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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.