Hezbollah profiting from African diamonds

Lebanon’s Hezbollah guerrilla movement is siphoning profits from West Africa’s diamond trade, in part by threatening Lebanese diamond merchants, U.S. diplomats charge.

The Associated Press reports that the allegations, supported by independent analysts, describe more pervasive, organized and coercive Hezbollah profiteering from West Africa’s diamond trade than most U.S. officials have previously acknowledged.

“One thing that’s incontrovertible is the financing of Hezbollah. It’s not even an open secret; there is no secret,” Larry Andre, deputy chief of mission for the U.S. Embassy in diamond-rich Sierra Leone, told the AP. “There’s a lot of social pressure and extortionate pressure brought to bear: ‘You had better support our cause, or we’ll visit your people back home,“’ Andre told The Associated Press, citing interviews by embassy staff with Lebanese merchants.

More than 100,000 Lebanese live in West Africa, where they have made up the core of the merchant class for over a century and have long handled much of the diamond business, the AP reports. Many Lebanese retain strong business, cultural and family ties to their homeland.

Lebanon-based Hezbollah fought a guerrilla war against Israeli troops in south Lebanon over almost two decades, until the Israelis pulled out in 2000. Today the border is tense but mostly quiet; Hezbollah remains armed and hostile to Israel.

The movement is also known for the bombings of the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983 and of the U.S. Embassy annex in Beirut in 1984-earning it a slot on the U.S. State Department’s list of terror groups. Until the Sept. 11 attacks, Hezbollah was estimated to have killed more Americans than any other terror group.

In recent years, Hezbollah is alleged to have funneled hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Palestinians’ Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, funding attacks that have killed civilians in Israel.

Hezbollah also has political and charity wings and funds the building of schools, clinics, and mosques. Its social programs help win the group support among Lebanese at home and abroad, as does its reputation among many Lebanese as a defender of Arabs against Israel. Most Lebanese do not believe Hezbollah is dangerous.

Only 6,000 Lebanese are thought to remain in Sierra Leone after this country’s 1991-2002 war for control of the eastern diamond fields surrounding Koidu, Sierra Leone, West Africa’s richest-known deposits, the AP reports.

West Africa’s conflict diamonds helped buy arms and fighters in insurgencies that roiled the region in the 1990s.

With the end of fighting and the advent of an industry-backed certificate of origin program, Sierra Leone estimates its legal exports of diamonds have soared from $1.4 million in 1999 to $76 million last year.

The U.S. Embassy in Sierra Leone says between $70 million to $100 million worth of rough gems still are smuggled out of the country each year.

It’s due largely to the illegal trade that Hezbollah can extract cash by threats, beatings, and destruction of property, analysts reportedly say. Victims, many of whom may have business dealings they do not want exposed, have little legal recourse.

“They’re (Hezbollah) asking for contributions and they’re going to use the culture card and the nationality card,” says Joseph Melrose, former U.S. ambassador to Sierra Leone. “Will they use threats? Sure.”

The amount of money is huge: in December 2003, an airliner that crashed off Benin had a courier on board carrying $2 million in Hezbollah-bound funds, diplomats and news reports said.

In Lebanon, a Hezbollah official refused any comment when contacted by The Associated Press.

One of Sierra Leone’s top diamond exporters denied any ties to Hezbollah.

“This is a lie. There’s never been any connection between these people and Hezbollah,” Kassim Basma, who was born in Sierra Leone to a Lebanese family, told the AP. “For me, I couldn’t support them. For what? To cause myself problems?”

Matthew Levitt of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy reportedly said stepped up enforcement in South America drove some Hezbollah activists to West Africa.

As a result, the group’s illegal fund-raising efforts in the region — including protection rackets and threats — may be on the rise, Levitt, a former FBI agent, reportedly .

“As we crack down on one part of the world, things will crop up elsewhere,” he told the AP.

In Koidu, indigenous Sierra Leoneans make up only about 35 of the roughly 200 legal diamond buyers, Prince Saquee, chairman of the Diamond Dealers Association, reportedly said. Most of the rest are Lebanese.

Many in the State Department and officials at U.S. embassies in West Africa have long played down any West Africa conduits to Hezbollah, saying any contributions to Hezbollah appeared to be voluntary donations by individuals, the AP reports

Alex Yearsley, of London-based Global Witness, alleges that the CIA and FBI long had tried to publicly minimize links between conflict diamonds and Islamic militant groups, including al-Qaida, the AP reports.

The U.S. security agents feared exposure of their own longtime links with Charles Taylor, the ousted Liberian leader who played a main role in West Africa’s insurgencies and blood diamond trade, Yearsley reportedly said. Taylor received CIA payments until January 2001, Yearsley claimed in a telephone interview with the AP.

Diplomats and some independent experts have questioned some of Global Witness’s allegations about links between West Africa diamonds, al-Qaida and Hezbollah, saying they are short on proof, the AP reports.

The fate of West Africa’s diamonds ultimately bridges faiths and rivalries: Sold by the Lebanese merchants, many of the gems are brokered via Jewish or Israeli traders in Antwerp, Belgium, and Tel Aviv, ending up in the United States.

“To us, we don’t see Christian or Muslim or Jew,” Basma told the AP. “We’re businessmen.”