Washington Post reports on al Qaeda diamond-smuggling activities

An aggressive year-long European investigation into al Qaeda financing has found evidence that two West African governments hosted the senior terrorist operatives who oversaw a $20 million diamond-buying spree that effectively cornered the market on the region’s precious stones, the The Washington Post reports in a story that appeared in the publication Sunday, Dec. 29.

Investigators from several countries concluded that President Charles Taylor of Liberia received a $1 million payment for arranging to harbor the operatives, who were in the region for at least two months after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on New York and the Pentagon, the newspaper reports. The terrorists moved between a protected area in Liberia and the presidential compound in neighboring Burkina Faso, investigators say.

Long accused of sanctioning illicit diamond and weapons trading, Taylor and President Blaise Campaore of Burkina Faso deny the charge, which is included in a summary of the joint intelligence findings.

The Washington Post says it obtained a copy of the military intelligence summary, which offers the clearest picture yet of al Qaeda’s secretive business operations in West Africa and an elaborate plot that began in 1998 to hide substantial terrorist assets in diamonds. This account draws on interviews with senior investigators, the intelligence report and documents obtained independently that verify its findings. The newspaper also said interviewed two sources with direct knowledge of certain events, who asked that their names not be used for fear of retribution.

European and Latin American investigations also found evidence that a group of people buying diamonds on behalf of the terrorists were simultaneously attempting to procure sophisticated weapons, such as missiles that could shoot down aircraft, The Post has learned. Investigators have been unable to trace the diamonds since they left Liberia and Burkina Faso.

The diamond-buying operation appears to have been hatched in response to a move by the United States in 1998 to freeze al Qaeda assets after attacks on two U.S. embassies in Africa that were blamed on the organization, the newspaper reports. Senior European intelligence sources said they have been baffled by the lack of U.S. interest, particularly by the CIA, in their recent findings. The CIA, which in the past has downplayed reports of al Qaeda’s diamond connections, declined to comment.

In the weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks, the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency did try to monitor the two senior al Qaeda operatives supervising the diamond trading, who were known to be hiding in an elite military camp in Liberia. Both men were on the FBI’s Most Wanted list of terrorists. The Pentagon prepared a small Special Forces team in neighboring Guinea to snatch the two, but the mission was not carried out because the team could not confirm the targets’ identities, according to sources.

The European law enforcement investigations, launched soon after Sept. 11, have focused on three people who allegedly served as conduits to the al Qaeda operatives: Aziz Nassour, a Lebanese diamond merchant; his cousin Samih Osailly; and Ibrahim Bah, a Senegalese soldier of fortune who has trafficked for years in diamonds and guns across Africa. All three deny involvement with al Qaeda or in illegal activities.

Much of the new evidence of al Qaeda’s diamond plot flows from the April 12 arrest in Antwerp, Belgium, of Osailly, who is in prison awaiting trial on charges of diamond smuggling and illegal weapons sales. Osailly is involved with a small diamond importing company believed to have been used by the al Qaeda operatives. He has pleaded not guilty.

In Osailly’s case, Belgian investigators say they uncovered bank records showing that the diamond company enjoyed a sudden surge in business and turned over almost $1 billion in the year before Sept. 11, the newspaper reports. Investigators also have found telephone records of calls to Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq and Iran.

For the full story in The Washington Post, click here.