Africa’s White Gold of Jihad: al-Shabaab and Conflict Ivory

An Undercover Investigation on Ivory and Terrorism
By Nir Kalron (Founder & CEO of Maisha Consulting) and Andrea Crosta (Executive Director & Co-Founder of the Elephant Action League)

Nairobi, 2011-2012 – Coordinated bomb attacks in Kampala, Uganda, on 11th July 2010, claimed the lives of 76 people as they watched the World Cup final and catapulted the terrorist group responsible, Somalia’s al-Shabaab, onto the world stage. The threat presented by this militant Islamist group with close links to al-Qaeda dominated recent African Union talks in Uganda and has prompted moves to strengthen the AU peacekeeping mission in Somalia. But while attention is focused on sending more troops into the war-torn country, little attention is being paid to the ways in which al-Shabaab – a hard line, well-organized and compartmentalized organization – is financing its activities. Over the last 18 months, we’ve been investigating the involvement of al-Shabaab in trafficking ivory through Kenya, a trade that could be supplying up to 40% of the funds needed to keep them in business.

Kenya is no stranger to the threat posed by Somalia to its herds of elephants and rhinos, whose numbers are still recovering from the poaching onslaught suffered in the 1970s and ‘80s. Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) is constantly on the alert for incursions of Somali gangs – or bandits as locals call them – into the country’s north eastern territory to poach elephants and rhinos. In 2007, 3 rangers died at the hands of Somali bandits as they crossed the Tana River on their way to Tsavo National Park. The incursion was halted but the cost in human life was high.

Elephant Action League - Somalia, undercover investigation on ivoryAll too often, however, the bandits slip across the border undetected, in their quest for the white trophy that is ivory. One can try to recount the poacher’s steps as they make their way to Meru National Park, east of Mount Kenya. In the early hours of the morning, a small group of elephants led by their matriarch approach a waterhole, unaware that three bandits are hiding just a few meters away, their AK-47 automatic rifles ready for action. With tusks worth nearly 3500 KSh or nearly US$50 per kilo, the elephants offer a lucrative prize to these trained ex-soldiers of Somali origin, desperate to make a living.

The elephants begin to bathe in the mud of the waterhole. They have an acute sense of smell so the bandits know they have to act swiftly before the elephants can react to the threat of danger. The leader signals to the others as they fix their sights on the matriarch and a large male standing hunched together – the three calves won’t fetch enough money for them to bother with. A burst of automatic fire drops the two elephants instantly to the ground. The matriarch is fatally wounded but still alive as the bandits hack out her tusks, watched helplessly by the young calves. Shocked and traumatised, they will have little chance of surviving alone. The bandits load their prize and head out to safety. The leader takes out his cell phone and writes a quick message, ‘brother we have some goods to deliver, around 40 kilos, contact our cousins and lets make the deal’. In a Nairobi restaurant, a cell phone jerks into life and a young well-dressed Somali checks the screen. He reads the message carefully and takes out a notepad. The notepad reveals a page full of numbers and quantities in kilos. He marks down the amounts and adds them all together in his head. Using a small Iridium Sat phone he dials a number with a Somali prefix. On the other end, a man sitting in an office in Kismayo, Somalia picks up the call – is office is heavily guarded by Shabaab militiamen – their signature black flag waving on a pole above their heads . He notes down the quantities and sets a date for the pick-up.

Unfortunately, poaching incidents likes Meru and illegal trafficking in ivory are still rampant in Africa. With demand soaring and a market price in Asia of over US$1500 per kilo, for most poaching gangs it is a simple matter of money. Moreover, the desperate political and economic situation in countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Central African Republic (CAR), Somalia or Sudan perpetuates the poaching, which continues to be among the most lucrative criminal activities available. However, in common with other criminal activities involving exploitation of resources and environmental destruction, the poaching is backed and driven by foreign interests, in this case by the flourishing markets in Asia.

Today, law enforcement agencies around the continent work together with INTERPOL and other international agencies, such as the Lusaka Agreement Task Force, to fight the illegal trade in wildlife and to implement rules agreed under CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. It is well known that criminal syndicates are involved in the trade, using sophisticated smuggling methods, bribing port personnel and customs officials, and using their own entrepreneurial activities as a cover for their smuggling operations.

For the last twenty years, Kenya has led the war against trade in ivory and rhino horn. Established in 1989, the KWS has been in the forefront not only of actively protecting Kenya’s wildlife and national parks, but also in investigating and arresting felons, and in international negotiations under CITES to try to maintain a ban on international trade in the face of strong opposition.

Surrounded by porous borders, Kenya has long been a transit point for illegal ivory. In an attempt to crack down on this trade, KWS recently stepped up pressure at the country’s ports and airports where ivory is smuggled out. As a result, dealers looking for fast money and an easier market have turned to a new player in the game – Al Shabaab.

We went undercover in Kenya to investigate some of the links in the ivory trafficking chain leading to al-Shabaab. The investigation uncovered a sophisticated network of poachers, small and big-time brokers, and informants, all linked to the trade in ivory and rhino horn. Our enquiries reached across the border into neighboring Somalia where we established a link between the traders and al-Shaabab. According to our inside sources, Shabaab has been actively buying and selling ivory as a means of funding their militant operations.

It starts with a phone call…..

Our first encounter with a group of poachers is at a hotel in Kenya’s capital, Nairobi. Our contact has reached out through the Somali network and found an ally from his own subclan who knows Somalis engaged in poaching in the area around Isiolo in eastern Kenya. The interview gets off to a nervous start. The chance that we’re involved in a law enforcement ‘sting’ operation is high in Kenya. But after a few cold long drinks, the poachers begin to relax and divulge details of their modus operandi.

It starts with a phone call. On one end of the line is a ‘big broker’ from one of the end-user countries in Asia or the Gulf states and on the other a ‘big broker’ from Kenya, invariably of Somali origin. An order for ivory is placed in tons and a price is fixed. Next, the Kenyan broker contacts groups of small-time brokers and sets a timetable for delivery. The small-time brokers in turn contact poachers or venture out to kill elephants themselves. To fill their quotas they must reach out to other agents smuggling ivory from countries as far away as DRC or CAR where the chances of being caught are slim compared with Kenya.

Elephant Action League - Undercover investigation on Somali ivory traffickersUndercover footages. Credits: EAL

A punctual and reliable market – the al-Shabaab link

A few ‘large’ brokers place orders with the Isiolo gang on a monthly basis. The ivory is then delivered to the broker who pays around US$50 per kilo. The tusks are packed in 4×4 vehicles and driven towards the over 680 km border between Kenya and Somalia.
The broker meets with his al-Shabaab counterparts from the other side and the deal is done. ‘Punctuality and good prices’ mean that Kenyan brokers are keen to work with al-Shabaab. According to our source, their agents pay better than others, and bring their own balance to double-check the weight of the tusks. This unexpected combination of organizational and financial skills helps understand the efficiency in which al-Shabaab now controls most of southern and central Somalia.

The ivory crosses the border at points such as Liboi in south-east Kenya. It is then escorted in 4×4 technicals (Somali war wagons) to the Somali ports and exit routes There the shipment is cut into blocks and hidden in crates of charcoal. The crates are loaded into traditional dhows and taken out to sea where they are transferred to larger vessels and carried to the Gulf states for processing into bigger shipments that make their way east. According to a source within al-Shabaab, these larger vessels are of Arabic, Chinese, Iranian and Korean origin.

It is unclear how much rhino horn is being smuggled out. However, since Kenya’s rhino population, which numbers just a few hundreds, is under close protection by KWS, poaching demands a more sophisticated scheme involving considerable planning and risk. Thus, taking under consideration the Kenyan government’s considerable efforts to suppress poaching in its territory, it is becoming clearer that Kenya serves mostly as a transit point for the contraband. Its enormous border with neighboring countries like, Sudan, Somalia, Ethiopia, Tanzania and Uganda make it a security nightmare for Kenyan law enforcement agencies. Moreover, Kenya’s tough stance on any kind of poaching voiced in international conventions and the media , has contributed to some degree of isolation from disagreeing neighbors, making the clamp down on the illegal trade in wildlife an even more daunting task.

Inside Somalia – understanding the role of al-Shabaab

Following the Shabaab ivory trail into Somalia required assistance from courageous local Somalis who want to rid their country of the oppression and killing that is Shabaab’s trademark. Its rise to power may have been popular, but Shabaab now offers a grim future for most Somalis who live and practice Islam in a peaceful and traditional way.

Understanding how Shabaab has been able to hold on to power in large parts of Somalia requires an understanding of its intricate system of finance. First and foremost, Shabaab’s success can be attributed to its ability to pay its soldiers adequately. A young Shabaab fighter can earn US$300 a month from his regional commander as a loyalty fee while his food, water, khat (a local drug also known as mirrar) and weaponry is additionaly supplied by Shabaab leadership. In comparison, a soldier fighting for the Transitional Federal Government (TFG), fresh out of Kenyan and Ugandan training camps, will have a hard time earning as much, forcing him quite literally to bite the radical bullet and change sides.

In effect, ivory serves as one of the lifelines of al-Shabaab, enabling it to maintain its grip over young soldiers, most of who are not radically motivated. According to a source within the militant group, between one to three tons of ivory, fetching a price of roughly US$200 per kilo, pass through the ports in southern Somalia every month.

A quick calculation puts Shabaab’s monthly income from ivory at between US$200,000 and US$600,000. Maintaining an army of roughly 5,000 men, each earning US$300 USD, demands at least US$1,500,000 a month, of which the ivory trade can supply a big chunk of it.

Ivory plays just one part in the bigger picture. Foreign funding raised through the Hawala system and Islamic “charities” with a hidden agenda, supplemented by criminal activities, enables al-Shabaab to hold on to its troops. The criminal activities include taxation of businesses and NGOs, trafficking in drugs, arms and humans, and involvement in counterfeit currency. The Taliban and Hezbollah have both used the same methods, financing their costly military expenditure through criminal activities involving the production and trafficking of opiates, marijuana, diamonds and other minerals, along with credit card scams and other illicit activities.

What becomes clear from the testimonies of poachers, brokers and Shabaab members, is the degree of interest and importance which the ivory trade has within the organization. Shabaab’s involvement in the trade could be purely opportunistic, a result of recruiting members who previously made their living out of poaching and who are now putting their ‘talents’ to use in their new occupation. The more plausible reason, however, given al-Shabaab’s organizational skill and relative military success, is that the trafficking is the result of clear calculation and strategic financial planning as well as strong contacts with international criminal syndicates and brokers.

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.

Unfortunately, shutting down Shabaab’s illegal activities in southern and central Somalia is simply not possible in the current circumstances. The TFG is barely able to hold on to 4 sq km around the capital Mogadishu or to pay its soldiers, let alone orchestrate a coordinated crackdown.

Conflict ivory – threatening Kenya and funding African jihad

al-Shabaab’s trafficking in ‘conflict ivory’ should sound alarm bells throughout the security and conservation worlds. This substantial source of undetected funds enables Shabaab to continue financing its war to control Somalia and perpetrate acts of terror like the bomb attacks in Kampala.

Recent estimates suggest that up to 38,000 elephants are being killed each year—on average up to 104 a day. Kenya’s elephant population is slowly recovering, but this latest development on the country’s volatile northern border presents a clear and imminent danger that could undermine the last twenty years of work.

Without swift and concerted action, the consequences for Kenya and its neighboring countries could be disastrous, from a human and economic standpoint as well as for conservation. The region is in urgent need of more pro-active support from the international community. Limited statements and financial aid are not enough. There needs to be more intelligence gathering on the ground in preparation for a frontal assault on al-Shabaab by a joint AU force. Its ability to operate freely over most of the country needs to be disrupted – in short, Shabaab needs to be kept constantly on the run.

The deadly path of conflict ivory starts with the slaughter of innocent animals and ends in the slaughter of innocent people. It is a source of funding for terrorist organizations that transcends cruelty. It is the ‘white gold’ for African jihad, white for its color and gold for its value. If we fail to act now, militant groups like al-Shabaab will lay down their roots deep in the African landscape, destroying its heritage for generations to come. Dangerous and unpredictable, al-Shabaab’s involvement in ivory trade brings with it an alarming dimension, a dimension the world cannot afford to ignore.

With thanks to Rosalind Reeve for editorial assistance with this article.

Photo: wehelmedia.com

Elephant Advocacy League - Al Shabaab, Somalia -  Photo: wehelmedia.com