Photograph — Smithsonian Magazine

East Africa, a key security partner in the war on terror and a principal engine of economic development on the African continent, is being critically undermined by illicit trade, according to the new report by the Counter Extremism Project (CEP) titled An Unholy Alliance: Links Between Extremism and Illicit Trade in East Africa.

Terror groups such as al-Shabaab and ISIS-linked affiliates in Somalia and Mozambique, as well as Central African militias, urban gangs, and international crime groups, are increasingly targeting East Africa as a destination market for illicit trade, as well as a transport hub for the mass import and export of illegal goods.

Terrorist groups continue to cash in on the illegal ivory trade to pay their soldiers and fund their campaigns of terror, while Somali warlords profit from the thousands of bags of cheap, illicit sugar that are smuggled into Kenya every day. Meanwhile, the multi-million-dollar illegal tobacco industry funds corruption, insurgency, and the illegal arms trade across the region.

Sir Ivor Roberts, Senior Advisor, CEP, and author of the report, outlined the difficulties faced by the region, “As illicit trade networks continue to expand and mature in their sophistication, the cost to East African society has been enormous. At every link in the illicit chain, economic, social, and political harm is done to East African society, while terror and crime groups grow stronger.”

There is a great need for coordinated action against illicit trade across the whole East African region. It is not enough for individual countries to take isolated measures targeting only specific categories of illicit trade. The region is only as strong as its weakest link.

Many terrorist and extremist groups operating in and around East Africa, including al-Shabaab, ISIS, and the Lord’s Resistance Army, are supported and sustained by the illicit trade, as they continue to benefit from ill-gotten gains. Asian crime syndicates, Latin American narco-traffickers, and other international crime groups have also earmarked the region as a key location for smuggling narcotics, wildlife, precious stones, and counterfeit goods.

As East Africa struggles to recover from the ravages of the COVID-19 pandemic, Sir Ivor believes the region must prioritise measures that target illicit trafficking. “The most effective way from the East African region, and the wider international community, to fight extremism, crime, and corruption is to turn off the taps of illicit trade. This can ensure critical revenues are not lost to the shadow economy but are instead invested in key services. Combating illicit trade should be the number one priority for East African governments and their international allies. This issue goes beyond the borders of East Africa, and it is imperative that the international community pay heed,” Sir Ivor said.

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