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Blood from Stones

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Diamonds are a terrorist's best friend

Linking the African diamond trade
and terror networks of the Middle East

-Reviewed by Carlo Wolff

Sunday, May 30, 2004

Blood From Stones

The Secret Financial Network of Terror

By Douglas Farah

BROADWAY; 225 PAGES; $24.95

It's hard to read "Blood From Stones" without encountering one's own prejudice. The connections Washington Post investigative reporter Douglas Farah draws between the diamond trade in "collapsed states" in West Africa and the terrorist groups of the Middle East might make a reader suspect every Arab organization no matter how benign. That's not Farah's fault. All he does is make the links, leaving us to our own conclusions -- and to figure out how to combat the paranoid pall of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

Farah writes: "Overall, West Africa's diamonds make up less than 10 percent of the world's $7 billion diamond trade. Most of these are 'blood diamonds,' or stones mined and sold by warring factions in Africa, from Sierra Leone to the Congo to Angola. ... In exchange for diamonds, the terrorists paid cash to some of the most brutal killers in Africa. Some of the same weapons merchants who armed the Taliban and al Qaeda delivered guns and ammunition to Charles Taylor in Liberia and other international criminals who have perpetrated massive crimes against humanity."

Farah fortifies his taut, scary book with reporting he did for the Post (he was the paper's West Africa bureau chief at one point) and testimony from congressional committees, revealing information intelligence agencies should - - and might -- already know; it's striking how many contemporary books, such as this one and Richard Clarke's "Against All Enemies," anticipate and create headlines these days.

Farah begins by describing the diamond trade in Liberia and Sierra Leone. "Al Qaeda's foray into the diamond fields of West Africa was not the first by a terrorist group," he writes. "For years, Lebanon's Hezbollah, or Army of God, and other Middle Eastern groups used diamond riches to finance their causes. Russian arms dealers, British and South African mercenaries, retired Israeli military officers, and American and European merchants of greed found their way to the diamond fields." He tracks how the trade snakes through Africa, the United Arab Emirates, Belgium and the United States, burrowing into organizations such as the Muslim Brotherhood, the Benevolence International Foundation and the Safa Group. He then alternates accounts of intelligence failures with probes of the shadowy networks that buttress terror. He also explores hawala, an informal, favor-based financial system that bypasses banks and documentation, permeating the Middle East even as it remains impermeable to Western scrutiny.

Also, Farah's reportage suggests that the Patriot Act, a cornerstone of the Bush administration's anti-terrorism efforts, is double-edged. While it may erode civil liberties, Farah indicates it also can be an effective prosecutorial tool. He also examines the cloudy picture of an administration that seems ambivalent about Saudi Arabia, relying on it for oil and access despite evidence linking it to terrorist efforts. Key to that insight was the discovery of the "golden chain," a list of 20 "wealthy Saudis who gave generously to al Qaeda" found in a March 2002 raid of Benevolence International Foundation offices in Sarajevo.

Despite such a discovery, political considerations seem to blunt efforts to break the terrorist backbone; Muslims are a voting bloc, after all. George W. Bush wooed Sami al Arian, a Kuwaiti-Pakistani computer science professor at the University of Florida -- and a senior member of the "Palestinian Islamic Jihad, a group that unleashes suicide bombers against Israelis." Al Arian was linked to the Safa Group, a financial entity with ties to terrorist efforts: "But the al Arian and Safa Group investigations [by the FBI] languished. In the 2000 elections al Arian supported George W. Bush, urging Muslims to vote Republican as the best hope of ending discrimination against Arab-Americans. Al Arian and his family were photographed with a beaming Bush and his wife, Laura, during a Florida campaign stop. Al Arian liked to boast that he had delivered 'considerably more' than the 537 votes that gave Bush his victory in Florida and allowed him to capture the White House." Nevertheless, al Arian lost his university job and in March 2003 was arrested and charged with conspiracy to commit murder and with secretly leading the PIJ for many years.

Political considerations also might explain why the CIA and FBI don't share information, Farah suggests, and why the Department of Homeland Security killed Operation Green Quest, a highly focused intelligence division of the former Customs Service. Such maneuvers mask a deeper problem, however, according to Farah. "The war on Iraq siphoned resources and manpower from the overall counterterrorism strategy while also badly fracturing the international coalition vital to taking on the terrorists. ... Hundreds of radical Islamic fighters, some of them affiliated with al Qaeda, poured into Iraq after the U.S. occupation to fight the American forces. Where once the ties between Iraq and al Qaeda were tenuous at best, Islamic terrorists are now being welcomed with open arms."

Read "Blood From Stones" and you'll admire Farah's doggedness. You'll weep, too.

Carlo Wolff is an Ohio writer.
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