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An Illusion of Complicity: Terrorism and the Illegal Ivory Trade in East Africa

Tom Maguire and Cathy Haenlein
Occasional Papers, 21 September 2015
Organised Crime and Policing, Horn of Africa, Organised Crime, Africa
Organised crime groups, rather than terrorist groups, are profiting the most from the East African illegal wildlife trade

A number of myths and misperceptions have grown alongside the illegal ivory trade – none more troubling than the alleged participation of terrorist groups. In East Africa, the Somali terror group Al-Shabaab has supposedly received up to 40 per cent of its running costs through the illegal ivory trade alone.

This is a powerful narrative, espoused by some politicians, policy-makers and practitioners. But it is largely wrong. Evidence for Al-Shabaab involvement in poaching and trafficking remains extremely limited and controversial. Briefings given to policy-makers on terrorism and the illegal ivory trade continue to refer to unverified sources. This is a cause for concern: such a narrative risks diverting attention from the trade’s main facilitators and, counter-intuitively, from Al-Shabaab’s known funding sources.

To address these misconceptions, this report explores the complex ecosystems of terrorism, poaching and ivory trafficking in East Africa. Its key findings are that:

  • Highly networked organised crime groups (OCGs), brokers and corrupt government officials continue to drive the illegal ivory trade across East Africa. Weak legislation and enforcement by security agencies provides a benign environment for their activities
  • The OCGs, brokers and corrupt officials involved – and the routes and methods used – likely overlap with other forms of organised crime (such as the trafficking of drugs, humans and small arms)
  • The majority of ivory that transits East Africa comes from source areas on the Tanzania-Mozambique border and in central Tanzania. These are far removed from Al-Shabaab territory
  • Few, if any, elephants are present directly within Al-Shabaab’s area of influence in southcentral Somalia and northeastern Kenya. The majority of elephants in Kenya roam at significant distances from the border
  • There is little evidence of large ivory flows transiting Somalia; established Kenyan and Tanzanian ports remain the primary points for export. This makes the assertion that Al-Shabaab’s monthly ivory revenues total $200,000–$600,000 highly unlikely
  • Estimates of the proportion of Al-Shabaab funds raised from ivory trafficking rely on flawed sums. A range of other sources (including the taxation of charcoal and sugar) are more important to the terrorist organisation
  • Any Al-Shabaab involvement in the ivory trade to date is likely to have been opportunistic, ad hoc and small-scale.

These findings suggest that the illusion of a terrorism–ivory trade nexus distracts policy-makers and law-enforcement agencies from effectively managing limited resources to tackle both terrorist financing and the illegal ivory trade.

About the Authors

Tom Maguire is the John Garnett Visiting Fellow for 2014-15 within the National Security and Resilience Studies programme at RUSI.

Cathy Haenlein is a research analyst in the National Security and Resilience Studies group at RUSI.

Cathy Haenlein
Director, Organised Crime and Policing

Cathy Haenlein is Director of the Organised Crime and Policing research group and Senior Research Fellow at RUSI, with expertise in... read more

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