A growing number of terrorist groups in Africa are turning to the illegal trade of elephant tusks to finance their operations, cashing in on a massive demand for ivory spurred by a burgeoning, wealthier middle class in Asia.
Al Qaeda-affiliated al-Shabab in Somalia, Joseph Kony’s Lord's Resistance Army in central Africa and Boko Haram in Nigeria are among the militants making money from trafficking ivory tusks from slaughtered elephants to pay their fighters and buy arms and ammunition.
“For al-Shabab, ivory, like charcoal, is just a fast and relatively easy way to make some cash, which is needed first of all to pay a salary to its militants, estimated at around 5,000 people,” said Andrea Crosta, executive director of Elephant Action League, who along with Nir Kalron, chief executive officer of the private security firm Maisha Consulting, has recently investigated al-Shabab’s links to ivory trafficking.
“The well-organized network that al-Shabab has in Kenya, the weak wildlife law and the scores of Kenyans willing to risk their life to make some money make the traffic in ivory easy, profitable and low-risk,” Mr. Crosta said.
Somali armed gangs have been poaching elephants in and around Kenya for many years, but al-Shabab has only recently started to exploit this situation. The investigation by Mr. Crosta and Mr. Kalron estimates al-Shabab’s monthly ivory income to be $200,000 to $600,000.
U.S. officials monitoring al-Shabab say they have clamped down significantly on the organization’s finances and that as a result the group is pursuing a variety of other revenue streams.
“We will continue our comprehensive efforts to target the funding streams benefiting al-Shabab and similar regional terrorist groups,” said U.S. Treasury Department spokesman John L. Sullivan. Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control takes the lead among American agencies tracking and clamping down on terrorist financing worldwide.
In December, the U.N. Security Council called for an investigation into elephant poaching and ivory smuggling by the Lord's Resistance Army.
An investigation by the Enough Project and the Satellite Sentinel Project this year found that Kony has ordered his Lord's Resistance Army fighters to bring him elephant tusks, which are then used to buy food, weapons and ammunition.
The report, which studied rebels’ poaching operations in Garamba National Park in Congo, is based on information from multiple sources, including senior defectors from Kony’s group.
Boko Haram, which the State Department on Wednesday designated as a foreign terrorist organization, gets money from ivory trafficking as well.
Many other smaller and illegal armed groups in sub-Saharan Africa are involved in poaching elephants and trafficking ivory.
Ivory is one of many sources of income for terrorist organizations.
“What African governments are realizing and what the U.S. government has realized is that this is not just a conservation issue anymore because the money from this ivory is being used to fund terrorist activities and destabilize regions in Africa,” said Kathleen Garrigan, a spokeswoman for the African Wildlife Foundation. “[These governments] realize this is a peace and security issue.