Merchant of Death
Money, Guns, Planes, and the Man Who Makes War Possible

Blood from Stones

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Fire and Ice

A reporter follows some of the money that led to Sept. 11.

Reviewed by Shaun Waterman

Sunday, May 30, 2004; Page BW07


The Secret Financial Network of Terror

by Douglas Farah - Broadway. 225 pp. $24.95

One of the first new laws the Bush administration promulgated following the Sept. 11 terror attacks was an executive order that made it easier to freeze the bank accounts of suspected terrorists and their supporters. By Nov. 7, more than $20 million had been seized in accounts allegedly linked to al Qaeda or its backers, and by March of this year, that figure had grown tenfold.

But if Washington Post reporter Douglas Farah's gripping new book is to be believed, the administration was shutting the stable door after the horse had already gone. In essence, Farah's tale is a simple one, told in spare, newspaperman's English. In the fall of 1998, shortly after al Qaeda had bombed two U.S. embassies in East Africa, Abdullah Ahmed Abdullah, a senior associate of Osama bin Laden, had arrived in Monrovia, the capital of the tiny West African state of Liberia, and the seat of its kleptocratic gang boss of a president, Charles Taylor.

Earlier that year, a Nigerian-led regional security force had finally expelled Taylor's allies from their capital, Freetown. The Revolutionary United Front (RUF) of neighboring Sierra Leone, whose fighters were fellow graduates of Col. Moammar Gaddafi's revolutionary training camps in the Libyan desert were driven out handily. But the RUF maintained control over the country's huge, easily exploited diamond deposits in the east. From there the stones were smuggled across the border into Liberia -- where, in exchange for huge commissions paid to Taylor and his cronies, the RUF could sell them to dealers for export and resale in Antwerp, Belgium, the world's largest gem market. The RUF used the cash for arms to continue its bloody and protracted struggle for power in Sierra Leone.

For a terrorist or other criminal, the advantages of diamonds are legion. They are small and easy to hide or move around, and they are practically as convertible as cash. "It is a point of honor among diamond buyers," Farah writes, "to ask no questions about the provenance of the stones they buy." Abdullah did not buy any diamonds on that first visit, but by the summer of the following year, the Clinton administration -- spurred by the embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania -- had begun to tighten the financial net around al Qaeda's conventional funds. So al Qaeda created a pipeline through which the group could move millions, perhaps tens of millions, of dollars from the banking sector into the shadow world of gem and gold smuggling and informal money transfer, or hawala.

The man who made this all possible is a Senegalese mercenary -- he says he is a used car dealer -- named Ibrahim Bah. While Farah's just-the-facts stylistic discipline is generally welcome, Bah -- who knew Taylor and his RUF buddies from Libyan training camps, spent the 1980s in Afghanistan and the Lebanon, and turned down a million-dollar proposal from the CIA -- is rendered but thinly in the pages of Blood From Stones. If it is a virtue to leave the reader wanting more, then Farah is virtuous to a fault when it comes to Bah; he's a character who cries out for anecdote and adjective.

As the Sept. 11 hijackers were finalizing their preparations in the summer of 2001, Abdullah and two other senior al Qaeda operatives were set up in a safe house rented by Bah in Monrovia. The pace of their purchasing became so frenzied that the RUF's other customers were complaining about being frozen out.

It would be almost impossible to know how much of their money the leaders of al Qaeda salted away in this fashion before the 19 hijackers struck, even if the operation had been under surveillance. But -- one is tempted to add "of course" -- it was not.

For anyone who has followed the various inquiries into Sept. 11, the intelligence and law enforcement failures that preceded the attacks have become an easily recalled and deeply depressing litany. But Farah gives us a whole new raft of missed leads, bungled opportunities and bypassed chances to have disrupted al Qaeda's diamond trade. As he says, this would by no means have stopped the attacks, "but it would have left the nation less unprepared for the war it now faces."

Even today, after NGO investigators and war crimes prosecutors have substantiated Farah's reporting, the U.S. government prefers not to acknowledge it. As recently as March, a State Department official told a congressional panel on the war against terror in Africa that he was not aware of any evidence of an al Qaeda presence in the region. As Farah observes, "rhetoric in the war on terror has masked a lack of sustained interest in fighting the threat on the ground" -- much as has been the case with the long-running federal war on drugs. Late last year, a small team of financial specialists from the FBI's counter-terrorism division visited South Africa and Sierra Leone to research the diamond trade and its terror links. Their mission grew out of congressional interest that was sparked by Farah's reporting. In the immortal words of law enforcement officers everywhere, the investigation is continuing. There's no word on what they've found, but at least they're looking.

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