leone in 1997, after the Armed Forces Ruling Council (AFRC) coup, and was introduced to the junta by a Freetown-based Lebanese named Darwish. "Ossailly, with Nassour, was already the major buyer of RUF diamonds in Liberia," the report notes.
In Freetown, he "supplied four containers of army uniforms and other military hardware to the (AFRC) junta, apparently in exchange for diamonds and from the Liberian end, he and Nassour supplied the RUF with weapons, medical supplies and mining equipment." In an interview with the Concord Times on Wednesday, the author Mr. Gberie tried to play down the al qaeda connection. "The real story-and this is the primary interest of this report-is the corrupting of the diamond industry and the absence of institutional capacity. This is what makes the country so vulnerable. I have stressed the role of the Lebanese, because it is very very significant. They virtually control the industry in Sierra Leone, and they have resisted all attempts to reform key aspects of the country's economy." However, a Labanese who prefered to be anonymous yesterday lambasted what he termed the tendency to look for scapegoats whenever the story of Sierra Leone's economic crisis is told.
He said it was true that some Lebanese "like other nationals may have committed crimes. But let us also know that there are very many Lebanese who have contributed to this country in several ways.
"I have not seen the report. But I think it is unfair to link Lebanese, diamonds and terrorism. And this is inciting the people against the Lebanese." Other players, however, are not spared in the report.
Government officials are also pilloried, and so are 'junior' mining companies like DiamondWorks and Rex, both with huge concessions in the country, and both with a history of involvement with mercenaries. "Many of DiamondWorks' original principals have left the company. It is now headed by Antonio Teixera, who has a chequered career where African diamonds are concerned," the report notes.
In the Central African Republic, Teixera's operations "ended in confusion, with unpaid taxes and allegations of a partnership with the President of the country." Teixera was once named by British Foreign Office Minister Peter Hain as among several who were aiding in UNITA sanctions busting-Teixera "had been flying in diesel fuel for the rebel army." Rex Diamonds' Serge Muller was also involved in dubious activities in Sierra Leone during the war, including trying to forge a relationship with the RUF.