Gimme Some Sugar

The Real Source of Al-Shabab's Income

A worker weighs and packs bags of sugar at the Mumias sugar factory in western Kenya February 24, 2015. Thomas Mukoya / Reuters

In recent years, much has been made of the alleged connection between the terrorist group al Shabab and the illegal ivory trade in Africa. A report from the Elephant Action League in 2013, for example, suggested a strong connection between al Shabab and the poaching and trafficking of ivory, going on to estimate that the trade contributed up to 40 percent of the funds needed to pay fighters’ salaries.

Recent research, however, has concluded that the connection between al Shabab and ivory is far less significant than many policymakers and law-enforcement agencies thought. For example, a recent Royal United Services Institute paper argues that poaching is more likely to be “opportunistic, ad hoc, and small-scale.” Instead, reports from both the UN Somalia Monitoring Group and Kenya-based Journalists for Justice have suggested, it is the group’s trade in another white gold—contraband sugar—allegedly facilitated by the Kenyan military (KDF) that sustains al Shabab.

In 2011, the United Nations estimated that the group made anywhere from $400,000 to $800,000 per year from the illicit import of sugar. Observers now believe the total to be substantially higher; al Shabab benefits from taxing the increasing amount of sugar that is smuggled via Somalia into Kenya, where it is repackaged and sold in Nairobi’s wholesale markets. The recent report from Journalists for Justice estimates that 150,000 tons of illicit sugar enters Kenya via Somalia each year, a trade worth in total between $200 million and $400 million to all those involved.

Like any insurgent group, al Shabab’s survival is linked to its finances. The group maintains an evolving and adaptive funding model, which includes taxes on populations and businesses in territories it controls, as well as on any trade that passes through. The funding al Shabab raised from the charcoal trade is one example: Somali charcoal is of a high quality, which makes it a prized commodity in the Middle East and a lucrative export for the group. According to the United Nations, by levying taxes on charcoal traders and

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