by Jimmy Johnson
11 September, 2006
When Hezbollah operative and diamond trader Samih Ossailly was arrested in Belgium in April of 2002, one of the items found in a search of his apartment was an End-Use Certificate (EUC) for a shipment of 113 tons of arms from the Ukraine to the Ivory Coast. So what was an Israeli arms dealer doing in possession of an identical EUC? The answer is convoluted but revealing. Ready?
The story begins with Al Qaeda diamonds. Shortly after the bombing of US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, the US began aggressively searching for ways to disrupt Al Qaeda’s financing. In 1998 the Clinton Administration succeeded in freezing some $240 million in assets belonging to either Al Qaeda or the Taliban. This led Al Qaeda to restructure its finances. Since Afghanistan was mineral rich yet had no regulating authority, both the Taliban, along with its allies, and the Northern Alliance gained experience in trading gemstones for arms, and to fund their political operations. Civil war-torn Sierra Leone and the endemic corruption in Liberia provided perfect conditions for Al Qaeda operatives to do the same providing they had a way to enter the area. Luckily they had an old friend in Ibrahim Bah.
Long before his current trial in The Hague for war crimes, former Liberian President Charles Taylor underwent training in Libya under Bah, a Senegalese national and ex-Mujahadeen/ex-Hezbollah. Upon his return to Liberia in 1989, Taylor led a rebellion which eventually led to his 1997 election and ensuing dictatorship. Taylor bestowed upon Bah the rank of general in the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), a rebel group backed by Taylor that was seeking power in Sierra Leone, infamous for amputating the limbs of noncombatants. The RUF launched its civil war in 1991 with Bah as the official arms and diamonds broker for both the RUF and Taylor. The violence generated by Taylor in both Liberia and Sierra Leone led the United Nations to establish an arms embargo on Liberia in 1992 and in 1997 against Sierra Leone, followed by an embargo of West African “blood diamonds” that financed the violence.
In January of 2006, retired Israeli Defense Forces Colonel Yair Klein was invited to Liberia by Simon Rosenblum, an Israeli businessman formerly based in Abdijan, Ivory Coast. During Taylor’s reign, Rosenblum was a member of his inner circle. He carried a Liberian diplomatic passport, owned logging and road constructions interests in Liberia and his trucks were used to carry weapons from Liberia to the border with Sierra Leone. Klein arrived in Liberia after Taylor had been deposed, but when his presence became known he was forced to flee the country, and with good reason. From 1996 until 1999, Klein provided material and training to Liberia’s Anti-Terrorism Unit and, in violation of the UN embargo, to the RUF as part of a diamonds-for-arms operation. In January of 1999 Klein was arrested in Sierra Leone on charges of smuggling arms to the RUF. Those transactions went through Bah, the “gatekeeper” for such dealings in the RUF-controlled territory as well as being an Al Qaeda businessman.
Klein’s Anti-Terrorism Unit, a group widely criticized for gross abuses of human rights, was headed by “Chuckie” Taylor, the president’s son, but Klein and Rosenblum weren’t the only Israelis involved with the Taylors and Bah. Along with the $500,000 worth of diamonds in his possession, in a briefcase searched upon his August, 2000 arrest in Italy, Leonid Minin, a Ukrainian-born Israeli member of the “Odessa Mafia,” was found to be in possession of correspondence detailing his sale to the Liberian government of millions of dollars worth of arms in exchange for diamonds and timber concessions. Minin had extensive dealings with Bah, but perhaps the most interesting item found in Minin’s briefcase was that End-Use-Certificate for 113 tons of ammunition and arms that exactly matched the End-Use-Certificate found in the apartment of Hezbollah operative Samih Ossailly.
Hezbollah has a long history of diamond trading in Sierra Leone, Liberia and other West African countries. Samih Ossailly and Aziz Nassour, Hezbollah operatives who also provided services for Al Qaeda diamond merchants, stand out in particular as traders. When Al Qaeda approached Bah for an “in” to diamond trading in Liberia and Sierra Leone, Bah went to Nassour for help.
Hezbollah’s activity in diamond trading has mostly been limited to Sierra Leone, Liberia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Israel, too, has long had ties in the area. Back in 1983, Israel was contracted to train and equip Mobutu Sese Seko’s presidential guard, the notorious Division Speciale Presidentielle. It was during this time that Shimon Yelnik, an Israeli army officer in charge of Seko’s presidential guard, became acquainted with Aziz Nassour. About a decade later, in late 2000, when Nassour needed arms to ensure his continued diamond enterprises in Liberia and Sierra Leone, he contacted his Yelnik, by then brokering arms in Panama, as revealed in an investigation by the Organization of American States into Yelnik’s involvement with Columbian paramilitaries. The investigation also uncovered faxes between Bah and Yelnik and attempts to both avoid and make fraudulent End-Use Certificates in order to break the UN arms embargo. Investigative journalist Douglas Farah quotes one European intelligence agent as saying, “The likelihood these types of weapons were going to the RUF rebels in the bush is very hard to believe,” leading to speculation that the weapons were actually destined for the Taliban in Afghanistan. The contact between Israeli diamond dealers, extending beyond Sierra Leone and Liberia to the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Angola, and their counterparts in Hezbollah and Al Qaeda is well summed up by Farah in his book Blood from Stones:
An Israeli diamond dealer, who regularly did business with buyers he knew were Hezbollah and some he suspected were Al Qaeda, agreed. “Here it is business,” he said. “The wars are over there. Here we do business, there they do war.”
This picture that emerges from these relationships is not only one of war crimes, profiteering, massive environmental destruction, corruption and greed, but one of Israelis, Hezbollah and Al Qaeda all working together in mutually profitable enterprises, regardless of principle or ideology. With nationals or operatives of all three known to be operating in the region still today, it remains to be seen if such relationships continue.
Jimmy Johnson is a researcher on Israel’s arms exports with the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions. He can be reached at jimmy at icahd dot org.