The terrorist network led by Osama bin Laden struck deals in ‘blood diamonds’ worth over $20 million in the months before the attacks of 11 September 2001.
Ahead of London’s $500-per-ticket, diamond-trade gala dinner next month, when Nelson Mandela is to congratulate the trade on its efforts to eradicate smuggling, The Observer can reveal the true size of the cash stockpile al-Qaeda has made from the stones mined illegally by Revolutionary United Front rebels in Sierra Leone.
“Given that the attacks on America cost only about $500,000, it is terrifying that al-Qaeda managed to convert $20 million of its cash into diamonds,” said Alex Yearsley of Global Witness, which campaigns against the “blood diamonds” trade.
“The ease with which terrorist organizations can use diamonds as a source of funding and money laundering is frightening; they can easily transport them over borders without detection and convert them back into banknotes whenever they need the money.”
According to information leaked by European and Belgian government officials, Aziz Nassour, a Lebanese diamond merchant, employed couriers to exchange $300,000 for diamonds every week between December 2000 and September 2001.
According to the Belgian officials, the couriers took weekly flights from Antwerp on the now-defunct Sabena airline to Abidjan. There, they hired light planes from the Weswua airline to fly to Monrovia, Liberia, and then went on to meet rebel RUF commanders in Sierra Leone.
Nassour, now living in Beirut, is undergoing an investigation into claims he conducted deals with al-Qaeda with his cousin, Samih Ossailly. Ossailly is in prison in Belgium under the same charge and is expected to appear in court early next year.
Investigations in the United States and Europe have sought to determine how much money al-Qaeda derived from its dealings with the RUF since links with the network were revealed last year by investigative reporter Doug Farah in the Washington Post.
A recent report in an Antwerp newspaper claimed al-Qaeda converted $10 million into untraceable gemstones before 11 September 2001. This new evidence indicates at least twice as much money passed hands, enabling al-Qaeda to continue its operations despite the international agreement to freeze bank accounts with suspected links to the terrorist group.
The Observer can also reveal how a highly trained female agent was parachuted into Sierra Leone to untangle a row between high-echelon al-Qaeda-linked operatives who had turned against each other less than three months before the Trade Centre attack.
Bin Laden’s network first realized the potential advantages to be reaped from Sierra Leone when, in September 1998, a young man called Abdullah Ahmed Abdullah initiated a $100,000 arms-for-diamonds deal. It fell through but Abdullah maintained contact.
In 2000, Ossailly and a Boston-based used car dealer, Ali Darwish, set up a safe house in Monrovia to funnel the wealth from the diamond fields to rebel organizations throughout the world. You can read a short book about this specific case here.
According to sources with direct knowledge, two 24-year-old alleged al-Qaeda members – a Tanzanian called Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani and a Kenyan, Fazul Abdullah Mohammed – moved into the house on 6 March 2001.
Nassour’s couriers soon started their weekly visits, arriving with suitcases full of banknotes and leaving with diamonds. One of the couriers was Ossailly’s mistress, an 18-year-old French-Belgian girl called Nora who was arrested this year on smuggling charges. ‘Nora is going to plead innocent,’ her lawyer, John Mars, told The Observer. ‘She was arrested and imprisoned after Samih was picked up this summer but they released her after a few weeks.’
The arrests of Ossailly and Nora occurred after the smuggling operation ran into trouble in June 2001, when reports reached al-Qaeda that the Tanzanian and the Kenyan were lavishing money on women, presents and alcohol.
On 16 June, a woman traveling under the name Feriel Shahin arrived at the safe house with orders to establish whether double-dealing was taking place.
Nassour claims he waited for four days for a meeting with Taylor before he gave up and left.
An eyewitness maintains Nassour’s visit was linked to the corruption that was threatening to destroy the set-up. The source claims Nassour arrived the day after a colleague fled with half a million dollars of al-Qaeda money.
The witness maintains Aziz met Taylor at Harpur port, where arms are delivered and timber illegally exported and claims to have handed over $200,000, apparently to ensure the continuation of the smuggling trade.
The alleged deal ended with the attacks on America two months later, although Global Witness is convinced al Qaeda has continued its trade.
‘Despite the threat of terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda using diamonds to finance their activities, the diamond industry has consistently failed to implement a system of self-regulation to ensure this does not happen,’ said Yearsley.