Freetown, Sierra Leone -- The terrorist network led by Osama bin Laden (ingat! kita tidak berpendirian bahawa Osama adalah ketua pengganas ~ webmaster) 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.
Diamond dealers working directly with men named by the FBI as key operatives in bin Laden's al Qaeda network bought gems from the rebel Revolutionary United Front at below-market prices and sold them for large profits in Europe.
Investigators in the United States and Europe are still trying to determine how much money al Qaeda derived from its dealings with the rebels, but they estimated the amount to be in the millions.
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 Qaeda, 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 (they) are highly convertible to cash. It makes perfect sense."
U.S. and European intelligence officials, overwhelmed after Sept. 11 and with very few agents in West Africa, said they realized only recently how important the diamond flow was to funding al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations.
"I now believe that to cut off al Qaeda funds and laundering activities, you have to cut off the diamond pipeline," said a European investigator. "We are talking about millions and maybe tens of millions of dollars in profits and laundering."
The diamonds are mined by Revolutionary United Front 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 alluvial diamond fields were the principal prize in this country's brutal civil war, and they have been under rebel control for the past four years.
Small packets of diamonds, often wrapped in rags or plastic sheets, are taken by senior rebel commanders across the porous Liberian border to Monrovia,
according to sources. There, at a safe house protected by the Liberian government led by President Charles Taylor, the diamonds are exchanged for briefcases of cash brought by diamond dealers who fly several times a month from Belgium to Monrovia, where they are escorted by special state security through customs and immigration control.
The diamond dealers are selected by Ibrahim Bah, a Libyan-trained former Senegalese rebel and the Revolutionary United Front's principal diamond dealer,
the sources said. The buyers' identities are known only to Bah and a few others.
Bah's contacts and sympathies were forged on the battlefield, according to intelligence reports and sources who know him well.
After fighting with the Casamance separatist movement in Senegal in the 1970s, Bah trained in Libya under the protection of Moammar Khadafy, the Libyan leader. Like bin Laden, he spent several years in the early 1980s fighting alongside Muslim guerrillas against Soviet forces 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 Taylor and Foday Sankoh, the Revolutionary United Front's founder. Bah himself later fought in both Liberia and Sierra Leone.
Now, according to intelligence sources and two people who have worked with him, Bah acts as a conduit between senior rebel commanders and the buyers from both al Qaeda and Hezbollah, a Shiite Muslim organization linked to terrorist activities.
Bah, who lives in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, declined through intermediaries to be interviewed for this article.
A U.N. panel of experts estimated the market value of rebel "blood diamonds" sold in 1999 to be about $75 million. Sources in the diamond trade estimate that the rebels receive less than 10 percent of market value for the diamonds, paid mostly in weapons, food and medicine. Taylor receives a commission on each transaction in Monrovia, and Bah and the other brokers share the rest, according to sources involved the 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.
In September 1998, Bah arranged for Abdullah Ahmed Abdullah to visit Monrovia, according to two sources. Abdullah is described on the FBI's recent Most Wanted Terrorists poster as a "top bin Laden adviser" who "helped plan a number of al Qaeda's attacks."
After spending one night in Monrovia, the sources said, Bah and Abdullah flew in a Liberian government helicopter to the town of Foya, on the border with Sierra Leone. There, Abdullah met with a senior Revolutionary United Front commander, Sam Bockerie, to discuss buying diamonds on a regular basis.
A few weeks later, Bah arranged a visit for two more al Qaeda operatives now on the FBI list, Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani and Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, the sources said. Together, they also met Bockerie, taking him $100,000 in cash and receiving a parcel of diamonds in an introductory deal, the sources said.
Ghailani, the FBI alleges, is an al Qaeda operative from Tanzania who helped buy a truck used in the 1998 bomb attack on the U.S. Embassy in Dar es Salaam. Fazul, from the Comoros Islands, is identified by the FBI as the "head of al Qaeda's Kenyan cell" and trained at a bin Laden camp.