JA, WDC, and Hall call for quick approval of ‘conflict diamonds’ bill

A Nov. 2 report in The Washington Post that Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda network has collected millions of dollars in the past three years from the illicit sale of diamonds mined by rebels in Sierra Leone has jewelry industry representatives and a Congressional leader calling for the quick approval of “conflict diamonds” legislation currently being considered in Congress.

Quoting unnamed U.S. and European intelligence officials and two sources with direct knowledge of the diamond sales, the Post described an operation that has helped finance al Qaeda.

The paper said diamond dealers working with men identified by the FBI as important al Qaeda figures bought rebel diamonds at below-market prices and sold them for big profits in Europe.

The Post quoted unnamed sources as saying that since July, these diamond dealers have bought far more diamonds than usual, paying premium prices for them.

Matt Runci, president of Jewelers of America (JA), New York, and Eli Izhakoff, chairman of the World Diamond Council (WDC), issued a joint statement Tuesday calling for “immediate government action to halt the insidious traffic in conflict diamonds.”

“It has been known for all too long that bandits masquerading as rebels have been using the proceeds from the sale of stolen diamonds to finance their criminal behavior in some African countries,” the statement continues. “The new disclosure indicates that al-Qaeda received a share of the proceeds.”

The best way to halt this destructive traffic is also known,” the statement continues. “Nations involved in the diamond trade-as producers, processors, and importers-must construct an effective monitoring system that protects the legitimate supply chain from the small percentage of illicit stones obtained by criminal elements.”

The statement notes that the Kimberly process (a coalition of diamond industry and humanitarian organizations working to establish a diamond-control system) will be meeting this month in Botswana later this month. But, it adds, that the U.S. must approve the bill before Congress.

“Strong leadership by the United States-the world’s largest importer of diamonds-is vital,” the statement says. “Both industry organizations and a broad coalition of humanitarian organizations interested in the issue are united in support of the Clean Diamonds Trade Act (HR 2722) and a companion bill pending in the Senate. This legislation would empower the President to take firm action barring the importation of conflict diamonds. It would also promote an international agreement looking toward a global control system. The bill is consistent with the principles developed by the Kimberley Process and endorsed by the United Nations.

“This bill has bipartisan support in both houses of Congress. All the legislators who have sought to eliminate conflict diamonds now favor HR 2722. We urge Capitol Hill and the Bush administration to enact the Clean Diamonds Trade Act during the current session of Congress in order to deny criminals and terrorists revenue from illicit traffic.

In addition to the joint statement, Runci has sent a letter to the editor of The Washington Post calling for the approval of the Clean Diamonds Trade Act.

U.S. Rep. Tony Hall (D-OH) was the first to release a statement following the report in the Post.

“This report suggests recent years’ efforts by U.S. intelligence agencies, the Clinton and Bush Administrations, the Congress and industry watch-dogs to end the trade in conflict diamonds not only have failed-but they also have been so impotent that they allowed terrorists to fill the coffers that support their attacks on Americans,” Hall said.

“We’ve known for a long time that shady operators, including an organization the State Department already calls a terrorist group – the Revolutionary United Front – were earning hundreds of millions of dollars a year from this blood trade,” he said. “If this report is accurate, we’ve also known exactly who was collecting some of that money: Osama bin Laden.”

He continues, “Our collective failure, along with the diamond industry’s, has been to treat those who commit acts of terror differently when the victims are innocent Africans. Any terrorist organization-including the RUF-ought to have been targeted long ago, and certainly before it claimed U.S. victims. We go after murderers and war criminals, no matter who their victims are, because we rightly fear they may strike closer to home if they aren’t stopped. Failing to cut off the funding these terrorists depend on will make our job much harder, and the threat to Americans much greater.

“It is a sorry day for me, and for everyone who has known that this blood trade is funding terror but has been unable or unwilling to stop it,” Hall concludes. “I urge Congress to act immediately on legislation to right this wrong before more innocent people-Africans or Americans-suffer crimes that are funded in part by the Americans who buy the majority of the world’s diamonds.”

Quoting unnamed U.S. and European intelligence officials and two sources with direct knowledge of the diamond sales, the Post described an operation that has helped finance al Qaeda.

The paper said diamond dealers working with men identified by the FBI as important al Qaeda figures bought rebel diamonds at below-market prices and sold them for big profits in Europe.

The Post quoted unnamed sources as saying that since July, these diamond dealers have bought far more diamonds than usual, paying premium prices for them.

The Post said investigators believe the increased purchases suggest that al Qaeda, perhaps anticipating its accounts would be frozen after September 11, strove to protect its money by sinking it into diamonds, which can be hidden easily, hold their value and are hard to trace.

Quoting sources, the Post reported that small packets of diamonds are transported across the Liberian border to Monrovia by senior RUF commanders.

At a Monrovia safe house protected by the Liberian government, the diamonds are then exchanged for briefcases filled with cash brought by diamond dealers who travel several times monthly from Belgium to Monrovia, the Post said.

It said the diamond dealers are selected by Ibrahim Bah, a Libyan-trained former Senegalese rebel and the RUF’s principal diamond dealer. Like bin Laden, Bah spent several years in the 1980s fighting against Soviet forces in Afghanistan, the newspaper said.