U.S. counterterrorism agents have visited war-torn Liberia to investigate allegations of terrorist involvement in the West African diamond trade, according to the FBI.
A small team of financial specialists from the FBI's counterterrorism division left late last year to probe the shadowy trade in so-called conflict diamonds, Paul Cariker of the FBI told a Howard University symposium last week.
The outcome of the FBI's investigation remains unclear. "The investigation is continuing," another counterterrorism official told United Press International. "To my knowledge there's no smoking gun yet, no proof one way or the other."
Karl Wycoff, associate coordinator for press, policy, programs and plans at the U.S. State Department, told a congressional panel recently that he was not aware of any evidence to back up claims of an al-Qaeda presence in West Africa.
The counterterrorism official cautions that it will be difficult to run the story to ground. "The whole reason these guys might want to use diamonds is because it is hard to follow the trail," Wycoff said. "This stuff is fungible, there's lot of shady characters involved."
But in November 2003, a report by congressional investigators found that the FBI and other law-enforcement agencies weren't even trying to ascertain the scale of the problem. "U.S. law-enforcement agencies and specifically the FBI, which leads terrorist financing investigations, do not systematically collect and analyze data on alternative financing mechanisms" such as cigarette smuggling, counterfeiting and illegal drugs, as well as gems and precious metals, wrote the General Accounting Office.
Last month, the investigators told a congressional panel that it was still unclear whether the government had a strategy for addressing the issue, or what it might be.
Allegations that al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups were using diamonds to help finance their activities and move money around below the radar of law-enforcement agencies on the lookout for suspicious banking transactions first surfaced shortly after Sept. 11.
Washington Post journalist Douglas Farah wrote that after the bombing of two U.S. embassies in East Africa provoked the United States into cracking down on their conventional assets, al-Qaeda operatives arrived in the strike-torn region and began buying up every stone they could get their hands on.
In part, the U.S. counterterrorism official said, the decision to send the team to Liberia was driven by the traction Farah's reporting got in Congress. "Many people [in U.S. counterterrorism agencies] are skeptical of Farah's claims, but he's made a convincing case, and gotten the attention of members of Congress," said the official.
The neglect of possible terrorist involvement in the diamond trade is just one of a host of ways in which the United States is ignoring Africa, which many fear will become the next theater in the global war on terror, according to Vance Serchuk, a researcher who studies U.S. foreign policy at the American Enterprise Institute.
"It's one of the parts of the world where the United States is uncomfortable," Serchuk told UPI, "the kind of place foreign-service officials get posted before they get the job they really want. ... We just don't have the resources we need on the ground there."
Serchuk says that one possible reason officials seem reluctant to give credence to the story is that it is yet another way in which U.S. intelligence failed to follow up on leads that might have helped stop the Sept. 11 plot.
"Let's face it," he said, "if [Farah's] right, it's another huge intel screw up."