The recent terrorist attack in Kenya may not seem like a story about sustainability or the environment, but in fact there is a disturbing connection between the deadly attack at the Westgate mall in Nairobi, which has left at least 68 dead and more than 150 injured and the illegal ivory trade that fuels poaching of elephants, rhinos and other wildlife.
Two weeks ago, I wrote about the United States taking more action in the fight against illegal wildlife trafficking. In July, President Obama issued an executive order establishing a cabinet-level Task Force on Wildlife Trafficking, which has this month formed an advisory council including cabinet members, as well as executives from the major anti-trafficking and wildlife conservation organizations. The US has also announced plans to destroy its 25-year-old stockpile of seized ivory to send a message to the world about crisis of the ivory trade.
All of this is being done, not simply to preserve the lives and ecosystem benefits of rhinos and elephants, but also because the United States now sees wildlife trafficking as national security threat. Why? Because poaching and illegal wildlife trafficking is a major source of funding for terrorist groups, including Al-Shabaab, the al-Qaeda-backed Somali terror group responsible for Saturday's attack in the Nairobi mall.
TIME magazine's Ishaan Tharoor explains the recent history of Al-Shabaab:
The group, whose name means the Youth in Arabic, was once the militant youth wing of a coalition of Islamist forces that held sway in parts of Somalia more than half a decade ago. The country has had no real functional central government for over two decades, and the Islamists, for a time, provided a veneer of security and stability despite the harshness of the Shari‘a they sought to impose. That control slipped following a series of offensives spearheaded by the African Union, beginning with an Ethiopian-led invasion in 2006.
Dana Liebelson at Mother Jones notes that in addition to their power slipping in recent years, some sources of Al Shabaab's funding have been disrupted:
Until 2012, al-Shabaab ran the port city of Kismayo, and it made a bunch of money from a racketeering business that exploited the city's thriving coal industry. But after foreign forces kicked the group out of Somalia's capital and Kismayo, it lost much of this revenue...According to the Council on Foreign Relations, the group also gets funding from kidnapping operations and allied terrorist groups.
While it is good that efforts to defund Al Shabaab have been successful in some areas, this has led the group to turn to poaching to make up for that lost income.
Three years ago, The Elephant Action League published an 18-month-long investigation that found that Al-Shabaab's trafficking of ivory through Kenya "could be supplying up to 40% of the funds needed to keep them in business."
The role of Al Shabaab in ivory trafficking is of immense concern. The harsh environment in which they operate, deprived of natural resources or infrastructure to raid (such as in eastern DRC or the Niger delta), makes ivory and rhino horn trade that much more important.
Shabaab’s role is not limited to poaching and brokerage, but is a major link in the chain, enabling them to reap huge profits from the mark-up in the trade. Shabaab’s strength and conviction to continue its fight will increase its need for fighters, arms, ammunition and other equipment, and increase its need for funds. As the West continues to fight radical terrorist organizations through seizing assets in offshore bank accounts, straw companies and “charities”, these organizations, including Al Shabaab, will rely increasingly on trafficking in contraband as a source of finance.
In April of 2013, Ian J. Saunders wrote a detailed report for International Conservation Caucus Foundation (ICCF) on how Al-Shabaab was dependent on ivory to fund its operations:
Since 2011, Kenya has suffered from unsustainable increases in elephant poaching in all its major elephant habitats. The rapid escalation of the threat to elephants is due to heightened levels of participation from the heavily armed poaching gangs, often hailing from Somalia, operating either for organized crime syndicates or for fundamentalist organizations. Ivory has the potential to provide an easily accessible and untraceable source of revenue to terrorist and extremist organizations in both Kenya and Somalia, providing a direct threat to the U.S. and its African allies.
Wildlife managers with security experience who are operating on the ground have seen an evolution of activity that, combined with specific indicators, represents a credible and increasing threat that Al Shabaab in East Africa is gaining financial support through trading in illegal ivory.
This source of finance will always be available to Al Shabaab and other Islamic terrorist organizations in East Africa as long as the security/anti-poaching deterrent on the ground is not sufficient to deny them access to it. Ivory is a source of revenue too convenient for Al Shabaab to ignore, and it would be naïve to think otherwise.
Saunders notes that the escalation in the number of poaching incidents and the sophistication of the operations that has overwhelmed the capabilities of local agencies.
In the last few years, the increase in ivory prices fuelled by demand mainly from China has created a security situation over and above what was previously faced by wildlife authorities. In essence, anti-poaching has moved from a simple policing operation to a low-level form of counterinsurgency, increasingly involving some of the world’s most notorious and professional crime syndicates and international terrorist organizations.
This has resulted in the overstretching of existing resources and a lack of sufficient deterrents on the ground. No wildlife agency in the world is set up to fight terrorism, insurgents and rebel armies, but that is what is expected of the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS), the Institut Congolais pour la Conservation de la Nature (ICCN) in the Congo and the wildlife authorities in Chad, to name but a few.
This explains why the United States has started calling wildlife trafficking a national security threat and is beginning to take more significant action to address the crisis.
Two weeks ago, Hilary Clinton spoke at the White House Forum to Counter Wildlife Trafficking and cited this increased militarization of poaching as a reason for the US to become more involved:
“Illegal poaching and trafficking also represent an economic and security challenge in Africa and beyond. Wildlife trafficking has become more organized, more lucrative and more dangerous than ever before. Poachers now use helicopters, automatic weapons, night vision goggles, satellite phones to overwhelm and even murder park rangers and other local authorities.”
The slaughter of elephants is no doubt a tragedy, but as the deadly attack at the Westgate mall in Kenya shows, the bloodshed fueled by the sale of ivory does not stop with the elephants. Buying ivory helps pay for the bullets and bombs used by terrorists to kill innocent people, including park rangers and now these shoppers in Nairobi.
Highlighting this connection between the sale of ivory and violence is important because a powerful tool in combating the demand for poached ivory is to so thoroughly taint the image of ivory goods that potential consumers are shamed and discouraged from ever buying ivory again.
For more on the ivory trade, ABC News had a good segment on the challenges of distinguishing "illegal" ivory from that which was on the market before the ban was in place.