To take out al Shabab, one need look no further than charcoal. The United Nations has repeatedly called for countries in the region to disrupt the group’s trade in this environmentally destructive product, but, as the most recent Somalia UN Monitoring Group report revealed, such efforts have been lackluster. And so, with its patience wearing thin, the UN has now taken matters into its own hands by approving a naval intervention.

The trade in Somali charcoal is immense, amounting to at least $250 million per year, a third of which, according to UN estimates, lines al Shabab’s pockets. Most of the charcoal goes to buyers in the Gulf region, a dhow trip away from Somalia across the Arabian Sea. It circulates within the Gulf countries’ free trade zone and might then be distributed to markets in the Arabian Peninsula and further afield. In these markets, demand for Somali charcoal to fire meat grills and heat shisha pipes is particularly high because it comes from acacia wood, which burns longer and with a more pleasant aroma than charcoal sourced from most other regional suppliers. As a result, charcoal from Somalia sells for almost twice the price of that from Sudan or Nigeria.

Al Shabab’s role in the Somali charcoal trade is significant. Even after setbacks in recent weeks—including the death of its leader Ahmed Abdi Godane at the hands of the U.S. military and its loss of control of Barawe, a port through which the group had conducted much of its business since it lost Kismayo in September 2012—it still profits from the charcoal trade. Al Shabab’s financial model of “cash-flow surveillance” ensures that it benefits at every stage of the trade. For example, the group controls most of the hinterland transport network for the product and is estimated to earn more than $25 million per year through taxes on it. Some claim that charcoal is the largest contributor to the group’s war chest. (Levying taxes on businesses is another major source of funding.)

The United Nations first took note of the charcoal trade in 2012, when it adopted Security Council Resolution 2036 and “expressed concern that charcoal exports from Somalia are a significant revenue source for Al-Shabaab.” It called on UN member states, presumably meaning the Gulf States through which the charcoal trade flows, to “take the necessary measures to prevent the direct or indirect import of charcoal from Somalia” and urged Somali authorities to take measures to prevent the export of charcoal. 

Over the next two years, media and UN reports indicated that the charcoal trade persisted, in breach of Resolution 2036, with no obvious attempts to disrupt it. Meanwhile, al Shabab continued to hold territory and launch attacks. In response, in May 2014, the UN published Implementation Assistance Notice No. 1. In an apparent attempt to encourage regional trading nations to make more of an effort to stop Somalia from exporting al Shabab–linked charcoal, the notice reminded member states of their obligation to enforce relevant Security Council resolutions and encouraged authorities to inspect vessels and to seize charcoal consignments coming from Somalia.

Even that does not seem to have helped. According to the latest UN Monitoring Group report on Somalia, published in mid-October, the charcoal trade continues at a rate consistent with prior years. Until Barawe was lost in October, al Shabab still loaded and exported charcoal from the port. And even today, traders and brokers continue to facilitate “systemic violations” of the UN-mandated ban, and Somali charcoal continues to show up in Gulf Cooperation Council markets. All in all, the report noted, al Shabab’s continued survival is secured by its trade operations, the cornerstone of which remains the charcoal trade.

Days after the report was issued, the Security Council passed Resolution 2182, authorizing the use of naval force to disrupt the trade. If trade hubs in the Gulf region will not stop the trade, it seems, the warships of the Combined Maritime Forces, a 30-nation naval partnership that patrols the region to deter piracy will have to do the work for them. It is too soon to tell if the new mission is tightening the screws on al Shabab. If it works, though, it will signal a new era in the war against the terrorist group.

For too long, the countries of the Gulf region have been overly permissive when it comes to terrorist financing. In recent weeks, much of the finger-pointing has been directed at several of those countries for their weak efforts to disrupt the financing of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham and other designated terrorist organizations. But their trade with Somalia is also a problem, and it must stop if the Horn of Africa is ever to be rid of al Shabab, a group that has held territory and imposed violent rule on those under its control for far longer than ISIS.

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  • TOM KEATINGE is a former investment banker at J.P. Morgan and an associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute. Follow him on Twitter @keatingetom.
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