John Campbell

Africa in Transition

Campbell tracks political and security developments across sub-Saharan Africa.

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The Danger of False Narratives: Al-Shabaab’s Faux Ivory Trade

by Guest Blogger for John Campbell
June 5, 2015

A pile of 15 tonnes of ivory confiscated from smugglers and poachers is arranged before being burnt to mark World Wildlife Day at the Nairobi National Park March 3, 2015. (Thomas Mukoya/Reuters) A pile of 15 tonnes of ivory confiscated from smugglers and poachers is arranged before being burnt to mark World Wildlife Day at the Nairobi National Park March 3, 2015. (Thomas Mukoya/Reuters)


This is a guest post by Jessica L. Anderson, a PhD student in political science at the George Washington University.

Elephants are being slaughtered and their tusks sold, in order to finance deadly attacks by Somalia’s terrorist group al-Shabaab. This narrative linking poaching and al-Shabaab financing has been widely touted. It hit the international spotlight thanks to high profile attention from U.S. congressmen, former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta. Oscar winner Kathryn Bigelow also released a short film on the topic in 2014.

The only problem with this narrative is that it is unfounded. It is based entirely on a 2013 Elephant Action League (EAL) report, which states that al-Shabaab earns $200,000 to $600,000 per month from ivory. The figure stems from research carried out three years earlier by Maisha Consulting, who have not offered evidence to substantiate their estimate. A recent U.N. Environment Programme study suggests that EAL’s conclusion doesn’t make sense. Indeed, the U.N. Monitoring Group for Somalia and Eritrea has never found evidence of ivory trading in either country.

Rather than relying on illegal ivory trade, for years, al-Shabaab predominantly financed its activities with charcoal. People throughout the Arab Gulf—including in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen—have long depended on Somali charcoal. In fact, al-Shabaab’s coal business reached, at its peak, between $38 and $56 million per year. Al-Shabaab additionally profits from trading sugar and taxing small shops and businesses.

Erroneous narratives like this one about al-Shabaab are dangerous. They can misdirect international attention, efforts, and financial contributions, with significant cost to real issues on the ground. One example comes from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Popular advocacy groups like the Enough Project and Global Witness mischaracterized the conflict in eastern DRC, presenting trade minerals as a primary cause of violence in the country and highlighting sexual violence as a main consequence. As a result of this oversimplification—the conflict in the DRC has been fueled by competition for political power, control over resources, and local-level disputes among other factors—United Nations agencies, the World Bank, and other international organizations paid disproportionate attention to sexual violence and the mineral trade. Doing so distracted from other critical and pervasive issues, like community-level land conflicts, corruption, and state administration dysfunction. Similarly, a 2010 anti-trafficking campaign in South Africa, relying on fabricated data, suggested that forty thousand girls and women were being trafficked into the country in the lead up to the 2010 World Cup. Several organizations like the International Organization for Migration (IOM) redirected resources toward victims of trafficking who did not exist. The campaign diverted attention from critical needs in South Africa, such as the million economic migrants fleeing Zimbabwe at the time.

In this case, misrepresenting al-Shabaab’s role in the ivory trade could be detrimental for both elephants and anti-terror efforts. First, the al-Shabaab ivory narrative diverts attention from the many actors, including the Lord’s Resistance Army and Janjaweed, who actually profit from poaching. International efforts should be directed toward stopping these groups. Additionally, the inaccuracies of the campaign distract from al-Shabaab’s actual charcoal revenue stream, which should remain a central focus for anti-terror efforts. Finally, the campaign’s false premise calls into question the credibility of conservation movements. Though unintended, this campaign’s false narrative has misled international institutions and the general public to believe al-Shabaab is involved in ivory trade, which could have a high price: it could leave us with more terrorists and less elephants.

Post a Comment 5 Comments

  • Posted by Elephant Action League

    We would like to note that the author of this article never bothered contacting us to obtain more information on our investigation on ivory traffic and al-Shabaab, a research already three years old.
    Behind close-door meetings we did provide additional background information to security professionals and some NGOs.
    Some video recordings of this investigation will be released for the first time only in early January 2016, for security reasons.

    The Elephant Action League never denied that charcoal represents a much bigger source of cash, it’s pretty clear though, you just need to visit a few Somali ports. We simply stated that al-Shabaab was in 2010-2012 an important ivory buyer in Eastern Africa.

    Yesterday, the Kenyan Police released details linking the Kenyan banned extremist group MRC, close to al-Shabaab, to a 3 tons ivory shipping seized last month in Thailand:

  • Posted by Chirchir

    Spot on! Many a times we have aligned our campaigns on untested research. The theory of KDF being involved with charcoal trade is another of a good example of UN monitoring group getting it wrong. I trust your article will help a whole lot of us to stop and investigate some narratives being merchandized!

  • Posted by Jengi2003

    I’m not disagreeing with you Jessica but as you have highlighted, a lot of the problems in the countries you have mentioned – Somalia, DRC, Etc…are incredibly complex and often interlinked. It is important to highlight these issues to engage the general public in the hope that they in some way will take action on whatever level is appropriate for them. If we were to talk about these issues in the depth and complexity as they exist, it is incredibly overwhelming for the general public, ie non-experts, potentially leaving them disengaged and much less likely to take action. As I said, I don’t disagree with you, we certainly haven’t got the balance right, but simplifying topics, perhaps overly so, is the only way to help non-experts understand what is going on in some of these countries. As you have pointed out, we certainly need to take more care with information campaigns to make sure information is simple but remains accurate so any subsequent aid is sent in the most effective direction.

  • Posted by Arnaud Zajtman

    Interesting thank you

  • Posted by Charcoal trader

    will done
    If you need my help Iam waiting about Somalia charcoal
    With documents,dates,people,companies
    Every ship and every port
    Until now it’s exported and imported
    Any help I just waiting

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