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Johannesburg - The illicit ivory trade may have partly funded militant Islamic group al-Shabaab’s terror attack in Kenya this week, according to an international conservation group.
The Elephant Action League (EAL), which has investigated the terror group’s links to elephant and rhino poaching in Africa, said the group derived up to 40 percent of its funding from the illegal trade.
“You can easily say that the terrorist activity in Kenya last weekend was funded by many sources, one of them ivory,” Andrea Costra, EAL executive director, told the Saturday Star.
“We need to become a bit more confrontational with China, which is the origin of problem, because they are buying most of the ivory.
“The question for the Chinese buyer is when they go to a shop in Beijing full of ivory, that it is used to fund the terrorist attack in Nairobi that killed pregnant women and children, that you as an ivory consumer are funding the operations of al-Shabaab. You are an accessory to manslaughter and the criminal courts should try you as well.
“If you buy ivory or rhino horn, you kill people. It’s very sad that you need a terrorist attack like this where dozens of people are killed to start talking about this…”
In Africa’s White Gold of Jihad: Al-Shabaab and Conflict Ivory, co-author Costra writes how al-Shabaab earned up to R6 million monthly through illegal ivory sales.
Little attention is being paid to the ways in which al-Shabaab is financing its activities, he said.
“In effect, ivory serves as one of the lifelines of al-Shabaab, enabling it to maintain its grip over young soldiers, most of whom are not radically motivated.
“Unlike other militants in Africa that deal with ivory and poaching, al-Shabaab does not kill elephants directly,” he told the Saturday Star.
“We’ve been told some traffickers in Kenya still prefer to sell to al-Shabaab because they don’t just pay well, but they pay on time and are very good businessmen.
“In Somalia, al-Shabaab is using the same channels to smuggle charcoal to Dubai to export ivory and resell it to intermediaries and it’s then shipped to the Far East.
“We’ve had confirmation in the past that whenever rhino horn is available they also buy it.”
Richard Thomas, of wildlife trade monitoring group Traffic, said: “We don’t have direct evidence ourselves of al-Shabaab being associated with these groups. There’s a lot of speculation about the links between elephant poaching and terrorist groups.”
Meanwhile, Anneli Botha, a senior researcher on terrorism at the Institute for Security Studies, said terrorists viewed South Africa as a safe haven.
“Countries that used to be safe havens found themselves being targets. You can’t say it will never happen to us.
“We have a responsibility to our own national security. We can’t turn a blind eye if an attack is planned from our own soil. We have examples like the Henri Okah case where he came here and planned his attacks (in Nigeria) from here.”
It was easy to stay under the radar in South Africa. “It’s so open, easy, and nobody asks questions. It’s a very diverse country, which also provides people with the opportunity to… literally disappear within the masses. Nobody cares.”
Terror suspect Samantha Lewthwaite disappeared in the three years she spent flitting in and out of South Africa. Neighbours told the Saturday Star this week they barely noticed her at her rented properties in Randburg and Mayfair.
But the Briton, dubbed the “White Widow”, has drawn worldwide attention. On Thursday, Interpol issued a Red Notice for the fugitive, who has been at the forefront of speculation over her alleged involvement in the Kenyan Westgate siege. There has been no official confirmation that she was involved.
Interpol said the Red Notice, an internationally-wanted-person alert, was issued at the request of Kenyan authorities.
Lewthwaite, who travelled to South Africa on a fraudulent passport, is wanted by Kenya on charges of being in possession of explosives and conspiracy to commit a felony, dating back to December 2011.
The passport was issued in Durban and last used in February last year. Since then it had not been used as Lewthwaite had been classified as a terrorist, said Home Affairs Minister Naledi Pandor.
For Botha, the Kenyan attacks were personal – a day before the siege she returned from three weeks spent in Kenya, training its anti-terrorism unit.
“It’s surreal. You think of the friends you’ve made and your colleagues. It’s heartbreaking.”
A Middle Eastern expert, who did not want to be named, said: “Al-Shabaab is on the back foot and are losing territory. The only way to stay in the forefront and remain current is to carry out attacks such as the one in Kenya. So you can be sure that there will be more violence attacks and more death.”