DATE May 3, 2004 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Douglas Farah discusses his new book "Blood from
Stones: The Secret Financial Network of Terror"
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
Western intelligence agencies are still trying to figure out all the ways by
which al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups are funded. My guest, Douglas
Farah, uncovered an important piece of that puzzle, al-Qaeda's connection to
the diamond trade in West Africa; more specifically, blood diamonds, diamonds
which are mined and sold by warring factions in such places as Sierra Leone,
Liberia and the Congo. Farah broke the story in The Washington Post a few
weeks after the September 11th attacks. At the time he was The Post's West
Africa bureau chief. As we'll hear, threats against his life forced him to
leave West Africa. He then joined The Post's investigative team.
He's now on leave from The Post and is a senior fellow at the National
Strategy Information Center writing on national intelligence matters. He's
continued to investigate the funding of terrorist groups. His new book is
called "Blood from Stones: The Secret Financial Network of Terror."
You were stationed in West Africa for The Washington Post at the time of
September 11th. And after September 11th you say you were wondering how you
would find the connection to the terrorist attacks, how you could make your
reporting relevant. Well, you certainly did find a connection very shortly
after September 11th, and this story started while you were meeting with one
of your sources, Cindor Reeves(ph). What did he tell you that made you
realize his story might be connected to al-Qaeda?
Mr. DOUGLAS FARAH (Author, "Blood from Stones: The Secret Financial Network
of Terror"): Well, he began describing to me a safe house in Monrovia,
Liberia. Cindor Reeves is a relative by marriage to President Charles Taylor
and had been in Taylor's inner circle basically his entire life, and he worked
as an aide-de-camp for some of Taylor's senior people. And he began
describing to me a safe house he had rented in Monrovia for Arabs and how they
had pictures of bin Laden on the wall and how they watched videos of suicide
bombers. And when he came over, they'd want him to watch the videos with
them. And he asked what Hezbollah was. And I thought for a person who's
spent their entire life in the West African bush, where you don't get much
international news, it was a curious question, so I asked him why. And he
said, `Well, because they watch these Hezbollah videos, and they cheer when
the other people get blown up.' And I filed that information away sort of in
And I subsequently heard from European intelligence source that senior
Hezbollah members had been in West Africa on both a fund-raising mission, and
they have several R&R places there, where they go to sort of rest and relax
because there's a very large Lebanese community. And so after 9/11, when
Newsweek magazine and other magazines printed the Most Wanted Terrorist mug
shots, I was going to see Cindor again further down the road. And I took that
along thinking that maybe some of the senior Hezbollah people on that list
would be recognizable to him. I thought it was a long shot, but, you know,
why not? And he looked at the pictures of the people I pointed out, and he
said, `No, I haven't seen any of these people.' We went on with our meal.
And at the end of the meal, when I was paying the bill, he would sort of flip
the page over to look at the rest of the mug shots, and he sort of went pale.
And he said, `I know these people,' and he pointed to three people there. And
I said, `You've got to be kidding?' He said, `No, they were buying diamonds
from me. I was with them.' And so I said, `Look, you know, it's a little
far-fetched. I don't know what to do with this, but tell me everything you
can remember.' And that sort of launched the investigation--made the initial
tie to al-Qaeda, which then I was able to verify through other meetings with
people who dealt directly with them.
GROSS: So what was the connection between your source and the three men who
he was able to identify from the FBI's list of wanted terrorists?
Mr. FARAH: Well, Cindor goes by the name of CR,(ph) and he was very close to
President Charles Taylor of Liberia personally, and Taylor ran the diamond
trade for that region. CR was also the aide-de-camp for General Ibrahim Bah,
who was the gatekeeper on the diamond deals for President Taylor. And so he
was asked by Ibrahim Bah to take these gentlemen both--first, to meet them at
the airport when they arrived, take them to meet President Taylor, where they
paid a large sum of money for the opportunity to have a franchise in the
diamond business. And then in December of 2000 into early January, 2001, he
drove them from Monrovia into the diamond fields of Sierra Leone, so they
could cut specific diamond deals and buy diamonds from the Revolutionary
United Front, which was the rebel group fighting in Sierra Leone. It was a
group that was controlled by President Taylor.
GROSS: So the three men he identified were with al-Qaeda?
Mr. FARAH: They were identified on the FBI list as--all three were identified
as high-ranking al-Qaeda officials, yes.
GROSS: So you were able to piece together some of the story about how
al-Qaeda invested in diamonds instead of in banks for a lot of its money. Why
would al-Qaeda want to buy diamonds?
Mr. FARAH: Well, after the embassy bombings in 1998, when al-Qaeda bombed the
two East African US embassies, the United States cast around for something to
do in retaliation, and they didn't have a very good handle on what to do. And
they began freezing assets of al-Qaeda and the Taliban. It seemed like a
futile gesture initially, and then they discovered that the Taliban had
deposited $220 million in gold in the US Federal Reserve System. So they
were, in fact, able to seize a large chunk of money. That really hurt the
Taliban. People who dealt with the Taliban extensively said the Taliban and
al-Qaeda after that realized, as any good group will do, that this was a
horrible mistake, and they weren't going to repeat it.
So it seems that in anticipation of attempted freezes after the 9/11 attack,
they began taking their money out of banking systems and traceable mechanisms
and putting them into commodities because diamonds are very small; they're
very easy to transport. They don't set off metal detectors. The dogs can't
sniff them. You can sell them easily virtually anywhere in the world back
into cash if you need them. And so they made a concerted effort to draw their
money out of banking systems and places where assets could be frozen and into
commodities, where they could be hidden.
GROSS: And they bought diamonds through a kind of underground, black-market
Mr. FARAH: They bought blood diamonds from Sierra Leone and Liberia,
possibly some other places as well. They also engaged in the tanzanite
business in Tanzania, as some Wall Street Journal reporters documented,
including Danny Pearl before he was killed. They went into areas of the world
that are gray areas or stateless areas. To understand the context a little
bit, Charles Taylor, when he became president of Liberia, essentially turned
that country into a functioning criminal enterprise and controlled the diamond
trade of West Africa from there with the intent of eventually taking over more
territory and expanding his financial empire. So they were able to deal in,
say, the gray areas of the world, the stateless areas, where criminals
exercise a great deal of influence. Taylor also dealt with Russian organized
crime, Ukrainian organized crime, Balkan organized crime. Al-Qaeda were
certainly not the only ones there.
GROSS: Not to sound too stupid here, but blood diamonds is a word for, like,
diamonds in the illegal trade?
Mr. FARAH: I'm sorry. Yes, blood diamonds are diamonds that are mined by
illegal groups, like UNITA in Angola when that was going, by different
groups in the Congo who use diamonds to finance their activities, by the
Revolutionary United Front in Sierra Leone. These countries were banned from
selling diamonds on the international market, but they obviously continue to
do so with great quantities of diamonds. Those illicit diamonds that were
funding really gruesome and horrible wars came to be referred to as blood
GROSS: How did the al-Qaeda operatives exchange the diamonds for money?
Where would they go for that?
Mr. FARAH: The money went, first, to Antwerp, which is the premier diamond
center of the world. Belgium exercised, at that time, almost no control over
people bringing diamonds in. Anyone who had diamonds could go there and sell
them because it was such a lucrative business that they didn't want to get in
the way of their business community being able to carry out this
multibillion-dollar trade. So you could come in with diamonds and declare
them or not declare them, and it really didn't matter. So initially a lot of
the diamonds went there. Then it seems in the latter stages they took the
diamonds straight to Lebanon through Lebanese middlemen.
GROSS: Why Lebanon?
Mr. FARAH: Because they have a vibrant diamond trade. It's closer. And I
think the people who they were dealing with, the middlemen that they were
dealing with, were from Lebanon and had connections there.
GROSS: So a lot of al-Qaeda's diamond trade started before September 11th and
maybe even funded the attacks on September 11th?
Mr. FARAH: Well, I think there were two phases to their diamond operation.
If you look at the history of al-Qaeda and what's on public record from the
trials of some of the al-Qaeda people, including Wadih El-Haje, who is Osama
bin Laden's personal secretary--he was arrested in 1998 and tried, and his
diary and phone books were introduced as evidence in New York in his trial,
which no one paid much attention to. But if you go through there, there's a
huge number of diamond dealers and jewelers in his phone book, for whom he has
personal home phone numbers and that sort of thing, including diamond dealers
in the United States. And if you look at his notebooks, he wrote extensively
about how to analyze diamonds, how to set up a diamond-mining operation, how
to do many different things. There's a page in there that describes Liberia.
It says, `Liberia.' It has phone numbers, it has prices for diamonds, it
describes deals done. So that was prior to the 1998 move into West Africa.
They were clearly interested in diamonds.
There was also recently an imam from Senegal who was expelled from Italy for
being tied to Osama bin Laden. And when he was asked if he actually knew bin
Laden, he said yes. And they said, `Why did you know him?' And he said,
`Well, when bin Laden was in Sudan, he was funding my diamond business selling
West African diamonds in Belgium.' That would put it at least to 1996.
So it seems to me that there were two phases. The early phase was to make
money. They were doing a lot of different businesses, al-Qaeda was, to fill
their coffers. And then as 9/11 approached, in the eight months prior to
9/11, they went on a buying frenzy that was clearly not designed to make
money. They were paying premium prices for diamonds as a way of transferring
their money into commodities to keep them from being frozen. And it was not a
money-making operation at that point.
GROSS: So that was just a way of not being detected.
Mr. FARAH: Yes. And if you--I was talking to diamond dealers that summer,
and they all were saying they couldn't buy diamonds; somebody was buying all
the diamonds from the RUF. And these were traditional buyers who had been in
business for many years. And this was one of the first inklings I had that
something was wrong in the diamond trade, but obviously we didn't know it was
al-Qaeda at the time. But somebody was buying up the entire lot of diamonds,
something that had never happened before, and that was a clear indication,
later I was able to prove, came from the al-Qaeda purchasing.
GROSS: My guest is Douglas Farah, author of the new book "Blood from Stones:
The Secret Financial Network of Terror." He's the former West Africa bureau
chief of The Washington Post. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is Douglas Farah. He's a Washington Post reporter currently
on leave from the paper. He's now with the think tank the National Strategy
Information Center. He's also the author of the new book "Blood from Stones:
The Secret Financial Network of Terror."
Shortly after you started investigating al-Qaeda's connection to the diamond
trade, you had to flee your post in West Africa because there were death
threats against you. How did you find out about the death threats?
Mr. FARAH: I was fully anticipating that President Taylor, who has a long
history of brutality and killing of people who get in his way, would be upset
about the stories. I honestly felt that things would calm down in a few days
if I was just able to sort of lie low and stay out of the way. But a couple
days after the story ran, a regional security officer from the US Embassy
asked me to come down to the embassy. And I knew it was important because he
said, `Come down Sunday morning at 9 AM.' He showed me, as he's required to do
by law, a threat assessment cable that said that there was credible threats of
retribution against me for the story. My initial inclination at that point
was just to travel someplace else for a while, do something else, but I had a
two-year-old son; that son was two at the time, and my wife was pregnant. And
a couple of days later--the very next day European intelligence sources called
The Washington Post and said, `There are credible threats they're going to
kill him. Get him out of there,' at which point we decided that my simply
traveling to another country was probably not a sufficient precaution.
And so, unfortunately, we weren't able to get an airplane right away; the
flights were rather limited at that point. So we had to wait a few days.
They were somewhat tense. And then I asked the US Embassy security to escort
us through customs onto the airplane, which they did and for which we were
very grateful and sat there with us, until the airplane was about ready to
leave. And we suddenly found ourselves back in the United States.
GROSS: Now you weren't in Liberia at the time that President Taylor issued
his death threat against you. Would he have had the power to send his people
to where you were in Ivory Coast?
Mr. FARAH: He had very close ties to the military in the Ivory Coast, yes,
and that was one of the things that made it very alarming. I also heard from
another source after this happened that the decision had been made not to kill
me but to plant drugs on me and then take me off to prison and, you know, beat
me up and keep me there for a long time, which was not a very appealing
prospect, which is one of the reasons why we asked the US Embassy folks to
accompany us to make sure that I didn't suddenly end up with two kilos of
cocaine in my hand luggage that hadn't been there when I started out. But,
yes, he has a great reach across the region and very definitely into the Ivory
Coast military at that point.
GROSS: Well, let's get back to the story that you were investigating and a
story you remain interested in, which is the connection between
terrorists--well, the underground funding networks for terrorists. It's not
just al-Qaeda who was using diamonds to invest in. You found Hezbollah was
doing that, too.
Mr. FARAH: Hezbollah has been there for many years doing this. In fact, one
of the fascinating things is that there's a deep Lebanese connection into
Sierra Leone that goes back to the 1930s. And during the Lebanese Civil War,
all sides of the war were being funded by Sierra Leonean diamonds. And the
speaker of the Lebanese parliament, Mr. Berri, is Sierra Leonean-born and has
family back there. The diamond dealers who served as intermediaries for
al-Qaeda belonged to the Amal militia and Hezbollah and have family all across
there. It became such a concern to the Israelis, this funding, that the
Israelis sent in diamond buyers to undercut the Hezbollah diamond buyers and
try to take that source of income away from them. What's fascinating is what
happened there in Sierra Leone and Liberia and in the Congo is that they ended
up doing business together. So you have Hezbollah and Israeli diamond dealers
doing business with each other, who will happily explain that the war is back
home and business is business here. So I'm not sure how much that succeeded
in undercutting the Hezbollah money connection, but I think it's probably
spread the wealth a little further into the other areas of the region.
GROSS: And do you know if Hezbollah and al-Qaeda are still using diamonds as
a way to keep their money hidden from intelligence agencies?
Mr. FARAH: The most recent information I have comes from the US military, who
remain convinced that this is an ongoing operation; that in some form they are
still trying to acquire diamonds. They've been much more receptive to this
story than other intelligence agencies have, and they're putting a great deal
of effort on the ground in West Africa now to try to cut off the trade that
they believe is ongoing.
GROSS: Another way that terrorist groups have gotten around using the banking
system is by using the hawala system, which is--why don't you explain what the
Mr. FARAH: Well, it's something that also is extremely widespread in
Pakistan, India and the Arab world. Chinese have a variation of it
called--and it's called different things, which the United States'
intelligence services were virtually ignorant of. There were a few people who
had actually studied this and tried to raise the alarm about hawala before
9/11, and they were not given any attention whatsoever. Essentially what it
is is a method of moving money without ever actually moving money. Most of
the people who use the hawala system are Pakistani or Indian laborers who work
in the Arab states. As you know, for example, in the United Arab Emirates,
only 20 percent of that population is native to there; the rest are imported
workers from other parts of the world. So they send back literally hundreds
of millions of dollars in remittances back to their families.
But the banking systems in Pakistan and India don't work very well, and they
charge high fees, and they can't get the money to their family, let's say, in
rural areas. So this whole system is hawala is used for that. So you can go
to someone in UAE and say, `Do you have delivery service on the border region
of Pakistan?' If the person doesn't, he'll find someone who does. But
essentially the hawaladar, the person running the hawala, will call up his
brother-in-law in whatever--send him an e-mail or fax him whatever area of
Pakistan this money's going to go into and say, `Look, Douglas Farah's sister
needs $500. She's going to come. Her code word will be "juice." When she
says that, give her the $500.' So that my sister gets $500 with a flat 1
percent or 2 percent maximum fee, and it's delivered within a matter of days.
When my brother-in-law in Pakistan needs $500 worth of milk, he'll call the
hawaladar and say, `I need $500 worth of milk.' I'll buy that for him in,
let's say, Dubai, and I'll ship it to him. No money ever changes hands.
There's no transaction that happens. He gets his $500 worth of powdered milk.
My sister gets her $500 worth of cash that she needs to survive. And
essentially records, when they're kept, don't tell you who your clients are.
It tells you who the person on the other end is or what vague relationship
they have, and they're destroyed almost immediately. So you have literally
billions of dollars moving across the globe, but mostly in that region of the
world, that are completely untraceable. And the hawala performs a vital
function because people couldn't, you know, feed their families left at home
without that type of service. So closing that down is also extremely
GROSS: Has the hawala system been affected by the attempts of intelligence
agencies to track al-Qaeda money?
Mr. FARAH: There has been an attempt both to track how hawala money moves
and to regulate them. And I think both are probably destined to failure
because if you overregulate them, they simply become like banks, and the
system crashes down and people will stop using them. If your require
registration of the underground economy, it will either drive people further
under ground or put them out of business, so you also have a problem with
that. The only way to really get at this, I think, is to get to talk to
hawaladars themselves, enlist their support. It's a small network of people,
and one of the things that--relatively small. And one of the fascinating
things is that they don't allow each other to default on money deliveries. If
I can't deliver and I said I would, other hawaladars will pay that client
because the whole system is run on trust. And often if I default, I refuse to
pay, I'm not physically beaten; I'm simply ostracized from the community,
which is also a very high price to pay in that society. So it's an
honor-driven system where people know each other. And I think, as in most of
the financial war on terror, the only way to really get at it is with much
better intelligence on the ground. And regulatory efforts, I think, are
largely destined to failure.
GROSS: Douglas Farah is the author of the new book "Blood from Stones: The
Secret Financial Network of Terror." He'll be back in the second half of the
show. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: Coming up, counterfeit T-shirts, coupon fraud and stealing baby
formula--more with Douglas Farah on the funding of terror networks.
Who would have thought that a book about punctuation would become a
best-seller in England and the US? We'll hear from Lynne Truss, author of
"Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation."
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Douglas Farah, author of
the new book "Blood from Stones: The Secret Financial Network of Terror." He
first started investigating how terrorist networks are funded after September
11th when he was The Washington Post's West Africa bureau chief. He's now on
leave from The Post and is writing on intelligence issues as a senior fellow
at the National Strategy Information Center.
In looking into how terrorist groups are funded, you also write about some
really odd schemes, like using counterfeit name-brand clothing, T-shirts,
things like that. Talk about what you found there.
Mr. FARAH: There have been, going back at least to the late 1980s, a whole
raft of schemes that different terrorist organizations have used to raise
money. None of them raised much money at a time, but over time they've raised
tens of millions of dollars through these systems. One of the favorite ways
is through coupon fraud. They simply collect coupons out of unused Sunday
newspapers or out of trash dumps, make them look dirty, send them in and then
collect--to the coupon issuer, as if they've been turned in to buy goods. And
then the company will send back those rebates to that particular store. And
what you saw happening in one case in New York and New Jersey was the stores
that traditionally did maybe $300 a month in coupons were suddenly doing
$15,000 a month in coupons.
This was traced to the blind sheikh, Abdel-Rahman, who engineered the World
Trade Center I bombing in 1993, this particular operation. But the
investigators couldn't get anyone to pay attention to the terrorist ties
there. It's really stunning if you go back, as I did, and read the
transcripts of some of the stuff that was said and talked to the early
investigators. Nobody wanted to hear about it. If it wasn't drugs at the
time, if it wasn't big enough, they didn't want to hear about it. And these
were all pretty much small-time scams. Abdel-Rahman also ran a scam to make
knock-off T-shirts for the Olympics, where it had Nike or Adidas on them, as
if they were the genuine article. So instead of selling them at $20, they
would sell them at 10. The T-shirt might cost them $2. Inking them up might
cost them another dollar. They busted warehouses of this stuff before they
actually got onto the market, which would have had a value also of $7 million,
which were also traced to the blind sheikh. And, again, no one was able to
put the pieces together or realize the significance of that.
One of the Hezbollah schemes that was recently discovered was taking
cigarettes from North Carolina, where the tax is very low, trucking them to
Wisconsin and other states, where the taxes are very high, selling them and
making huge amounts of money. They made several million dollars doing this.
Stealing baby formula--getting people desperate for drugs or drink to go in
and steal cans of baby formula and then repackaging them because it sells for
a fairly high prices and selling them to other stores as wholesalers. Any
number of things--credit card fraud is a huge, huge business. And it's
fascinating to look at how well-structured and well-thought-out these
operations have been and how long they lasted before anyone started paying
attention, which was, you know, almost 20 years.
GROSS: Now you're very critical of the CIA in your book in the sense that you
think the CIA could have found out a little earlier about the funding
mechanisms of al-Qaeda, about their connections to diamonds, about their use
of the hawala system. What could they have done, do you think, that they
Mr. FARAH: Well, I think there are two aspects. One is I don't fault them
for not understanding what was happening on the ground in West Africa and
prior to 9/11 because they essentially had no assets there. When the Cold War
ended, the embassies in Africa, or the stations in Africa, which were largely
used to recruit Soviet diplomats who were serving in embassies abroad, were
essentially slashed to the bone. What I do criticize the CIA for is at the
time--they had the opportunity at different times to follow the blood diamond
trail and the arms trail in the months prior to 9/11, and they chose not to
because it was not a high priority for them.
I think if you look at the financial side, that wasn't so much the CIA as it
was the other investigative agencies that could have been following that.
There was, for example, a small group in the Treasury Department who were
talking about the use of gold, the use of hawalas, the use of what they were
calling non-formal transfer mechanisms. It's kind of a cumbersome name, but
there was a little group looking at this very actively for funding terrorism
in 1999. And the group was essentially disbanded because they were told their
work was not appropriate, not necessary, not high priority: `Get on and do
something else.' If you read the reports that members of that particular
little group wrote, they're extremely timely in the 9/11--it would have saved
us a lot of time in trying to figure out how financial mechanisms worked if we
had gone back and read those things, which were written several years earlier,
or had paid attention to them.
GROSS: Was this Treasury Department group that was investigating the hawala
system stopped during the Clinton administration?
Mr. FARAH: Yes, it was during the Clinton administration.
GROSS: And it was stopped on whose order?
Mr. FARAH: On the order of the director of FinCEN. A new director had come
in and wasn't interested in having them pursue that. He wanted to go back to
monitoring bank transactions in, let's say, the more formal financial
structure. And so this--it wasn't a formal group. It was a group of people,
one who had an expertise in gold, one who understood hawala, one who
understood the Black Market Peso Exchange and the gold and the drug business.
And they just began comparing notes and put together a program for studding
this, and they were told to knock it off and take all their data out of the
Treasury computers--completely scrubbed them of all that because it was feared
that it would lead to racial profiling or other things.
GROSS: What's your analysis of the conflict between, you know, not wanting to
engage in racial profiling and also wanting to go after certain Islamist
groups that seem to be tied to terrorism?
Mr. FARAH: I think it's a very, very difficult line to walk. And I think
that, inevitably, as you go after charities and Islamic institutions that may
have been tied to terrorism or Islamic institutions that may be tied to the
Muslim Brotherhood, you run a risk of alienating the entire Islamic community
in this country, which is a real tragedy. I think that, again, you need to be
extremely selective and have really good intelligence. And as the 9-11 panel
is showing, the FBI simply didn't have the intelligence on these groups and
didn't try to develop them and didn't even try--didn't analyze the
intelligence they did have relating to these groups.
And so after 9/11 there was a huge reaction, `Oh, my God, we have to do
something,' and so they essentially swept up everything they possibly had
without being able to discriminate between what was real and what wasn't real.
And I think that that has done a tremendous amount of damage within the
Islamic community, where a large majority of people are obviously not
interested in waging a war against the United States and where most people,
when they give their Zakat, which is the equivalent of the tithe in the
Christian community--2 1/2 percent of all their business transactions--want
that money to go to good causes. They don't want it to go to terrorism. But
in the rush after 9/11, I think a lot of things got swept up that shouldn't
GROSS: You were describing earlier about how you had to leave your position
as West Africa bureau chief because there were death threats against you after
you started investigating the connections between the illegal diamond trade
and al-Qaeda's funding. When you returned to the United States the CIA asked
to meet with you because you had come to know so much about this form of
funding the terrorist network. And you did meet with the CIA. Is it a kind
of no-brainer for you that if the CIA asked to meet with you as a journalist,
you'd say yes, or what are the standards for deciding, like, whether it's
appropriate to meet with them or not?
Mr. FARAH: Well, I think it's an extremely dicey proposition, and I had never
done it before. Unless I was seeking information or wanted to confirm
information that I had, I would give them specific information and ask them if
they could help me track down the voracity of this. I felt, in this case,
while I couldn't go into the sources for the story at the time, that it was
extremely important to tell them as much as I could because I felt that
another terrorist attack could be imminent; that we understood very little
about their financial structure and that if I could explain to them why this
story was credible, it would be helpful perhaps to them in tracking down and
being able to stop future attacks.
The same thing happened with a colleague of mine from The Wall Street Journal
in the tanzanite story, who, for the same basic motivation, went and talked
with them much more and gave them much more information than I think either of
us ever had in our--I think we each have about 20 years of being foreign
correspondents--than we ever had, you know, in the past. But it was mostly
driven by the sense that this was a whole different era, and we could actually
save lives perhaps by doing this.
GROSS: Are you glad you did it? Would you do something like this again?
Mr. FARAH: I think my experience with the CIA left, I would say, a very
negative impression on me. As I describe in the book, at one point they came
to me--and they had said to me repeatedly, `If you have credible sources, we'd
like to talk with them.' At one point CR(ph), who is related to President
Taylor, as I said earlier, and was one of the main sources on the initial
story--his life was in danger. He wanted to get out.
And so through intermediaries, I asked the CIA if they'd be willing to talk
with him, and they seemed very interested. And, essentially, as I go into a
lot of detail in the book on this, they set up a lie detector test that was
designed to discredit him and prove that he was lying. And their reasons for
this were that they were afraid of the information I had on his previous
contacts with them warning them about the diamond trade and other information
that had come to them several months earlier about weapons-for-diamonds deals
that they had chosen to ignore. And what one source told me, after all this
had happened, was that they wanted to discredit him, so that they could say,
as Congress was inquiring and they were getting hit by outside government
bodies demanding explanations, that might source had been polygraphed and was
found to be not credible.
And, sure enough, shortly thereafter I talked to several congressmen. They
all pulled out the same letter from the CIA, which said, you know, `We've
polygraphed one of his main sources, and he's found not to be reliable.'
(Laughs) So I think, in retrospect, I certainly would never hand over another
source of mine to them, and I would be a little more careful in what I shared
GROSS: You recently testified to a congressional subcommittee, and you told
them that you still don't think enough attention is being paid to West Africa
and its connection to terrorism.
Mr. FARAH: I think there is a slow realization that, in fact, the gray areas
of the world, as I mentioned earlier--the Liberias, the Congos, the Sierra
GROSS: The anarchic-failed states.
Mr. FARAH: The failed states across Africa present safe haven and necessary
infrastructure for terrorists to operate. I mean, one of the things Taylor
was able to do--he didn't do it with al-Qaeda, but he did it with other
criminals--was grant them diplomatic passports. He let Victor Bout, who is
the world's largest illegal weapons dealer who dealt not only in Sierra Leone
and Liberia and Angola but with the Taliban and the Northern Alliance in
Afghanistan--he was allowed to register all his airplanes in Liberia. He had
a fleet of 50 aircraft that were flying around the world delivering weapons
that were creating havoc everywhere with no inspections, no nothing. So if
you have a state that you have access to, where you have the trappings of a
state which really mask a criminal enterprise, it's extremely beneficial to
terrorists. I think, in my experience, the military, the Pentagon, have been
much more aware of this and is moving much more aggressively to deal with and
to try to understand these gray areas than the rest of the intelligence
GROSS: Douglas Farah, thank you very much for talking with us.
Mr. FARAH: Thank you. It's been a pleasure.
GROSS: Douglas Farah is the author of the new book "Blood from Stones: The
Secret Financial Network of Terror."
Coming up--colon: One woman's love affair with punctuation. This is FRESH
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Lynne Truss discusses her book "Eats, Shoots and
Leaves: Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation"
TERRY GROSS, host:
Lynne Truss describes herself as a `punctuation vigilante,' and that might
sound like just the kind of person you'd like to avoid. But her book, which
promises a "Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation," became a surprise
best-seller in England. It was just published in the States, and this week
it's number two on the New York Times Best-Seller List. The book was an
outgrowth of a BBC Radio series she did on punctuation. She's also worked as
a literary editor and TV columnist for The Times of London. She now reviews
books for The Sunday Times of London. Her book about punctuation is called
"Eats, Shoots & Leaves."
Why do you care so passionately about punctuation?
Ms. LYNNE TRUSS (Author, "Eats, Shoots & Leaves: Zero Tolerance Approach to
Punctuation"): Well, I think I've always cared about clarity as a writer.
I've always been--I've written for many years, and I was an editor of
newspapers and magazines before that. And so my whole life, really, has been
trying to make the words on the page do what the writer or I, as the writer,
intended. And punctuation is such a big part of that. It's part of the
printing tradition. It's not so important in the electronic technologies.
But as far as print on the page is concerned, putting that comma in the right
place is terribly important. And I notice, as a reader, I always read things
with a pencil in my hand. I take out bad punctuation; I put in what I
consider to be the right--semicolon. To me, it's just such a terribly
important thing that communication is always as clear as it can be. I
GROSS: Do you--I'm sorry.
Ms. TRUSS: Yeah, I'm sorry.
GROSS: I'm sorry. Do you repunctuate things that have already been published
that you're reading?
Ms. TRUSS: Yeah, I do...
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. TRUSS: ...as a book reviewer usually. And then I struggle with whether
or not to mention in the book review that I thought that the punctuation was
bad. And I have--a couple of years ago I reviewed a book that had so few
commons in it, and in the review I said--the woman had written quite a lot
about her divorce. And I said, `Oh, well, we see the husband got custody of
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: Is there a good example that you could use on radio of how the wrong
punctuation totally changes the meaning of a sentence?
Ms. TRUSS: Well, there's a nice one that's--I think it's quite well known,
which is a set of words which is, `A woman without her man is nothing.' If
you just have that with no punctuation at all, I think people probably would
all say, `Hm, how profound,' without really bothering to see whether they've
read the same thing. Apparently if you put this up on a blackboard and ask
women to punctuate it, they will punctuate it differently from men. Men will
put: `A woman--comma--without her man--comma--is nothing.' A woman, on the
other hand, will probably say: `A woman--colon--without her--comma--man is
nothing.' So, you know, even with the words in the right order, you really do
need that helpful punctuation.
GROSS: Let's talk a little bit about the comma. Do you think that any
guidelines about the comma have changed since you were in school and beginning
to learn punctuation?
Ms. TRUSS: I think--well, I know that personally I use fewer commas than I
ever used to. I think there is just a general drift towards fewer. I will
often not really always put them both--you know, around a subordinate clause
if I think that the message of the sentence is OK without it. One of the
things that as a writer-editor--as writers and editors--everyone knows is that
the conflict you can have with a copy editor over how many commas to have,
it's--you can never guard against it. People just have very, very different
feelings about how many commas to have. I think broadcasters and actors like
to have lots of commas because they need to have the guidance about breathing.
GROSS: Oh, exactly, exactly.
Ms. TRUSS: And that's a very important thing.
GROSS: I find I punctuate differently for the radio than I do if I'm actually
writing something because I'm on the radio. Like you said, I'm putting in
pauses. I'm putting in, like, stage directions about where to take a breath,
where to pause or hesitate, whereas on the page it's different.
Ms. TRUSS: Yeah. I mean, that's the thing. The origins of punctuation, I
mean are in the...
GROSS: It's not completely different.
Ms. TRUSS: ...origins of writing.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: It's not completely different. I don't want to overstate that.
Ms. TRUSS: No, I'm sure. But the origins of punctuation, you know, are, you
know, in the origins of writing, before printing. Writing was to be read
aloud. It wasn't for silent reading on your own. So it was for--the head
monk, whatever, was going to read from a manuscript of the Bible, and so the
marks were in there to indicate to him, like musical notation, where to pause
and inflect and so on. With printing and the rise of silent reading, you have
a different function for punctuation, which is mainly to eliminate the
grammer. And those things are always slightly in conflict, I think,
especially with commas.
GROSS: Well, I mean, one of the things you bring up here is that although
there are rules of punctuation, there are disagreements about those rules.
And, really, educated writers will disagree. A writer will disagree--an
author will disagree with the editor about where a comma should go or isn't
necessary. So that makes it kind of interesting, but it also makes it very
imprecise. People think that punctuation is right or wrong, and there's a
whole kind of gray area in between.
Ms. TRUSS: Hmm. Well, I think that's it. I mean, I wrote about--you know, I
called it "Zero Tolerance Approach." And the only thing I'm really, really
zero tolerance about is apostrophes; that putting apostrophes before an S in
the plural of lemons or something. That's definitely wrong using the
singular-possessive instead of a plural-possessive apostrophe. That's wrong.
But when you do get into commas, that's when it gets more interesting in a
way, but it is certainly very hard to lay down hard-and-fast rules. You can
imagine what the editing of this book was like.
GROSS: Oh, yeah.
Ms. TRUSS: (Laughs) The process was one of the most painful experiences I've
ever had because even though, clearly, the book was about my opinions on
punctuation, my editor had different opinions on punctuation. So we had to
compromise a few times. And...
GROSS: That's really funny, though, I mean, because, I mean, after all, the
book is supposed to be about your opinions on punctuation. So those must have
been interesting little skirmishes.
Ms. TRUSS: Oh, I was very discouraged. After a while I thought, `I know
nothing. I know nothing.' But we did have--I have two different editors,
who, of course, had contradictory ideas, too. So having reluctantly accepted
one of the editor's ideas, I would then have some challenge by the next
editor, who supported what I'd done in the first place unknowingly. So it
just goes to show that--I know that people do want hard-and-fast rules, and
there are hard-and-fast rules, as I say, about apostrophes. But I do think in
a lot of other cases, it's better to use your common sense than to--and to use
your ear and to, you know, just listen and think about what the meaning is if
you put that comma in or if you leave it out.
GROSS: My guess is Lynne Truss, author of the best-seller about punctuation,
"Eats, Shoots & Leaves." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is Lynne Truss, author of the best-seller "Eats, Shoots &
Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation."
As you say in your book, some people use a lot of semicolons; some people,
really, are not fans of the semicolon. Some people like to use dashes; other
people are not fans of dashes. Where would you place yourself on the scale?
Ms. TRUSS: I suppose I do err on the side of the dash probably, but I love
semicolons. I think they do--the analogy I draw in the book is that
semicolons and colons just give you this--it's as though you're sort of
floating on air in a sentence. And a semicolon and a colon just waft you up
again, you know. You get another wonderful thermal, you know, takes you
along. I think they're terribly elegant and marvelous marks, and I think a
dash doesn't do that. Dash is much more presage, down-to-earth kind of mark,
as far as I'm concerned. It doesn't promise anything, a dash. You know, you
start--you know, you've heard one part of a sentence, you get a dash, you have
another part of the sentence. And it could be related to what went before,
but it might not be. It might be completely unrelated.
When you have a semicolon--and that is a promise. There is a promise involved
in the semicolon: that what you're reading next will be related to what
you've had before. And a colon is a real firm promise that it's going to, you
know, really have a--it's going to explain what went before. It's going to
illuminate what went before. And I didn't really quite understand about
colons, I think, before I worked on the book, and I now think they're quite
I use an example in the book where anyone who knows anything about English
football or soccer will, I hope, appreciate. So it's to demonstrate the
difference between colons and semicolons. So without either, you have: `Tom
locked himself in the shed,' period. `England lost to Argentina,' period,
which is just two statements that--you know, they happened in the past.
That's all you probably know about that. Then if you say: `Tom locked
himself in the shed,' semicolon; `English lost to Argentina,' you know, that
suggests that there is some connection between these two events. But they're
both in the past, but it could be that, you know, `Tom locked himself in the
shed. England lost to Argentina. The rabbit electrocuted itself by biting
into the power cable of the washing machine.' Then you have with a colon:
`Tom locked himself in the shed,' colon: `England lost to Argentina.' And
then, you know: `Tom locked himself in the shed because England lost to
So I think it's--you know, if you can sort of handle that, it really help.
You can do more subtle things with writing. If you only ever use periods or,
as we call them, full stops, you really can't suggest connections between
thoughts, which are--you know, that's mainly what you want to do when you're
GROSS: Let me ask you to explain the title of your book, "Eats, Shoots &
Ms. TRUSS: Well, it's a joke that someone told me while we were cutting the
dash program. And it's a joke about a panda who goes into a bar, and he
orders a sandwich, and he eats the sandwich. And then just as he's about to
go, he gets a gun out and he fires the gun. And they say, you know, `Why are
you behaving like that? Pandas don't behave like this.' And he shows them a
wildlife manual and his entry, and it says: `Panda: large, black-and-white
bearlike mammal native to China eats,' comma, `shoots and leaves.' So,
obviously, normally a panda eats shoots and leaves, but if you put the comma
in, he behaves in a very unpandalike fashion.
GROSS: Yeah, that's a great story.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: How did you learn punctuation? Did you learn punctuation in school,
or, you know, did you kind of figure it out more independently?
Ms. TRUSS: I think when it really came together for me was when I first left
university, I started work as a sub-editor on magazines and newspapers. And I
think that's when it fell into place for me. And I think I knew what all the
marks were when I was at school, and I think I was always corrected. I think
we were always--even if we weren't taught it particularly, I do remember that
our--you know, certainly if I put an apostrophe and it's in the wrong place,
that would be crossed out until I got it right, which I think is something
that isn't really done anyone. But I think it was really when you're sitting
down to edit something written by a professor of history at Cambridge or
something that you feel, `Well, I really ought to know what I'm doing here
about subordinate clauses and so on.'
Actually the story about Thurber--I remember the Thurber and Ross stuff,
reading "Years with Ross" when I was a very young editor. I remember being at
my desk and reading that story and telling everybody about this marvelous
story about Ross needing a comma in, `After dinner, the men went into the
drawing room.' You have to have a comma after `dinner' because it gives men
time to stand up and push back their chairs, which is such a great story. And
I remember finding that when I was about 22 years old and reading it to
everybody because I thought it was just so charming.
GROSS: Lynne Truss, thank you so much for talking with us.
Ms. TRUSS: Thank you very much. It was lovely.
GROSS: Lynne Truss is the author of "Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero
Tolerance Approach to Punctuation."
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.