International New York Times, Op-Ed
Late last year, the Oscar-winning director Kathryn Bigelow produced a powerful short called “Last Days,” about the dangers and depredations of “ivory-funded terrorism.” Viewers — and Ms. Bigelow’s celebrity friends — were encouraged to share #LastDays on social media, which many duly did. Their efforts gave yet another boost to the widely accepted belief that terrorists across Africa are killing elephants and selling the ivory to finance their attacks. But like her full-length feature film “Zero Dark Thirty,” Ms. Bigelow is offering a beguiling story divorced from reality.She is not alone in accepting the ivory-terrorism connection. It has been widely reported that Al Qaeda’s East Africa branch, the Shabab, uses ivory sales to fund deadly attacks like the one on Nairobi’s Westgate mall in 2013. Some also claim that Boko Haram, Islamic State’s West Africa affiliate, is in part underwritten by ivory. Hillary Clinton and other politicians have made repeated assertions that ivory funds terrorism. There is “growing evidence that the terrorist groups stalking Africa, including the Shabab with its horrific attack on the mall in Nairobi, fund their terrorist activities to a great extent from ivory trafficking,” Ms. Clinton said in 2013 at a meeting of her Clinton Global Initiative, where $80 million was promised to fight poaching. It is a message with broad popular appeal: Save the elephants and stop terrorists at the same time.
Yet there’s no credible evidence that international terrorist groups like Al Qaeda or the Islamic State are involved. And though it is true that murderous regional militias like the Lord’s Resistance Army and Sudan’s Janjaweed deal in illegal ivory, unlike the Shabab, Boko Haram or the Islamic State, they do not have an expansionist ideology with international aspirations.
Why does that matter? Perhaps differentiating between global terrorists and regional militias is making a distinction without a difference. After all, terrorists are bad and poaching is bad so why fuss over the details?
It matters because global terrorism and the international ivory trade are distinct problems, requiring different strategies; conflating the two risks undermining the fight against both. Halting the illegal ivory trade demands much more than stopping the poachers with guns (they, after all, are a symptom not a cause); it requires targeting entrenched transnational criminal gangs and the corruption they thrive upon as well as suppressing global consumer demand, especially in Asia. Claiming terrorist involvement in the ivory business shields the real criminal drivers of the trade, while also obscuring, and therefore helping to leave intact, the true sources of terror financing.
The real killers of African elephants are criminal enterprises with the ability to establish and maintain supply chains stretching from the forests of Africa to the markets of Asia, greasing palms and paying off corrupt officials every step of the way. If you want to stop poaching you need to aim at the right target — corruption, criminals and the buyers of illegal ivory — and use the right law enforcement weapons.
Mobile phone records can be used to map and expose criminal networks, paper trails reveal the shipping and freight companies that move ivory, while financial investigations expose the people behind the trade and the corrupt officials they pay off. In short, what’s needed is good detective work, not sophisticated military-grade equipment rerouted from the war on terror.
The influx of war-fighting matériel is already having a worrying impact on conservation in Africa, where an arms race is underway as national wildlife agencies fall over one another to tool up to fight the supposed terrorists behind the trade, while foreign governments eagerly provide them with the means to do it. Surveillance drones, night-vision goggles and radios may be helpful in thwarting poachers, but do nothing to address the cause of the illegal ivory trade and will not, alone, end it.
Terrorist organizations, meanwhile, benefit from their portrayal as the beneficiaries of ivory money because it misdirects efforts to target their financing. The Shabab, for example, funds itself through local taxation on businesses and extortion at roadblocks in the areas it controls, donations from sympathizers abroad and involvement in the large-scale smuggling of charcoal and sugar.
The primary source for the ivory-terrorism narrative is a report published online in 2011 by the California-based nonprofit, Elephant Action League, entitled “Africa’s White Gold of Jihad: Al-Shabaab and Conflict Ivory,” in which a single unnamed source “within the militant group” claims the Shabab earns “up to 40 percent” of its money from ivory, equivalent to a monthly income of “between $200,000 and $600,000.”
The story metastasized after the Westgate assault, when a string of commentators — including Kenya’s president and the people behind the Elephant Action League report — linked the killing of at least 67 people by four Shabab gunmen to the ivory trade.
But that link is “total nonsense,” according to Christian Nellemann, author of a joint United Nations Environment Program and Interpol report on global environmental crime. Matt Bryden, a former coordinator of the United Nations Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea told me, “We saw nothing and we heard nothing about ivory” during the four years he was in charge. His successors concurred.
In September, the Royal United Services Institute, a respected London-based think tank, published a deeply researched paper entitled “An Illusion of Complicity: Terrorism and the Illegal Ivory Trade in East Africa” picking apart the ivory-terrorism story. “The illusion of a terrorism-ivory trade nexus distracts policy makers and law-enforcement agencies,” the authors, Tom Maguire and Cathy Haenlein, warned. They said that the ivory-terrorism narrative relies on conflating Somali poachers with the Shabab, and African militias with international terrorists, and misdirects attention that should be paid to “highly networked organized crime groups, brokers and corrupt government officials.”
Terrorism and the illegal ivory trade are both serious concerns, but they are not the same. Entangling the two grabs attention but it misleads the public and distracts policy makers and law enforcement officials from their real quarry. It undermines efforts to fight both terrorism and poaching effectively and is dangerous, for both elephants — whose criminal predators remain hidden in the shadows — and the people who fall victim to terrorist groups whose real sources of financing remain intact.