Senators examine diamond ties to terrorism

Both al-Qaida and the Islamic militant group Hezbollah may be using so-called conflict diamonds from Africa to pay for their operations, a former diplomat told a Senate committee Wednesday.

The Associated Press (AP) reported that human rights groups say rebels in Sierra Leone and Angola use forced labor to mine diamonds, which are sold to finance the rebels’ military efforts. Purchasers then resell the diamonds for a profit.

Joseph Melrose Jr., a former U.S. ambassador to Sierra Leone, cited evidence that al-Qaida and Hezbollah, which the government considers terrorist organizations, are buying the diamonds from rebels, the AP reported.

State Department official Alan Eastham cast doubt on Melrose’s assertion to the Senate Governmental Affairs subcommittee on oversight. Eastham said neither al-Qaida nor Hezbollah is likely to have expertise capable of exploiting sufficient numbers of illicit diamonds to finance operations.

Melrose told the subcommittee it is unclear whether the Revolutionary United Front, a rebel group in Sierra Leone, deliberately sold the diamonds to help the two organizations or whether it simply is “a case of selling the illicit stones to whoever offers the best price.”

Rep. Tony Hall, D-Ohio, has led the effort in Congress to stop the flow of “conflict diamonds” since he learned on a trip to Sierra Leone in 1999 of the links between rebel groups in that country and Angola and diamond sales.

The House passed a Hall-sponsored bill last year that would give the president authority to sanction countries that refuse to implement systems for tracking diamonds to ensure they came through legitimate sources. The White House supports the measure, which the Senate has yet to consider.

Sierra Leone’s ambassador to the United States, John Leigh, said while he had no specific knowledge of al-Qaida operations in Sierra Leone, such a relationship would not surprise him, the AP reported.

Eastham, a State Department negotiator, played down the possibility that Hezbollah and al-Qaida are being financed by diamonds, the AP reported. The expertise and capital investment needed to sell diamonds make it improbable that a terror group could enter the industry or “make a great deal of profit trading diamonds,” he reportedly said.

Eastham reportedly said a more likely connection would be that the gems are “being used to hoard wealth and avoid legitimate banking circles by terrorists.”

Chairman Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said the testimony shows a need for legislation to ensure Americans are not unwittingly aiding al-Qaida and Hezbollah by buying diamonds.

“It is clearer now than ever before that ending the trade in conflict diamonds is not only the just, right and moral thing to do, but that it is also in our immediate national interest as we continue the fight against terrorism,” Durbin reportedly said.

Industry officials estimate that conflict diamonds account for 4% of the world’s $6 billion-a-year diamond trade. Human rights organizations, who contend the level is closer to 15%, have been urging action from the United States. Americans buy about two-thirds of all diamonds.