New RUSI Report: Sophisticated criminal networks at the heart of illegal ivory trade in East Africa

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A new report by RUSI suggests that links made between the illegal ivory trade and terrorism in East Africa are vastly exaggerated. This has diverted attention from the real threat of organised crime and widespread corruption to wildlife in the region.

The new report An Illusion of Complicity: Terrorism and the Illegal Ivory Trade in East Africa’ by Tom Maguire and Cathy Haenlein examines the claims that poaching and ivory trafficking are funding terrorist groups in the region. In particular the report considers the widespread fears that Al-Shabaab, the Somali terrorist group, is a major beneficiary of the illegal ivory trade.

Evidence to support these fears is extremely limited and relies on a flawed analysis that nevertheless has gained currency as part of a powerful narrative in the media. The narrative has influenced governments, NGOs and conservation advocates.

The report offers a new, objective and nuanced analysis to better inform policy regarding these issues. It describes in detail the main sources of Al Shabaab’s funding which includes widespread taxation in Somalia and on the export of charcoal and importation of a range of commodities. Annual revenue from the illegal charcoal trade from Somalia has been estimated at $38–56 million by the UN and INTERPOL.

At the same time a ‘poaching crisis’ is engulfing the region leading to ivory trafficking on an industrial scale. Focusing on Al Shabaab risks ‘diverting attention from the trade’s main facilitators’: organised crime and corruption in East Africa and beyond. The report observes how 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.’

Tom Maguire said: ‘With attention required on so many fronts, the ivory-terrorism narrative serves as nothing more than a distraction from the international community’s efforts to tackle Al-Shabaab financing.

Concerted efforts need to be made to strengthen law enforcement and ensure more effective legal frameworks and deterrents’ in order to better map trafficking networks for targeted interventions, arrests and prosecutions.

In his foreword to the report, William Hague, former UK Foreign Secretary and RUSI’s new Chairman, argues that ‘it is important that we focus on the evidence available to us. A false assumption or mistaken conclusion could lead us to focus on policy areas and capabilities which do not have the impact on the illegal ivory trade that we so urgently need.’

Acknowledging the need to more effectively tackle Al-Shabaab financing and the illegal ivory trade in their own right, the report makes a number of recommendations including:

Restricting Al-Shabaab Financing

  • Concerted efforts to re-establish formal mechanisms to allow the secure flow of remittances to Somalia. These could include ‘safe corridors’ through which funds can be more safely remitted
  • Continuing efforts to tackle Al-Shabaab’s trade-based financing. Greater engagement with the UAE and Saudi Arabia as the primary regional trading hubs for charcoal and sugar should be prioritised.

Countering the Illegal Ivory Trade

  • Efforts to address the lack of intelligence and investigative capacity in the fight against the illegal ivory trade in East Africa.
  • Greater co-operation between agencies, in the form of cross-border and inter-agency information sharing across the region and beyond. This is vital to collecting actionable intelligence and conducting credible investigations into transnational OCGs.
  • Broader measures to target the onward transit and destination stages of the supply chain.

Given that it is playing a major role in both challenges, the paper also presents policy recommendations for the UK Government as well:

  • Capitalise on its position as a permanent member of the Security Council, its strong bilateral relationships and its longstanding support to governments in East Africa, to drive forward the international agenda in the fight against the IWT with a particular focus on organized crime and corruption

Notes to Editors

  1. ’An Illusion of Complicity: Terrorism and the Illegal Ivory Trade in East Africa’ is written by Tom Maguire and Cathy Haenlein.
  2. Download paper here
  3. RUSI is an independent think-tank for defence and security. RUSI is a unique institution; founded in 1831 by the Duke of Wellington, it embodies nearly two centuries of forward thinking, free discussion and careful reflection on defence and security matters.


Tom Maguire

Visiting Fellow

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Cathy Haenlein

Director, Organised Crime and Policing

Organised Crime and Policing

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