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Doug Farah talks dirty diamonds

Washington Post reporter Doug Farah initially discounted reports that two members of Al Qaida (also spelled as Al Qaeda) had purchased diamonds from a member of former President of Liberia Charles Taylor’s entourage. As it turned out, the story was not only true, but one of the biggest terrorism-related stories uncovered by the Post.

Farah came to Lehigh Wednesday, September 29, to discuss his book, Blood From Stones: The Secret Financial Network of Terror in a lecture sponsored by the World Affairs Club.

Farah opened his talk with a brief history of Liberia and its former president, Charles Taylor. “The phenomenon of the post cold war era is that it expands to stateless areas where there is no government control and the states are, in fact, criminal enterprises—like Liberia,” he said.

Liberia, a country on the west bulge of Africa, was founded in the mid 1800s by freed American slaves who longed for the freedom and democracy America epitomized.

But by 1997, the ruthless warlord Taylor had succeeded in turning his country into a hub for international criminals. Taylor’s reign soon spread to neighboring Sierra Leone, a country rich in alluvial diamonds. This nucleus of crime eventually drew some of the worst criminals in the world—Al Qaida.

Putting fear aside

Farah discovered the Al Qaida-diamond connection from a man he calls “CR,” a member of the Taylor camp who Farah befriended while covering post-September 11th West Africa for The Washington Post.

“I was meeting with CR on a public porch eating pizza, while young boys with AK47’s—members of Taylor’s small boy units who protected him dutifully—stood by. I was terrified,” Farah recalled.

But fear aside, the reporter listened intently and through a series of subsequent meetings uncovered the Al Qaida diamond buying binge that virtually froze the diamond market in 2001. The discovery was made through a copy of Newsweek magazine. “Newsweek had just put out an addition that included the FBI’s most wanted terrorist list, so I asked CR if he recognized any of them. He said he didn’t. Then we finished dinner and he started leafing through the magazine—he went pale as he recognized a photograph of two Al Qaida members on the next page. ‘These two men bought diamonds from me recently,’ he said.”

Although he was stunned at the time, Farah says the diamond-Al Qaida connection is not all that uncanny. “If you look at the oral history of Al-Qaida told through people who have been arrested and gone on trial in the U.S. and elsewhere, the continual link to the diamonds and gem stones goes back to the early 1990’s---Al Qaida really like gem stones,” Farah said.

Going into diamonds in a big way

Al Qaida liked gem stones so much that they decided to freeze their assets following the 1998 bombing of two U.S. embassies in West Africa and go into diamonds in a big way. And who did they approach? A man named Ibrahim Bah, Taylor’s right-hand-man, Farah said.

“When these Al Qaida members were buying diamonds, they weren’t doing it to make money—they were doing it to move as much money as they could out of the formal structure,” explained Farah. Because they’re small so you can carry a million dollar’s worth in your pocket, not detectable by metal detectors or dogs, and untraceable, diamonds were the perfect means for Al Qaida to hide a large amount of money quickly.

So a group of Al Qaida members rented a house in Monrovia for several months and bought all the diamonds they could while people from Pakistan came in and regularly shipped large quantities of the stones out.

Out of the same investigation emerged a Ukrainian criminal named Victor Boot, who delivered hundreds of tons of sophisticated weapons all over the world (including a possible contract with the U.S., currently under investigation). “Boot was amazing—he could deliver attack helicopters and sophisticated anti-aircraft systems within a few weeks of orders being placed,” Farah said.

Living in a dangerous world

All the pieces of this criminal puzzle are linked by the tiny country of Liberia. “It’s not clear how many hundreds of millions of dollars Charles Taylor made in the process of these operations, and it’s hard to convey the magnitude of the damage that the wars he sponsored did to the West African region,” Farah said.

So what does this all have to do with what’s going on in the world today? Farah’s concluding commentary was chilling:

“My contention is that if you look across the world now, there is a stateless area in almost every continent, and it’s terrifying,” Farah said. “There is never a focus on learning about these countries themselves. We have a world where some states are no longer states and that are criminal enterprises…and we have no understanding of what the structures are. It’s a dangerous world.”

--Elizabeth Shimer

Posted on Friday, October 01, 2004

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