How poaching fuels terrorism funding
Half a million dollars. That's how much it cost Osama bin Laden and his band of extremists to carry out the most deadly attack on U.S. soil since Pearl Harbor.
Fast forward 13 years, and bin Laden may be dead, but the threat from Islamic extremists has never been greater. But weapons, surveillance equipment, training, food, lodging and travel all cost money. That suggests that if we want to fight terrorism, then there's one important thing we need to do: Follow the money trail.
There are pockets of terrorist organizations all around the world, and global terrorism has become a sophisticated and organized criminal enterprise run by radical operatives. We have seen this most recently with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), a terrorist army that has raised billions through extortion, drugs, bank robbery, kidnapping, and oil smuggling. We also saw this with Boko Haram, which kidnapped hundreds of young girls in Nigeria and then reportedly sold some of them for $12 apiece. Money is power and that is no different in the business of terrorism.
But while the focus on groups like ISIS has generally been, for example, on their ability to convert the oil fields under their control into cash, there's one source of funding for terrorism that is often overlooked: poaching.
The illegal wildlife trade is a $7 billion to $10 billion per year business, with the main consumers of this illicit yet lucrative slaughter business being located in Asia.
Why? In China, for example, some believe that ivory and rhino horns have special healing powers. In Vietnam, a rhino horn is a status symbol, one that they also think can cure a hangover. According to the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service, a rhino horn sells for $65,000 a kilogram in Asia. That's more expensive than silver, gold and diamonds. That's more expensive than cocaine.
With that kind of profit available, coupled with the high demand, we have seen poaching rise to astronomical levels. In South Africa, home to 80% of the world's rhino population, the number of rhinos poached rose from 13 in 2007 to 746 in 2013, according to the African Wildlife Foundation. In Central Africa, two-thirds of its forest elephants have been wiped out in the last 10 years.
It's no wonder that terrorists have identified this lucrative "industry" of systematic killing of African animals as another source of cash to fund their murderous enterprise.
According to an 18-month investigation commissioned by the Elephant Action League in 2011, the al Qaeda affiliate Al-Shabaab generated between $200,000 and $600,000 a month from tusks. This vast sum of blood money accounted for about 40% of Al-Shabaab's total operating budget. These terrorist poachers not only kill African Animals, but are accused of murdering 60 Wildlife wardens in 2012 as well.
Other terrorist organizations implicated in the illegal poaching trade include Joseph Kony's Lord's Resistance Army in Central Africa and Boko Haram in Nigeria. All of this has been done to obtain money for more criminal activity. After all, not only is the money good in poaching, but the risk of apprehension and the consequences are low.
Unsurprisingly, terrorists have also taken advantage of the instability and corruption in Africa. They can't operate openly in the world economy because if they do, they are more likely to get caught. So they work under the radar in the black market. That's why we've seen terrorist groups like Hezbollah work with narco-traffickers in Venezuela.
According to the International Conservation Caucus Foundation, "toothless laws, corruption, weak judicial systems, and light punishments allow criminal networks to thrive on wildlife trade with little regard to risk or consequence." The penalties for those caught poaching are minimal. So for terrorists who are looking to avoid detection, make a lot of money, and not face a lot of consequences if they are caught, poaching is a great fit.
The nexus between terrorism and poaching, long overlooked, is getting more attention, but not enough is being done. For starters, there needs to be more intelligence gathering to get a deeper understanding of the issue. Our intelligence community has yet to establish a clear understanding of which terrorist groups are the most involved in poaching, how the money flows, and who facilitates the transactions. We cannot effectively counter a problem we do not sufficiently understand.
Second, the Obama administration needs to clearly define who is in charge and what role the different agencies and bureaus within those agencies will play. Multiple agencies -- from the State Department to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service -- are involved in anti-poaching efforts.
Similarly, we don't have an accurate picture of the money we are already spending on anti-poaching efforts because the money gets bundled into broader categories, such as law enforcement support, military training, environmental conservation, etc. We need a cross-cutting budget that outlines exactly how much money we are spending so that we can evaluate whether existing resources are appropriate and sufficient.
Finally, we need to turn talk into action. Last February, the Presidential Task Force on Wildlife Trafficking issued a National Strategy for Combating Wildlife Trafficking, but without any sort of implementation plan. Nine months later, we are still waiting. Meanwhile, endangered species are being slaughtered and terrorists are being paid from the sales of endangered species' tusks and horns.
Preserving endangered species is a noble goal. And, the fact that killers worldwide are using this money to fund terrorism makes it even more urgent that we stop this ruthless criminal enterprise. The collusion of these two evils -- the killing of endangered species and innocent civilians to further terrorism -- is an international issue. The world cannot allow radical Islamists to continue the wholesale slaughter of rhinos and elephants to fund a reign of terror.
And that's just the way it is.