Hezbollah Extorting Funds From West Africa's Diamond Trade

Hezbollah is systematically siphoning profits from West Africa's multimillion-dollar diamond trade, in part by threatening the Lebanese merchants who long have handled much of the region's diamond business, U.S. diplomats in West Africa charge.

The allegations, supported by independent analysts but denied by some traders, claim more pervasive, organized and coercive Hezbollah profiteering from West Africa's diamond trade than most U.S. officials have previously acknowledged.

"One thing that's incontrovertible is the financing of Hezbollah," Larry Andre, deputy chief of mission for the U.S. Embassy in diamond-rich Sierra Leone, told The Associated Press. "It's not even an open secret; there is no secret. There's a lot of social pressure and extortionate pressure brought to bear: `You had better support our cause, or we'll visit your people back home,'" said Andre, citing interviews by embassy staff with alleged Lebanese targets of the Hezbollah racketeering.

An estimated 100,000-plus Lebanese live in West Africa, where they have formed the core of the region's merchant class since they began sailing here over a century ago. Middle East crises of the 1970s and 1980s sent another wave of Lebanese immigrants to West Africa. Many Lebanese retain strong business, cultural and family ties to their homeland.

Only 6,000 Lebanese are thought to remain in Sierra Leone after this country's vicious 1991-2002 war for control of the eastern diamond fields surrounding Koidu, West Africa's richest-known deposits, which produce top-quality gems.

With the end of fighting and the advent of an industry-backed certificate-of-origin program for diamonds, Sierra Leone estimates its legal exports of the stones have soared from US$1.4 million in 1999 to US$76 million last year.

The U.S. Embassy in Sierra Leone, citing experts, says between $70 million - $100 million worth of rough gems are smuggled out of the country each year, due largely to the lingering illegal trade for which Hezbollah can continue to extract cash by threats, beatings and destruction of property, analysts say.

Matthew Levitt, with the U.S.-based Washington Institute for Near East Policy, sees parallels with Hezbollah racketeering in the drug industry in South America.

Stepped-up enforcement there drove some top Hezbollah activists to West Africa, he said. 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," Levitt said.