Kenya terror gang funded by elephant poaching

Black market, white gold: Government workers prepare to destroy poached ivory © Getty Images

In the wake of a horrific attack on a Kenyan shopping centre, the world is now discovering how the killers were funded. What is the link between terrorism and organised crime?

As Kenya begins a three-day period of national mourning for the victims of a brutal terrorist attack on a shopping mall, the world’s media have turned their attention on the group which carried out the killing. And much of its funding, it appears, comes from a surprising source.

Al Shabaab is a militant organisation with a radically conservative ideology based on a fundamentalist reading of Islam. In Somalia, where it is based, al Shabaab has been fighting a devastating civil war. Much of the country is still under the militants’ control, and some of the group’s money comes from exploiting the wealth of those areas.

But in the past two years, with aid from an alliance of countries including Kenya, al Shabaab has been driven out of many key cities – including the Somali capital Mogadishu. Needing new sources of income, the terrorists turned to a luxury product available in relative abundance on the African plains: ivory.

This so-called ‘white gold’ is produced from elephant tusks. And under international agreements, trade in freshly harvested tusks is strictly banned. Yet delicately sculpted ivory goods still sell in markets from Manhattan to Beijing for hefty sums. Every elephant a poacher catches can earn them over £600 per tusk.

Al Shabaab is now estimated to earn around 40% of its revenues from the poaching of elephants and other protected species. And it is not the first time that extremists have terrorised animals as well as humans. The Lord’s Resistance Army, a notorious militia which has ravaged Central Africa for decades, also earned much of its money from poaching.

In other parts of the world, terrorism is linked to a different kind of organised crime: the drugs trade. South American militants such as Colombia’s Farc survive on the cocaine that is produced prodigiously in the region; al Qaeda is partly sustained by heroin derived from poppies grown in Afghanistan.

Trading in terror

Slaughtering endangered animals, selling dangerous and addictive drugs, consorting with ruthless criminals: it’s a damning portfolio, some say. Terrorists justify their atrocities by claiming that they are a part of some moral crusade; if anybody needs proof of how empty these claims are, all they need to do is follow the money.

Maybe so, others reply. But follow the money a little further and you will discover that it is not only terrorists and criminals who are stained by it: illicit products are sold on black markets all over the world. If there were no terrorists, there would still be crime. But without crime, terrorist organisations would dry up. If we want to stop violence, we must stop buying ivory and cocaine.

You Decide

  1. Would it bother you if elephants stopped existing in the wild? If so, why?
  2. ‘People who buy illegal products are just as bad as the criminals who sell them.’ Do you agree?


  1. As a class, think of as many factors as you can that lead to terrorism and violence. Then arrange them in order of importance.
  2. Research an endangered animal and make a fact file about it: how many exist, and where? Why is it under threat?

Some People Say...

“No animal should be turned into accessories or clothes.”

What do you think?

Q & A

I love elephants! It would be so sad if they died out.
Yes – and according to conservationists that really is a risk. An elephant is killed for its tusks roughly once every 15 minutes. At that rate there will be no wild African elephants by 2025. If you want to campaign against poaching, there are protests occurring in 15 cities next Friday (October 4th), organised by the website, which is also running a ‘digital march’. Get involved!
What about the terrorists? Should I be worried about them?
World leaders certainly are: al Shabaab’s activities may be mostly confined to East Africa at the moment, but they are spreading further afield and there are fears that they could export terror to Europe, America and the Middle East.

Word Watch

Terrorist attack
Militants bearing grenades and rifles stormed a mall in Kenya’s capital Nairobi on Saturday, killing staff and shoppers and taking many more hostage. The ensuing siege lasted two days, and its total death toll is now estimated to be 72 – although al Shabaab allege that it is higher.
Rigidly interpreting a traditional set of principles and laws, usually those set out by a religious text or tradition.
China is one of the most fertile markets for illegally poached animal products of all kinds. Some are sold as folk remedies for various medical conditions; others are eaten as delicacies. Some conservationists argue that persuading Chinese people to stop consuming endangered species is the only way to prevent poaching.
Lord’s Resistance Army
A private army headed by the self-proclaimed Christian prophet Joseph Kony that has been accused of some of the most horrific human rights abuses of recent times. The LRA has terrorised a number of countries including Sudan, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, massacring whole villages and forcing children to become killers.
The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, a leftist force that has been engaged in a battle against the Colombian government since the 1960s. Farc previously made money from kidnapping as well, but has recently renounced this practice.

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