By Derek Schlickeisen
What do endangered elephants and rhinos have in common with one of Africa’s most dangerous terrorist organizations? More than you might think.
Headlines were made around the world last September when masked gunmen attacked the upscale Westgate shopping complex in Nairobi, Kenya. The assault killed six security personnel and 61 civilians, including 2004 Johns Hopkins SAIS graduate Elif Yavuz. Credit for the brutality was claimed by al-Shabaab, an al-Qaeda-linked jihadist group that controlled much of neighboring Somalia until late 2011, when a joint Kenyan-Somali military operation began to drive the militants out of their urban strongholds. In a statement after the attacks, al-Shabaab explicitly named Kenyan participation in the offensive as motivation for the slaughter.
Fewer headlines have been made, however, by Kenya’s other long-running battle against al-Shabaab: that being waged by the Kenya Wildlife Service in the country’s northeastern region against poachers from the militant group that slip across the border in search of “white gold” – tusks from the country’s 35,000 African elephants.
The global market for illegal wildlife products funnels more than $19 billion a year to international criminal syndicates and terrorist organizations like al-Shabaab. In 2013, an undercover investigation by Maisha Consulting and the Elephant Action League shed light on the role played by African ivory in this massive illicit cash flow.