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Is the illegal wildlife trade really funding international terrorism?

                                                                   What am I bid for a kilo?

This might seem a strange question, as there have been many mentions of this in the international media and by a diversity of politicians. For example:

William Hague, UK Foreign Secretary: “We are even seeing evidence that it may be funding terrorism.”

Ban Ki Moon, UN Secretary General:  “Poaching and its potential linkages to other criminal, even terrorist, activities constitute a grave menace to sustainable peace and security in Central Africa.”

Hilary Clinton, former US Secretary of State drew a direct link between terrorism and elephant poaching, citing growing evidence that terrorist groups in Africa are funding their activities in part by trafficking ivory. She said that includes al-Shabaab, the group responsible for the recent attack at a shopping mall in Nairobi.

Tuvako N. Manongi, Ambassador to the US for the United Republic of Tanzania: "Wildlife trafficking is increasingly associated with rebel and terrorist groups such as the Lord's Resistance Army and Al Shabaab, an Al Qaeda terrorist cell in East Africa." 

From the Los Angeles Times: “Al-Shabaab, the Somali Islamist group that killed dozens of people last month in a bloody four-day siege of the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi, is deriving funds for its terror campaigns from elephant poaching in Kenya and elsewhere, activists and conservationists claim.”

From Save the Rhino: “Three years ago, the Elephant Action League (EAL) conducted an 18-month undercover investigation into the link between Al-Shabaab and the illegal trafficking of ivory through Kenya. The organisation published its findings, which suggested that Al-Shabaab has been actively buying and selling ivory to fund its militant operations and that ivory trafficking “could be supplying up to 40% of the funds needed to keep them in business”.’’

From the UK Daily Mirror – “The lethal combination of wildlife destruction and terrorism is the reason 50 world leaders have been invited to next week’s London Conference on the Illegal Wildlife Trade, hosted by Prime Minister David Cameron.”

But … from Vanda Felbab-Brown of the Brookings Institution: “… terrorism is not proliferating because of poaching. Terrorism is driven by its own enabling factors, which are varied and complex. Poaching has nowhere is the world generated new terrorists … it is equally crucial to acknowledge that much poaching – in Tanzania, Ethiopia, Kenya, South Africa – takes place in the absence of violent conflicts and are nor carried out by terrorists or other armed groups.”

So where does the “evidence” come from that ivory poaching funds terrorism? This is where things start becoming unclear and frankly, a bit shaky. 

The report about Al-Shabaab’s involvement in ivory trafficking originated from Andrea Crosta, CEO of the Elephant Action League and Nir Kalron of Maisha Consulting in Kenya. Both list experience and expertise in security and anti-terrorism investigations. The original report was published in 2011 after an “18 month investigation”. Initial media reports indicated the investigation was at the behest of the Environmental Investigation Agency, a trusted and reliable organization. Today, Mary Rice, Executive Director of EIA told me that they were not involved. 

In the original report on their website, the Elephant Action League state, inter alia:

  1. .“We went undercover in Kenya to investigate some of the links in the ivory trafficking chain leading to al-Shabaab. The investigation uncovered a sophisticated network of poachers, small and big-time brokers, and informants, all linked to the trade in ivory and rhino horn. Our enquiries reached across the border into neighboring Somalia where we established a link between the traders and al-Shaabab. According to our inside sources, Shabaab has been actively buying and selling ivory as a means of funding their militant operations.
  2. In effect, ivory serves as one of the lifelines of al-Shabaab, enabling it to maintain its grip over young soldiers, most of who are not radically motivated. According to a source within the militant group, between one to three tons of ivory, fetching a price of roughly US$200 per kilo, pass through the ports in southern Somalia every month.
  3. A quick calculation puts Shabaab’s monthly income from ivory at between US$200,000 and US$600,000. Maintaining an army of roughly 5,000 men, each earning US$300 USD, demands at least US$1,500,000 a month, of which the ivory trade can supply a big chunk of it.”

That “quick calculation” and information from “a source” has become the basis for the oft-quoted figure that the Al-Shabaab terrorist organization derives 40% of their income from illegal ivory trafficking. A LionAid request to the Elephant Action League for verification of their investigation and the reliability of their “informants” has remained unanswered.

The 2011 report remained un-noticed for some time but was significantly revived after the attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi. Al Shabaab claimed responsibility and 62 people were killed; an immediate “link” was made between elephants poached in Kenya and funds required for the attack. 

Consequently, with endless repetition by the media, the Elephant Action League report has now become widely accepted with the 40% figure seemingly uncontested by editors. “Combating terrorism” is a tactic long used to justify all manner of responses ranging from invasions of privacy to invasions of countries. Will it distract from the more significant involvement of organized criminal networks, corrupt officials and private individuals out to make a quick buck from ivory? I would say terrorist organizations are hardly significant. Yes, they will use ivory as a means of income, but their graduation to major players in the illegal ivory trade is misplaced according to all indicators. 

Implicating terrorist organizations in the illegal ivory trade is a significant charge – is China, by importing 70% of the illegal ivory trafficked in the world, therefore supporting terrorism? Let’s hope that the Elephant Action League will provide more evidence than “quick calculations”. 


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Posted by Chris Macsween at 16:57

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