Professional Jeweler Archive: Tanzanite Sleuth

May 2002

Gemstones & Pearls/News


Tanzanite Sleuth

Dealer Michael Avram studied terrorists' diaries, scoured the Internet, interviewed lawyers and sent his son to gather information. His effort to clear tanzanite's name paid off


Those who’ve been slapped in the face describe a sense of dull shock. So it was for Michael Avram while reading The Wall Street Journal the morning of Nov. 16, 2001. As he sipped coffee, he saw a front-page story on the gem he loves: tanzanite. The article said tanzanite sales were linked to the al Qaeda terrorist organization.

Avram was stunned. The gem he was selling through his company, Gemtech International, New York City, was now tainted. “My life just turned around that day,” he recalls.

Avram read the article repeatedly. “Each time I read it, new questions popped up,” he says. “Aside from gut instinct and experience, something seemed fishy. I’ve been buying tanzanite for 14 years, I know the people I buy from and I’ve never heard of any such connection.”

His first instinct was to call Abe Suleman, a friend and fellow dealer based in Arusha, Tanzania. Avram and Suleman have conducted tanzanite business on and off for years and stay at each other’s homes when traveling. “He’s like a brother to me,” says Avram. Suleman is also an officer of Tanzanian Mineral Dealers Association (TAMIDA), so Avram expected Suleman to be informed. The news had already spread through East Africa. Suleman assured Avram there was no such link and that mining entities and government offices in Tanzania were preparing a response.

Ten days later, though, another bombshell fell.

Guilty Until Proven Innocent

An online article in a jewelry trade publication quoted the Federation of Small Scale Miners Association of Tanzania saying “recent investigations have indeed uncovered businesses and businesspeople with alleged ties to terrorist groups.” This differed from denials issued previously by other Tanzanian dealer groups, including TAMIDA, which represents 90% of the country’s tanzanite dealers. The online article quoted Lorraine Braden, who identified herself as the small-scale miners’ emissary in the U.S., saying “many of those so involved [with terrorist groups] have been detained and questioned by the relevant Tanzanian law enforcement authorities and others, including the FBI.” The good news, she said, was “they are by no means in the majority.”

On Nov. 28, 2001, a follow-up article in The Wall Street Journal quoted Braden and the online story. In Tanzania, however, Braden drew fire for her comments. “She is basically a self-appointed individual who does not speak with any authority for miners, dealers or the Tanzanian government,” says TAMIDA Chairman Sammy Mollel. “Her comments should be completely disregarded.”

But the damage had already been done. “The perception in the trade that spokespersons for Tanzania admitted links to al Qaeda was probably the first news to cause damage within the industry,” says Suleman. Television retailer QVC responded by suspending tanzanite sales.

In mid-December, an ABC News segment aired on the reported tanzanite/terrorist link. It showed pages from an al Qaeda operative’s notepad that included numbers – possibly leading viewers to think the scribbled figures represented large tanzanite sales. ABC News suggested U.S. retailers were selling a tainted product. By then, Tiffany & Co, which in the late 1960s named the African gem, had pulled the product from its showcases. Later, Zale Corp. dropped tanzanite too. Avram says his sales of tanzanite plummeted 35% as other jewelers shunned the gem.

Subsequent reports on CNN, National Public Radio and other news outlets – linked with the big retailers’ retreat from tanzanite – was seen by some as proof that tanzanite sales funded al Qaeda. But it was by no means clear tanzanite was guilty as charged.

Tracking Down the Reports

“The Wall Street Journal article [and subsequent reports] painted a fantastic story but offered no proof of a connection between al Qaeda and tanzanite,” says Avram. He was puzzled in particular by the first WSJ story, which quoted people in Tanzania and Kenya who spoke openly about a connection to al Qaeda or their support for militant Islam’s alleged ties with the gem. “After Sept. 11, Tanzanian security forces, the FBI and the CIA conducted exhaustive investigations and raids on anyone even remotely suspected of a connection to al Qaeda. Don’t you think it strange that these people would advertise their connection to terrorism?”

That WSJ story also quoted an anonymous investigator who said the U.S. government had reports al Qaeda used tanzanite as a way to move money around the world. Yet an industry delegation that met in mid-January with the head of the National Security Council’s terrorism task force was told no information had been developed to substantiate a link between tanzanite and al Qaeda.

Just a few days after the NSC report, WSJ published a third story on the issue, this one claiming to provide “the strongest documentary evidence to date of al Qaeda’s involvement in the tanzanite trade.” The story cited a diary kept by Wadih el Hage, who was convicted of conspiracy at a 2001 trial in connection with the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. The diary, seized from al Qaeda in 1997, showed el Hage tried to trade in tanzanite in the mid-1990s. But documents Avram obtained from el Hage’s trial showed a more tenuous connection than the one WSJ painted.

The Search Is On

Because of inconsistencies in printed reports, Avram felt compelled to conduct his own sleuthing. For months he stayed up late reading online articles and pouring over thousands of pages of testimony from the embassy bombing trials. He exchanged information with other tanzanite dealers, kept in daily contact with Suleman and sent his son, Scott, to uncover information related to trial exhibits. “Scott went through archives at the offices of el Hage’s attorneys and at the courthouse. We have literally hundreds of pages, including FBI research entered into evidence, U.S. Department of Justice findings and Kenyan and Tanzanian government information,” Avram recalls. “Because several parts of el Hage’s notes were in Arabic, I hired someone to translate them. If tanzanite had been involved, I wanted to know how, how much, when and where. I wanted to know if the product was tainted.”

Avram’s efforts began to appear obsessive to some, including his wife. “The late nights hunched over my computer began to wear thin at home,” Avram says.

Richard Greenwood, president of the American Gem Trade Association, says Avram was tireless in his effort to uncover information. “I got numerous calls each day, not to mention e-mails he sent at 3:30 a.m.,” he recalls. But Avram’s findings were paying off. He began to share his information with a coalition of industry organizations and with the U.S. Department of State, Bureau of East African Affairs, and the Tanzanian government. All privately thanked Avram for his undertaking.

Power of the Written Word

Among the evidence Avram compiled were several notepads written by el Hage (Editor’s Note: Court documents refer to them as notepads while WSJ calls them a diary). The notepads mention tanzanite and other gems. Gems were mentioned during the trial, mostly in relation to a business partner in the mid-1990s, a Kenyan named Mohamed Ali Oudeh. Ali Oudeh, who still brokers gems and other consumer products, is not connected to al Qaeda.

An FBI exhibit said el Hage had trouble making ends meet while living in Kenya and tried to enter the tanzanite business. Court transcripts and interviews with Ali Oudeh, who was called as a witness for the defense, back up el Hage’s lack of capital. In fact, his attempts to sell tanzanite in Europe and the U.S. were so dismal he had to borrow 70 British pounds just to complete his trip. “The transcripts and exhibits never show any evidence of tanzanite being sold, especially not to finance al Qaeda,” says Avram.

A lawyer for el Hage confirmed the gem dealer’s assessment. “There was not any evidence offered that any money Mr. el Hage may have received as payment for tanzanite was ever used or transferred for the purpose of use for terrorist or illegal activity,” says Joshua L. Dratel, el Hage’s attorney, in a letter to Avram. In fact, discussion of gems was a relatively small part of trial documents, says Avram. Prosecutors were trying to establish how el Hage aided the terrorist cell that bombed the U.S. Embassies in East Africa, but U.S. investigators and trial lawyers said tanzanite was not determined to have been a financial vehicle for the cell.

As the pieces began to fall into place, Avram recalled the ABC News broadcast: “Hadn’t they shown actual figures of tanzanite sold?” He reviewed a tape of the broadcast, locating the section that showed the figures from el Hage’s notepad and finding that page from the court documents. “The page listed numbers all right, but they were not dollar figures, as viewers were led to believe,” says Avram. “They were telephone and fax numbers. The words ‘fax’ and ‘office’ [which el Hage had scribbled alongside the numbers] were covered over by other documents during filming.”

“It was a final part of the mystery solved,” says Avram. “I understood there never was proof of a connection, and my instincts that tanzanite has too low a relative value to be of interest to al Qaeda proved true.”

In February, the U.S. State Department agreed, clearing tanzanite of any current connection with al Qaeda or of any ties to the events of Sept. 11. Nevertheless, the industry formed a Tanzanite Task Force to create a system of warranties – from the mine to the retailer – so consumers can be assured tanzanite is protected from infiltration by terrorists.

Because some retailers still appear reluctant to put tanzanite back into their inventories until the system of warranties is in place, the gem’s future remains unresolved. Avram says the gem clearly needs and deserves the support of retailers who were so quick to drop it. “Tanzanite sales need to continue to help deserving Africans who mine it, provide a living for those who trade in it and delight those who wear it,” he says. “Tanzanite should not be listed as another innocent victim of al Qaeda.”

– by Robert Weldon, G.G.

Michael Avram (left) and Abe Suleman worked to gather information about a reported commercial link between al Qaeda and tanzanite. The link was never substantiated.
Tanzanite is mined commercially in one place on earth: Merelani, Tanzania. This tanzanite crystal and the 6.41-ct. gem cut from it belong to cutter David Brackna, Germantown, MD.

Copyright © 2002 by Bond Communications