Conflict Diamonds — Funding Terrorism

What do Sierra Leone , Liberia , the Democratic Republic of the Congo , and Angola have in common? Besides their being in Africa , that is?

Each is a renowned source for Conflict Diamonds.

Diamonds are known world-wide as symbols of love and affection. Who hasn’t heard the phrase coined by De Beers: “A Diamond is Forever.”

Most diamonds are legitimately mined, and are accounted for during their often tortuous journey from the earth to the New York , Tel Aviv, or Amsterdam diamond markets, or wherever else they eventually appear, ready for a ring, broach, or investor’s safe.

Most, but not all. A portion ends up funding genocidal wars and international terrorism. According to John Pickrell as reported in the August 10, 2002 , Science News, during the 1990s the Angolan rebel army Unitas generated $3.7 billion over six years trading Conflict Diamonds. During 1999 world-wide diamond production was around $6.8 billion, so if one presumes that this is an average annual production, Unitas controlled nearly 10% of global diamond production and distribution.

Controlling 10% of anything is phenomenal, but controlling 10% of the world diamond trade is extraordinary. Diamonds are small and easy to conceal, and high-quality diamonds command and get very high prices the world over. A small bag of high quality diamonds can easily contain several million dollars of value, which is easy to transport, and very liquid at any destination around the world. These gems are invisible to normal airport scans, and don’t trigger any of the typical alarms used by security stations everywhere. Short of an actual physical search, they are unlikely to be found.

Legitimate governments around the world are expressing an interest in discovering how to identify diamonds that originate in the four African nations most responsible for the Conflict Diamond trade: Sierra Leone , Liberia , the Democratic Republic of the Congo , and Angola .

Shortly before President Clinton left office, he convened a White House conference on this subject, attended by diplomats, commercial diamond experts, and interested scientists. The fundamental question at that conference was how to identify the geographic origin of diamonds.

The underlying thought was that since diamonds come from different geologic times and regions on the Earth, it might be possible to discover some kind of “fingerprint” that would absolutely identify a  diamond’s source.

With emeralds and rubies, for example, their more complex chemical structures make such identification feasible. With diamonds, however, the best are pure crystalline carbon, with absolutely no chemically identifying features. As you move down the value scale, diamonds begin to take on some color and to have small inclusions. At some point, these become sufficiently present to enable a kind of geological fingerprinting. Unfortunately, these gems are not the kind used in the Conflict Diamond trade.

Another approach is based on carbon 14 dating. Since Diamonds are pure carbon, and since carbon comes in at least two isotope forms, C13 and C14, and since at different times in the Earth’s past, the ratio of these isotopes was different from today, it is possible to identify the time of origin for anything containing carbon. The thought was that diamonds coming from different areas might exhibit different ratios of these isotopes. To date, unfortunately, this method has not proved practical, since most diamonds seem to exhibit essentially identical ratios.

Scientists also have developed an approach that uses a unique characteristic of diamonds that have been exposed to a radiation source. They bombard a diamond with electrons which causes it to generate a pattern of light characterized by the original radiation exposure. The resulting pattern can possibly be used to identify diamonds that have the same source. This technique is only applicable, however, to gems that have been so exposed, and thus is not applicable to the entire range of the diamond trade.

The scientific community hasn’t given up on this project, but scientists now are saying that a solution may lie years in the future. In the meantime, the best way of maintaining oversight is for each diamond mined to be given a certificate of authenticity, which remains with the diamond throughout its life. This is already being done for some of the higher-end diamonds, but it can only be an effective deterrent against money flowing into terrorist hands if it is universal.

Another problem is that certificates, like passports, can be forged. With billions of dollars at stake, even a costly investment in forging equipment is cost-effective.

With billions of dollars being funneled to terrorist organizations each year through the Conflict Diamond trade, we really need to find a solution now, not years away.

Is there any way to approach this problem that will stem the flow of illicit funds and gems without disrupting the entire industry?

Yes there is.

The first element of the solution is partially in place now: authentication certificates. As currently used, however, anyone can forge a certificate. The balance of this solution is to make the certification and authentication forgery proof.

Each legitimately mined diamond receives an encrypted serial number, using a 128 Kbit public/private encryption key system identical to that used for digital signatures on email and other documents transmitted over the internet. This encrypted serial number is laser inscribed on the edge of the bridal of every cut diamond. The same number is encrypted a second time using another public/private key set, and holographically emblazoned on the certificate.

The private keys for these two encrypted numbers are maintained securely at two designated central locations.

Diamond identification proceeds like this. A diamond is scanned using an instrument that will quickly become available to service this need, since millions of diamonds will need to be processed each year. The scanned, encrypted number is electronically transmitted to the appropriate secure central location. Simultaneously (or within some reasonable amount of time), the certificate number is also scanned and transmitted to the other designated location.

At the two remote locations, the receiving computers automatically decrypt the numbers and then encrypt them again using another set of public/private keys, and transmit the newly encrypted numbers to each other where they are electronically compared. Authentication is issued only if everything matches. The entire process should take only several microseconds, or maximally several seconds on a very busy internet day. The result is absolute assurance that the diamond scanned is the diamond originally assigned the matching certificate. Forgery is completely impossible using this scheme.

The only possible point of compromise is the set of computers containing the original private keys. By employing appropriate security measures to these machines, they can be permanently and completely protected from intrusion.

The cost for this system would be born by the ultimate consumer through a very small increase in the base price for any diamond. The total cost would be distributed over so many very small elements that the public would hardly be aware of the price increase.

Since it appears that as much as 10% of the world diamond market is being diverted into the Conflict Diamond trade, funding genocidal wars and world-wide terrorism, it is extremely important and urgent that we find a way to stem this flow of illicit funds.

Only two approaches appear to have any hope of succeeding. The fingerprint approach based upon presumed geological differences in diamonds from different areas appears several years away, and may never work sufficiently well. The only other way appears to be certification of each produced diamond.

The computerized encrypted technique described here is viable today, and can be implemented within a few short months.

It solves the problem.

Robert G. Williscroft is DefenseWatch Navy Editor

Submariner, diver, scientist, author & adventurer. 22 mos underwater, a yr in the equatorial Pacific, 3 yrs in the Arctic, and a yr at the South Pole. BS Marine Physics & Meteorology, PhD in Engineering. Authors non-fiction, Cold War thrillers, and hard science fiction. Lives in Centennial, CO.

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