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Is the Nexus Between the Illegal Wildlife and Forestry Trade and Transnational Security Finally Being Taken Seriously?

Commentary, 15 July 2014
Centre for Financial Crime and Security Studies, Organised Crime, Terrorism, Africa
Deprived of traditional methods of funding from donor countries and the diaspora, terrorist groups such as Al-Shabaab are turning to the illegal wildlife and forestry trade to sustain their activities.

 A female African Bush Elephant raises her trunk as a warning sign in Mikumi National Park, Tanzania Wikimedia Commons p

The recent ‘Rapid Response Assessment’ published jointly by the United Nations Environment Programme and INTERPOL provides a timely reminder that the illegal wildlife trade, and environmental crime more broadly, go ‘well beyond strictly environmental impacts’ affecting security and safety and providing ‘potentially significant threat finance to militias and terrorist groups.’ [1]  In a world where marriages of convenience between the illicit finance of organised crime and the aspirations of terrorists and insurgents are increasingly common, the focus on the nexus between the illegal wildlife and forestry trade (IWFT) and transnational security is an important and overdue development.

The global focus on IWFT is not new.  Over the past forty years, since the establishment of the ‘Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora’ (CITES) in 1973, the global effort to restrict the trade in illegal wildlife and forestry products has been relentless.  Yet despite a blizzard of initiatives, the facts remain depressing.  Elephant, rhinoceros, and tiger populations have been decimated, vast areas of irreplaceable forest have been destroyed, and those that perpetrate these acts benefit from an economy worth up to an estimated $213 billion per annum. [2]  And whilst the focus on the impact that this trade has on conservation and livelihoods has been intense, the wider implications for a nation’s security and safety have not been as closely considered.  In a post-Cold War age where terrorist and insurgent groups no longer benefit from state sponsorship and thus need to rely substantially on self-funding, the ability of IWFT to provide so-called ‘threat finance’ is critical to the survival and advancement of groups such as Al-Shabaab in Somalia, the Sudanese Janjaweed, and the Lord’s Resistance Army.  Arguably, a number of the current, long-running conflicts across Africa are sustained by the finance raised from this illegal trade.

Over the past 12 months, the security risks stemming from a failure to restrict the access enjoyed by terrorists and insurgent groups to the proceeds of IWFT have come to the fore.  In September 2013, former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her daughter Chelsea announced an $80 million partnership, led by the Clinton Global Initiative, to tackle the scourge of elephant poaching in Africa as ‘not just an ecological disaster [but] an economic and security threat as well.’ [3]  Furthermore, the UK hosted a high level inter-governmental conference in London in February 2014 that undertook to investigate the ‘underlying causes and implications of [IWFT], including on…stability and security.’ [4] These initiatives are an indication that the international community is finally making the connection between IWFT and transnational security caused by the need for groups to find new revenue streams as the global counter-terror finance effort restricts traditional sources such as diaspora and donor funding.

Al-Shabaab and the Charcoal Trade

Al-Shabaab’s management of the illegal and UN-sanctioned charcoal trade is a case in point.  In February 2012, this profitable and environmentally destructive business led the UN to pass Security Council Resolution 2036 that ‘expressed concern that charcoal exports from Somalia are a significant revenue source for Al-Shabaab’ and thus decided that UN Member States should ‘take the necessary measures to prevent the direct or indirect import of charcoal from Somalia as well as urging the Somali authorities to take measures to prevent the export of charcoal. [5]  The UN estimated in its 2012 Monitoring Group report that Al-Shabaab earned an income of $25 million per annum from charcoal whilst it controlled the port of Kismayo, [6] charging export taxes, road tolls, and port usage fees, on top of the export proceeds. 

Although control of Kismayo was lost in September 2012, according to the UN, under pressure from local traders the Kenyan army lifted the export ban [7] and as much as one million sacks are once again being exported each month. [8]  Al-Shabaab’s management of the supply and distribution chain outside Kismayo means the group continues to benefit from taxes on transport and rural operations connected with the recommencement of exports.  Indeed, it would seem that the loss of Kismayo may not be the financial catastrophe initially predicted as the UN estimates that Al-Shabaab continues to earn in excess of the $25 million per annum it was amassing prior to losing control of Kismayo.[9]

The Need for a Holistic International Response

This case illuminates the critical imperative for the international community if the financial support for transnational security threats by IWFT is to be disrupted.  A market needs buyers as well as sellers, and on top of the international pressure brought to bear on consumer markets such as China, the UN and other international authorities should clearly ensure that nations controlling transit routes, often via large free-trade zones such as those in the UAE, adhere to UN-sanctioned bans.

As the UNEP/INTERPOL report notes, ‘a global and holistic response needs to be implemented’ if the ongoing current security threat funded by environmental crime is to be addressed.  Whilst conservation and wildlife groups work tirelessly in the field to protect and prevent environmental crime, and fighting terrorists and insurgents on the ground may provide short-term gains, the real benefits will be secured by cutting off lifeblood funding, and this means countries hosting markets and transit routes needed to be held to account.

A former investment banker, Tom Keatinge is now an analyst of finance and security and is an Associate Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute.


[2] Ibid. p. 7

[8] It is reported that four million sacks with a market value of $60 million were stockpiled at the port at the time of its recapture.  Ibid., p38

[9] The UN highlights the checkpoint at Buulo Xaaji near the Kenyan border which generates $675,000 to $1.5 million per month primarily from taxing charcoal trucks travelling to Kismayo.  Ibid., p39


Tom Keatinge
Director, Centre for Financial Crime and Security Studies, RUSI

Tom Keatinge is the Director of the Centre for Financial Crime and Security Studies at RUSI, where his research focuses on matters at... read more

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