Does illegal wildlife trafficking really fund terrorism?

A myriad of news sources have reported involvement by Al-Shabaab, a Somali-based Islamist insurgent group, in the trafficking of elephant ivory in Africa. Al-Shabaab, also known as Harakat al-Shabaab al-Mujahideen, operates under a mission to overthrow the Somali government and establish a state under Islamic Law. The U.S. Department of State declared the group a Foreign Terrorist Organization in 2008. A merger with Al-Qaeda in 2012 signals a step towards a more global agenda. However, a 2013 attack on Westgate Mall in Kenya follows a regionally focused mission. Their true focus at this point remains relatively unknown.

Al-Shabaab fighters in Somalia. Photograph: Farah Abdi Warsameh/AP, Source: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/oct/09/us-raid-al-shabaab-somalia-navy-seals

After years of news reports, the Elephant Action League launched an 18-month investigation from 2011 to 2012 into Al-Shabaab’s involvement in the ivory trade. The results of this investigation reported that Al-Shabaab receives a significant portion of their funding through acting as a middleman in the transport of illegal wildlife goods in Africa. Al-Shabaab is known in the criminal world for being well organized and punctual with their operations. The Elephant Action League reports that Al-Shabaab arranges the transfer of ivory shipments to big brokers in Asia from big brokers in Africa.

A 2013 National Geographic companion piece to the Elephant Action League investigation claims that Al-Shabaab funded their attack on Westgate Mall with money from illegal ivory. The article states that ivory “helped pay the soldiers, buy the weapons, rent the shop used for scoping and staging, and likely even purchase the computer that tweeted updates as the event unfolded.” Al-Shabaab is known for generously compensating its soldiers – a draw for even the most well-intentioned Kenyan or Somali soldier to leave their positions and join with Al-Shabaab. Assuming an average salary of $300USD per month, Al-Shabaab’s monthly expenditures on salary average around $1,500,000USD per month. They are suspected of assisting in the transport of one to three tons of ivory per month, fetching a price of roughly $200USD per kilogram. With this estimate, Al-Shabaab could receive up to $600,000USD per month from ivory alone. A United Nations Environmental Programme report The Environmental Crime Crisis disputes these claims, and say that media reports that Al-Shabaab ships up to 30kg of ivory each year are unreliable. The established smuggling route that Al-Shabaab would be using to transport ivory has not been linked to ivory smuggling. Al-Shabaab’s main source of income is from charcoal, and taxing of items.

Beyond the Elephant Action League investigation, there is no solid evidence of Al-Shabaab’s involvement with wildlife crime. Acting Assistant Secretary of State Judith Garber testified before a 2014 meeting of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations that Al-Shabaab is involved with ivory trade but did not provide solid evidence to back up the claim.

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After many hours of research into suspicions that Al-Shabaab is funded by the illegal ivory trade, I have come to the following conclusion: Yes, Al-Shabaab probably receives a portion of their funding from ivory. There is no solid evidence that Al-Shabaab (or Boko Haram for that matter) actually participated in the poaching of elephants or the trafficking of ivory. As mentioned above, charcoal is a known source of income for the extremist group.

However, groups like Al-Shabaab are opportunists. They are looking to make money however they can to fund their operations. As the ivory trade grows in Africa and Asia, it only makes sense that Al-Shabaab would begin to trade in ivory, or tax shipments at the ports they control. When discussing whether or not terrorist (extremist, rebel, etc.) groups are funded through illegal wildlife trafficking, it might not be the most intelligent answer, but “probably” is all we can rely on at the point. This probably should be enough to get the international world’s focus. Allowing these groups to find a more lucrative form of funding will only increase their ability to enact more terrorism on the people in their region and around the world. We need to take allegations like this one as a true threat, and devote more resources to ending this possible source of funding.

Cameron Lagrone is a first year Master of Public Affairs student at the LBJ School of Public Affairs. She is a semi-native Ohioan with deep roots in Texas. She worked for two years in anti-hunger non-profits in Texas. She served for one year as an AmeriCorps VISTA with the Texas Hunger Initiative. Cameron received a Bachelor of Arts in Anthropology from Baylor University.

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