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Sugar Not Ivory is the Real ‘White Gold’ of Al-Shabaab

Tom Keatinge
Commentary, 27 November 2015
Centre for Financial Crime and Security Studies, Horn of Africa, Terrorism, Global Security Issues, Terrorism, Africa
Recent reports shed light on Al-Shabaab’s evolving financing model. While charcoal remains key, sugar smuggling is playing an increasing role. Funding from illegal ivory, a focus of much distracting debate, is noticeable only in its absence.

A recent RUSI occasional paper studying the extent to which the illegal ivory trade funds Al-Shabaab concluded that ‘the illusion of a terrorism-ivory trade nexus distracts policy-makers and law-enforcement agencies’. In the past months, two further reports, one produced by the UN Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea, have underscored this statement. These reports demonstrate that the corrupt trade in sugar – another form of ‘white gold’ – facilitated by the Kenyan military (KDF) has a growing role in sustaining Al-Shabaab and thus needs to be urgently addressed.

In East Africa and beyond, the struggle to combat poaching and the associated illegal wildlife trade (IWT) is decades long. Yet despite countless initiatives and conventions, elephant and rhino populations, in particular, have been decimated, vast areas of irreplaceable forest have been destroyed, and those that perpetrate these acts benefit from an economy worth up to an estimated US$213 billion per annum. In the past two years, perhaps in an effort to galvanise policy-makers and attract greater resources, the narrative surrounding IWT has increasingly sought to connect this illicit trade with terrorism. Research from the Elephant Action League in 2013 suggests a strong connection between Al-Shabaab and the poaching and trafficking of ivory, as do statements from former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her daughter Chelsea, and the high-profile short film Last Days produced by US film director Kathryn Bigelow.

Terrorism is a powerful mobiliser of resources and can attract interest. Yet, resources are finite and, if misdirected, allow the true root cause of illicit finance to flourish unchecked, shielding ‘the real criminal drivers of the trade [leaving intact] the true sources of terror financing.’ Disrupting the means by which terrorist groups finance themselves is one of the most effective methods of reducing (albeit not eliminating) the threat posed by such groups – accurately identifying such sources is therefore critical.

Although other non-state armed groups such as the Lord’s Resistance Army and groups active in northern Mali have been posited as potential beneficiaries of the lucrative trade in ivory and other illicit wildlife products, it is Somalia’s jihadi insurgents, most notably Al-Shabaab, who have attracted the most attention in this regard. The group has been linked to ivory trafficking in the media, particularly following the 2013 attack on the Westgate mall in Nairobi, which was widely claimed to have been financed by ivory. Yet it is not certain whether this connection is based on fact or supposition, potentially distracting counter-terrorism efforts from the real source of Al-Shabaab’s terrorist financing.

The recent publication of the latest report from the UN’s Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea confirms that ‘Al-Shabaab’s commitment and capacity to destabilize the region’ remains. Despite losing several prominent leaders and territory, including key financial hubs such as Bakaara Market in Mogadishu and the ports of Kismayo and Barawa in the face of increased military pressure, its model of taxing population, business, and contraband trade means that it has continued to benefit from the export of charcoal across the Arabian Sea to the Middle East, as well as from its control of smuggling routes for sugar and other basic foodstuffs into Kenya. Supplementing the UN report is a newly released assessment by Nairobi-based Journalists for Justice that reveals in detail the extent to which sugar, worth between US$200–400 million, is smuggled through Somalia into Kenya, providing funding not only to Al-Shabaab but also allegedly (although denied by the Kenyan Government) to the KDF (which facilitate this trade), along with the continued export of charcoal.

Al-Shabaab’s survival is linked substantially to its ability to continue to source funding for its struggle. Over the years, the monitoring group’s reports have provided a detailed picture of Al-Shabaab’s evolving and adaptive financial model, the group’s sources and uses of funds, and its ability to benefit from the continued corruption and lack of governance provided by the government of Somalia. To date, the failure of the international community to disrupt the export of charcoal to the high-demand markets of the Middle East has allowed the group to endure – as has the failure to prevent the smuggling of sugar into Kenya. The group’s loss of territory, including key financial nodes and ports, would suggest financial difficulties lie ahead. However, the apparent rent-seeking operations of military forces led by the KDF that maintain these illicit trades are continuing to allow Al-Shabaab to benefit from the taxation of associated businesses in the territory it controls as the export of charcoal, and import and smuggling of sugar, thrive.

Powerful and distressing though the images of poached big game are, and important though the disruption of this trade is to the survival of irreplaceable flora and fauna, erroneously conflating this issue with the emotive issue of terrorism in the Horn of Africa helps no one if it is based on unsound evidence. Worse, it diverts valuable resources from where they are needed in the fight against IWT – in tackling organised criminal networks and corruption – and the real sources of terrorist financing. There are no shortcuts and the UN’s latest report should serve as an important reminder that focusing efforts in the wrong place merely allows those sources that truly sustain terrorism to flourish.

*Header image courtesy of AP Photo/Ben Curtis


Tom Keatinge
Director, Centre for Financial Crime and Security Studies, RUSI

Tom Keatinge is the Director of the Centre for Financial Crime and Security Studies at RUSI, where his research focuses on matters at... read more

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