Monday, March 3, 2014

Funding Terrorism via Poaching and Organized Crime

In early January 2014 Mr. Johan Bergenas of the Stimson Center prepared a report called Killing Animals, Buying Arms.  This brief 17-page report woke me up to the concerns of rhino and elephant poaching in East Africa and its eventual financial support for local and global terrorists.  It is a disconcerting state of affairs.

Some disturbing facts that are not well publicized include:

  • Wildlife has become the 4th largest illicitly traded product in the world.  It is a $19B USD industry.  Illegal wildlife trade is larger than illicit trafficking of small arms, diamonds, gold and oil.
  • Transnational criminals and terrorist organizations such as Al-Shabaab and the Lord's Resistance Army make hundreds of thousands of dollars every month by partaking directly or indirectly in the killing and sale of animal parts.  Part of their proceeds go towards buying guns and bombs, paying their members, and planning and executing terrorist attacks.
  • The Elephant Action League -- an independent organization fighting elephant exploitation and poaching -- asserts that Al-Shabaab exports poached ivory via southern Somalia ports.  The tusks are cut into blocks and hidden in crates of charcoal.  Their monthly income is reported to be $200,000 to $600,000 USD per month.  The ivory sells for $3,000 per 2.2 pounds (kilogram) in China.
  • A rhino horn is worth $50,000 USD per pound on the black market -- more than gold or platinum.  A rhino is killed by a poacher every 11 hours.
The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) has published several studies on organized crime and its global and regional impact.  In its seminal report issued in 2010, the UNODC depicted the geographic challenges with ivory export as shown below:

In its 2013 regional report on organized crime in Eastern Africa (UNODC) the theme of money being made from ivory continued.  In the report they note "It is estimated that between 5,600 and 15,400 elephants are poached in Eastern Africa annually, producing between 56 and 154 metric tons of illicit ivory, of which two-thirds (37 tons) is destined for Asia, worth around US$30 million in 2011."  But the area is also a concentration of illegal -- and profitable -- activities such as human trafficking, heroin transportation, and piracy -- besides ivory and rhino horn poaching.

At a US Senate hearing in May 2012, Mr. Tom Cardamone of Global Financial Integrity observed in his  written testimony that ever since the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and actions taken by Congress/Administration to target terrorist financing has nearly eliminated shell banks and decapitated Al Qaeda's central command.  As such the terrorists are cash-starved and looking for new sources of funding.  Hence, illicit trafficking of wildlife is one way the Al Qaeda affiliates have chosen to raise money.  As an example, two Bangladesh-based Islamic terrorist groups affiliated with Al Qaeda are raising funds for their operations via illegal poaching of ivory, tiger pelts and Rhino horns in the jungles of northeastern India.  And, during its years of war with Northern Sudan, the Sudan People’s Liberation Army  is alleged to have poached “...elephants with grenades and rocket‐propelled guns.”

And...when it comes to Al-Shabaab, the same 2013 report notes,  "Members of Al-Shabaab have been linked to ivory poaching in Kenya and to a Tanzanian Islamist group reportedly linked to heroin trafficking. They have also allegedly taxed pirates working from the ports they control..."

The Elephant Action League says it best, "If you buy ivory, you kill people."  But as noted in all three of the reports cited above, each one says that the task at hand is difficult and requires money and resources to even slow the poaching and subsequently the flow of money to the terrorists.  Border security needs to be stronger, needs to be enforced and the markets for the ivory and illicit items need to be closed.  Also, oversight of cash transfers need to be tightly regulated in the more "suspicious" parts of the world.

Sadly, this sounds daunting and challenging.  I hope this blog raises awareness and guides some action.