08:30 GMT18 January 2021
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    UK troops are being deployed in Gabon, Africa as part of the international battle against terrorism – their quest is to protect rare forest elephants, and identify and stop ivory hunters, as the material is proving an increasingly lucrative source of funding for extremist groups in the continent and beyond.

    Elephants all over Africa are routinely slaughtered for their ivory, despite an effective international prohibition on its trade established in 1989, and laws either severely restricting or outright banning its importation and sale in many countries.

    It has been estimated between 1980 and 1990, the African elephant population declined from 1.3 million to just 600,000 — and while some countries have claimed their elephant populations are stable and increasing as a result of international efforts, others have suggested quite the reverse.

    In fact, research by the World Wildlife Fund indicates the international ban has had the unforeseen consequence of pushing up the price of ivory on the black market, making it a more attractive income source for criminal elements than ever.

    The going rate for a mere pound of ivory is around US$85 — given elephant tusks weigh between 51 and 100 pounds on average, the revenue that can potentially be reaped from an elephant slaying is enormous.

    So it is that an elite squad of 16 British servicemen — predominantly drawn from Second Battalion The Rifles — are roaming the wilds of Gabon — their mission not inspired by urgent animal welfare concerns, but a pressing need to quell funding for extremist groups across the vast continent.

    Authorities in the country suggest poachers connected to infamous insurgent group Boko Haram have butchered 25,000 forest elephants in one region of Gabon alone in the decade from 2007, sometimes further using children as mules to assist in the subsequent export of ivory. The group often attacks their prey — and those employed in their defense, who are typically unarmed — with rocket-propelled grenades and AK47s. 

    In addition to conducting their own operations, troops will also train park rangers operating in poaching hotspots in Kenya, Tanzania, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda and Ethiopia. Classes include the use of weapons, arresting poachers, sealing crime scenes to gather evidence, and technology such as WhatsApp to help authorities communicate. In Gabon alone, 80 officers have been trained as of July 2017.

    It surely will not shock that terror groups resort to illicit activities to bankroll their operations, although the growing significance of ivory to extremist financing is potentially a surprising — and troubling — development. Nonetheless, terrorism receives subsidy from a number of startling sources — perhaps most shockingly, via charitable organizations.

    A 2004 Council on Foreign Relations report revealed charities based in Saudi Arabia were the most important source of funds for al-Qaeda, with some of the country's wealthiest aid organizations funneling money both knowingly and unknowingly to extremists — even those groups seeking to promote Islam through legitimate programs can be co-opted by jihadists.

    However, the significance of charity to terrorism funding is not so shocking in the context of charity — or zakat — being one of the key pillars of Islam.

    Under the obligation, Muslims the world over hand over a set proportion of their wealth annually to charity. Weeding out the ill-intentioned trusts from the benevolent is tricky for authorities, as even the most honest organizations can be infiltrated by extremist elements.

    What's more, terror attacks are often fairly economical to fund — though the 9/11 attacks are believed to have cost around half million dollars, most operations have considerably more modest budgets, with the 2002 bombing of a Bali nightclub costing about US$50,000. The 7/7 2005 attacks on the London Underground may have cost as little as US$2,000.


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    ivory trade, illegal animal trade, terrorism funding, ivory, terrorism, troops, British Army, Boko Haram, Gabon, Africa, United Kingdom, Kenya
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