5 August 2004

West Africa: Debate Over al Qaeda's Connection to West Africa's Diamond Trade Takes New Turns

interview

Washington, DC — The arrest of a Tanzanian fugitive in Pakistan last week, release of the 9-11 Commission report in Washington and a forthcoming finding by a war crimes tribunal in Sierra Leone have rekindled the debate over what role, if any, west African diamonds played in financing the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States.

Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, a Tanzanian accused of masterminding the 1998 bombings of American embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, who was arrested by Pakistan security forces along with more than a dozen other al Qaeda suspects, has been identified as a linchpin of an al Qaeda diamond trading operation in Liberia and neighboring Sierra Leone. Washington Post correspondent Douglas Farah, in a recently published 225-page book entitled "Blood from Stones: The Secret Financial Network of Terror," provides a detailed description of al Qaeda's activity in West Africa. Corroborative accounts have been published by the London-based nongovernmental organization Global Witness and by the Special Court for Sierra Leone, established by the United Nations to investigate crimes against humanity committed during Sierra Leone's brutal civil war in the 1990s.

According to Farah, American intelligence agencies overlooked the connection between diamond trading and al Qaeda and the central role played in harboring and profiting from the illicit dealing by Liberian President Charles Taylor, who was forced into exile in Nigeria last year under a deal brokered by the U.S. government. Farah's findings have been hotly disputed by the CIA and FBI, and their viewpoint was reflected in the recently release report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, also known as the 9-11 Commission. "We have seen no persuasive evidence that al Qaeda funded itself by trading in African conflict diamonds," the report states (page 171).

But a confidential investigation by the Sierra Leone Special Court further bolsters the view that that the alliance between Taylor and al Qaeda was substantial, according to an article in Wednesday's Boston Globe by Washington correspondent Bryan Bender. "Al Qaeda allegedly paid Taylor for protection and then joined him in the African diamond trade, raising millions of dollars for terrorist activities, according to UN war crimes documents," Bender wrote. Citing the Special Court's investigation and U.S. intelligence official, Bender said a planned raid a few weeks after September 11, 2001 by U.S. Special Forces aimed at capturing Ghailani and an associate in Liberia was called off for unexplained reasons. One explanation raised by Bender's sources was Taylor's reported longstanding relations with the CIA.

Farah, who currently serves as senior fellow at the National Strategy Information Center, discussed with AllAfrica's Eunice Ajambo the 9-11 Commission findings, the interaction between Al Qaeda and West Africa's diamond trade, and his view of the role U.S. intelligence has played. Excerpts:

What is your reaction to the single sentence in the 9-11 Commission report that dismisses African diamonds as a source of al Qaeda funding?

If you look at the footnotes of that particular citation, it's all FBI and CIA reports with the exception of an interview they quote with Allan White from the Special Court in Sierra Leone. I find it disturbing because they had access to the Belgium police report, which I have on my website, which they were given. The Special Court also wrote a special brief to them and the intelligence indicating al Qaeda's presence. The book, the Global Witness Report - none of those are cited as having been used at all in making their determination.

I think the 9-11 Commission was under a great deal of pressure to make hurried judgments. In my limited communication with them, they told me that they could not get to the bottom of the dispute. If you read my book, I have a lot of discussion of why the CIA tried to discredit the story, and the great lengths that they went to do so, despite the fact that they did not succeed, and the fact that more evidence continues to emerge [that] the story is actually correct. But there is a great hostility towards the story from the intelligence community, and all the commission did was take the intelligence community reports and use them as their basis for making their assertions.

I was really disappointed because several people talked to them after their initial staff report came out that contained that sentence. They do not seem to have listened to anybody, and they certainly didn't acknowledge [in their footnotes] that there was any other information out there.

The 9-11 Commission also stated "to date, we have not been able to determine the origin of the money used for the 9-11 attacks?" How do you respond to that?

The proof of the telephone contacts to Afghanistan on September 10th and the prior communications from the Belgium police who traced the phone call from the satellite phone used by Aziz Nassour and Samih Osailly [two al Qaeda operatives whose activities in west Africa are detailed in Farah's book] is not hearsay evidence. They made numerous calls and it's documented. I have the phone bills for them, and more importantly, the police got them out of the official records. I do not think it's something you can easily dismiss. Neither are the bank records from Artesia Bank that show $20m flowing and being unaccounted for, and all the other indications that other people came up with.

To just say, "we do not know where the money came from," seems a little bit disingenuous. My sense is that the report on how things went was largely based on official documents given to them by the intelligence community. And the intelligence community had a vested interest in trying to discredit this story. The panel, I think, just did not have the time or inclination to really investigate this. It wasn't really the focus of what they were doing. So it took the word of the CIA and the FBI, and used it, and unfortunately they are wrong.

Several investigations by other organizations have found evidence that corroborated your findings linking al Qaeda to the West African diamond trade. Do you think the 9-11 commission will revisit the evidence provided by these organizations?

I do not expect them to revisit the issue. There is a cultural resistance in the intelligence community to using any information that does not originate with themselves, and unfortunately in this case, they had no information. So the reaction to other information from me, from Global Witness, from the Special Court, from the Belgium police and from all the other players was that, `We did not have it, and therefore it can't be true.' I am afraid what we have seen with the 9-11 commission report is pretty much the final word. I do not have any indication they'll be revisiting the issue at all.

Why do you think U.S. policy makers ignored al Qaeda's Africa associations in the first place?

The U.S. has not perceived itself to have a strategic interest in sub-Saharan Africa on the terrorism front until very recently. I think that what you are seeing now is a little bit more interest, but only moderately more interest. The policy for decades has been neglect of sub-Saharan Africa. There is no administration that has given much attention to African issues. Europe has also been extremely negligent, and what you have is a consequence of that negligence, and the lack of strategic thinking on the part of the U.S. and others.

The development, not only in Liberia, [of] a functioning criminal state, is not a secret to anyone who has been to the region or who lives in the region. You have widespread corruption. You have vast areas of a country like the Democratic Republic of Congo where the state has no control. You have the Central African Republic, where government controls essentially only the capital. Mali, Chad, Niger [and] Nigeria all have very large areas where other armed groups outside of the state control the resources and life there. That whole scenario is part of the neglect by the outside world.

Why was Al Qaeda interested in West Africa?

Diamonds were perfect for several reasons. They are easy to transport. They have extremely high value in a very small packet, they are easy to convert into cash, and the market is big enough that it does not react to small sales, such that if you sell a few carats of diamonds the whole diamond market does not go out of register. It was extremely convenient from that point of view.

But perhaps the most important thing that west Africa offered was Liberia under Charles Taylor. Liberia had become a criminal and terrorist Disneyland under his management, from which he was making a substantial sum of money. Taylor had allowed in Victor Bout, the largest illegal weapons merchant in the world. He had allowed in Leonid Menin, a very large Ukrainian drug trafficker. He allowed in South African and Balkan organized crime.

Liberia and the border into Sierra Leone that the RUF controlled offered terrorist and organized criminal structures a safe haven where they could enter and leave the country unmolested to carry out their business and have access to natural resources that were extremely important to them.

Alex Yearsley of Global Witness asserts that, "Taylor received CIA payments until January 2001." You write about dealings between the CIA and Ibrahim Bah, the Senegalese mastermind who coordinated the diamond trade with al Qaeda. Why would the CIA form this kind of partnership?

It's a disturbing question. I do not have direct knowledge myself of the CIA dealings with Taylor. Taylor has told others and me that he has worked for the CIA over time. As part of the lack of interest in Africa, the recruitment of intelligence efforts has been very limited - especially after the diamond story. When they want to get a handle on it, who better than Ibrahim Bah, the person who had brought the al Qaeda people into Liberia and Sierra Leone to begin with? It's a symptom of a lack of moral principles in trying to get information. It's fairly clear that Ibrahim Bah and Charles Taylor, who have lived for many years by their wits and by not playing by the rules, probably provided very little information of any value to the intelligence.

You write that the diamond trade in Africa transcends ideological and religious differences. Could you please talk more about the business dealings between Israeli and Lebanese merchants in West Africa?

One of the most alarming and shocking thing in my dealing with the diamond trade in west and central Africa was the willingness of Israelis and Arabs, who want to kill each other in their homelands, to do business with each other on the ground in Africa. I met Hezbollah diamond dealers who were selling to Israelis and Israelis who were selling to Hezbollah, knowing that Hezbollah was trying to kill Israelis in the Middle East, and Hezbollah knowing that the Israelis wanted to kill their family members back there.

I think it's one of the truly extraordinary demonstrations of the depth to which people will sink in their greed for diamonds. It's the epitomy of the worst kind of greed and corruption of moral principles. They come with the desire to make money at any cost. What both the Arabs and Israelis told me was, `Business is business. Here we do business. Back there is war and back there is not our problem.' If you look at the ties between Lebanese with ties to radical Islamists trying to buy weapons with Israelis to ship [elsewhere], it's a web that is very complicated, very difficult to understand, and very hard to believe unless you see it and talk to people yourself.

What about Eastern Africa?

Eastern Africa has long been - because of the Muslim population over there and al Qaeda's ties into that region, going back to the early part of the 1990s - a known quantity as far as al Qaeda goes. You had the embassy bombings in 1998, you had the U.S.S. Cole bombing in 2000 [in Yemen], and you had the 'Black Hawk Down' in Somalia, earlier than that, in which al Qaeda was also involved. So there was some understanding, although limited, of al Qaeda's operational capabilities and intent to move in the East African sphere. It was only after the 1998 embassy bombings that al Qaeda moves a large contingent its personnel - I think mostly for safe keeping, because they knew that the U.S. would be tracking them down - to West Africa. And that's where you see the West African connection being made.

What is the connection between Saudi Arabia, Africa and al Qaeda from your research experience?

I am learning that the influence of the Saudi Arabian charities particularly, and their efforts to export the very austere, radical part of Islam known as Wahhabism, is spread much further in sub-Saharan Africa, especially in west Africa, than most people outside the region know or understand. If you look at the charities that operate there, if you look at the Wahhabi takeover of mosques in Mali, Niger, Mauritania et cetera, and the move to put millions of dollars into northern Nigeria.

What Wahhabism preaches is that not only Christian and Jews are infidels and can be killed, but also Muslims who do not agree with them can be killed. So you have this very harsh, radical branch of Islam moving in and exercising a great deal of influence in sectors of west Africa in ways that are extremely dangerous to developing democracy and tolerant societies, and in areas where there already deep ethnic conflicts to which this kind of radicalism can [spread] into and breed.

The Center for Strategic and International Studies recently released a study of the rising U.S. stakes in Africa, specifically pinpointing the Muslim community in Africa as a major U.S. foreign policy concern. Do you agree?

The U.S. is becoming aware of the potential threat posed, not by the Muslim community, but by the ability of radical Islam to take control of the Muslim communities and turn them into recruiting grounds for Jihadists and Wahhabists. It's very clear that the tradition of Islam in west Africa is extremely tolerant. In Liberia and Sierra Leone, I knew Moslems who had married Christians and Christians who had married Moslems, and there was not an issue. But what you'll see is a Muslim community, which is largely impoverished and has very little access to state resources, and which has very few ways of bettering their lives - when money flows in from outside with offers to help, they will take it. And with that help, will come radicalization of Islam in many parts of west Africa.

The United States is just starting to recognize that problem. The question is how you deal with that. We simply do not have the resources or the strategic thinking to begin to figure out ways to make moderate Islam more attractive, to put resources in teaching ways of democratic systems and to give the social services that states do not give.

What does al Qaeda look for in African countries to advance its interests?

Al Qaeda looks for different things in different areas. It's clear that they would like to expand their pool of potential recruits in the Islamic communities wherever they find them. What sub-Saharan Africa offers them that other parts of the world don't are the abilities that they had in Liberia, to move into states that would protect them and operate with them for monetary reasons. Charles Taylor was not a Muslim. He is a Christian, and yet he was perfectly happy to deal with these people because they were willing to pay him.

If you look at failed states and what sociologists are now calling "gray areas" or stateless areas - areas across sub-Saharan Africa and other parts of the world where armed groups, rather than states control assets - that's where these people like to go because then they have a rest and recreation area. They have a recruiting pool, and they have a way to hide out, when they need safety.

Is there a possibility of eradicating the financial networks supporting terrorism?

To eradicate the terrorist financial structure is extremely difficult because the phenomenon of al Qaeda and radical Islam is not limited to a few people, where you could kill them and go back to the way things where. It's become a theology and ideology of widespread appeal among people who feel they have no way of improving their lives, and who feel they have nothing to loose by going into the Jihad against the west and against their religious enemies as defined by extremist Muslims. You can't get rid of the pool of talent and money that the Jihad can draw - not in the near term and probably never.

You have to think in ways of combating them, not just militarily but on the religious front, with moderate Islamic principles and with democratic principles, with meeting people's social needs, health needs and educational needs in ways that governments so far have been unwilling or unable to do, partly because of the endemic corruption in these states. Another thing that plays into the widespread dissolution, and that makes something disciplined and coherent like the theology and ideology [of] al Qaeda attractive to people is that they are stuck in countries that offer them nothing, and where the culture of the "big man" is so strong that they have no hope of ever improving their own lives.

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