Organizations involved with Tanzanite blast Wall Street Journal story

Two organizations involved in the tanzanite trade have responded to charges raised in a Wall Street Journal (WSJ) article of Nov. 17 alleging links between the tanzanite trade and Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda terrorist network: the Tanzanian Mineral Dealers Association (TAMIDA) and the International Colored Gemstone Association (ICA).

TAMIDA issued a strongly worded press release accusing the WSJ article of factual errors, shoddy reporting, and unfounded, sensationalistic claims.

“Robert Block, a WSJ staff reporter based in South Africa, whose visit to Tanzania and whose intentions are under investigation by the Tanzanian authorities, apparently concocted a story that has no foundation in reality and is obviously grounded in cheap sensationalism, rather than facts,” said the statement from TAMIDA, which it says represents 90% of the tanzanite dealers in Tanzania, reads.

The statement says the WSJ story demonstrates a lack of understanding about the tanzanite trade and the country of Tanzania. It cites 13 points of contention, including the following:

* Much of the world harbors bin Laden sympathizers and people who hate America. This does not prove a connection with terrorist networks.

* It’s more profitable for tanzanite dealers to trade in the open market rather than smuggle their goods to terrorist organizations.

* Alex Magayane is a zonal mines officer, not a spokesman for the Ministry of Energy and Minerals as reported in WSJ. Moreover, in a sworn affidavit he denies telling Block “anything about a tanzanite connection with bin Laden. He denies categorically the quotes attributed to him.”

* The “radical” mosque described in the WSJ story, is in fact led by Mudir Omar Suleiman, 27, of the Ansari sect of Sunni Muslims. He denies that he talked to any American or South African reporter, claims he knows little of the tanzanite trade, and says he’s been in charge of the mosque only since March. “He has sworn to this in his religious capacity and his sworn statement is on file with TAMIDA.”

* “Sheikh” Omari, as described in the article, is not a sheikh, and Aman Mustapha, also so described, appears to be an alias, because three days of intense investigation have failed to uncover anyone by this name.

The statement also says that a U.S.-funded report used in the story was “misquoted.” And the statement seems to indicate that Afgem’s contribution to the story smacks of ulterior motives. “We feel that Block’s proclamation of Afgem’s desire to change this so-called abuse by money launderers, drug dealers, and arms dealers by branding tanzanite further raises the prospect of ulterior motives. It puts into question the integrity of the author, the article, and Afgem’s role in this matter,” the statement reads.

It adds, “TAMIDA unequivocally assures the world that tanzanite has no murkier ties to al Qaeda than caviar, olive oil or Toyota trucks.. Tanzania and tanzanite’s ties to the U.S. market are through the dealers of the world who are 98% Israeli, Indian, German, and American, many of whom also happen to be Jewish. In addition, tanzanite can be easily traced from the mine head to the store.”

In the second statement, ICA president Israel Z. Eliezri said the impression that the story created that the al Qaeda traders are in control a major part of the tanzanite trade, realizing profits worth many millions of dollars, is simply not true.

“Since the discovery of tanzanite deposits in the 1960s, the majority of the mines have been under the control of Masai tribesmen, “Eliezri stated. “They have a keen understanding of market prices for rough tanzanite and regularly sell their rough goods to visiting buyers from Tanzania, India, Germany, Israel, and the United States, with whom they have built long-term relationships,” he said.

Eliezri noted that the community of dealers in rough tanzanite is small, with most of the traders knowing each other by sight and name. Almost all of these dealers are members of ICA. “My estimate is that more than 90% of the tanzanite produced at Merelani is bought and traded by ICA members. That leaves very few goods for others to do business with. Also, while tanzanite is a very beautiful gemstone, the trade in this stone unfortunately does not promise untold riches. This certainly discounts anything on the scale that the Wall Street Journal is suggesting,” he said.

“When a respected and influential publication such as the Wall Street Journal allows members of staff to write an article that provides so distorted a picture of the trade, we have to voice our protest. The damage to the legitimate international colored gemstone business could be substantial, is uncalled for, and is not justified. The same can be said for the thousands of Tanzanians who rely on the buoyancy of the tanzanite trade for their very livelihood. We hope that the Wall Street Journal will take steps to correct the inaccurate impression that it created with the article.”

Eliezri said that as the single umbrella organization uniting all elements of the international colored gemstone industry, ICA will work with all recognized law enforcement agencies, judicial authorities, international organizations, and human rights groups committed to countering any possibility of colored gemstones’ playing a role in a national or international conflict.

In a previous story on the JCK Web site, The Federation of Small Scale Miners Association of Tanzania (FEMATA/SSM), a nonprofit organization claiming more than 500,000 members throughout Tanzania, announced preliminary plans to incorporate “several measures aimed at halting the association of tanzanite to terrorism.”

Even before the front-page accusation by the WSJ, The Small Scale Miners (SSM) of Tanzania stated that, “unfortunately for Tanzania, tanzanite small-scale miners, and others, recent investigations have indeed uncovered businesses and business people with alleged ties to terrorist groups.” Lorraine Braden of Contemporary Global Enterprises (CGE), Pittsburgh, (now official U.S. emissary for the SSM), says that the good news is that they are by no means in the majority. In fact, many of those so involved have been detained and questioned by relevant Tanzanian law enforcement authorities and others, including the FBI, Braden says.