Hezbollah Profiting From African Diamonds
"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," said Kassim Basma, who was born in Sierra Leone to a Lebanese family. "For me, I couldn't support them. For what? To cause myself problems?"
Matthew Levitt of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy says 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, said Levitt, a former FBI agent.
"As we crack down on one part of the world, things will crop up elsewhere," he said.
In Koidu, indigenous Sierra Leoneans make up only about 35 of the roughly 200 legal diamond buyers, said Prince Saquee, chairman of the Diamond Dealers Association. Most of the rest are Lebanese, he said.
Among Koidu's burned-out, bullet-pocked buildings, hundreds of diamond buyers run heavily guarded storefronts with signs emblazoned with enormous, glittering cut diamonds.
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.
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 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 said. Taylor received CIA payments until January 2001, Yearsley claimed in a telephone interview.
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 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," said Basma. "We're businessmen."
© 2004 The Associated Press