The Charcoal Connection: Illegal Harvests Fuel Terrorism


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A June 2014 UN Environment Program (UNEP) report reveals that illegally harvested timber has become a key source of revenue for terror groups. Additionally, the report states that the scale of the illegal timber trade “has been totally underestimated and is now being regarded as very significant.” This significance apparently extends beyond traditional concerns over deforestation and destruction of animal habitat.

For example, the underground market in charcoal, a timber byproduct used for cooking and heating, is a significant revenue generator for the Somali terrorist group al-Shabab. According to one report, al-Shabab reaps between $25 and $68 million annually from sales and taxation of charcoal.

How can that lucrative funding stream be disputed? Illicit markets such as narcotics trafficking and even ivory smuggling are often highly organized and have elaborate supply chains. Each stage of these complex schemes are points of potential vulnerability that present opportunities for interdiction. Charcoal production, however, is a highly decentralized cottage industry. The process is under the control of no single entity. Even diversion and coercive taxation is controlled by various terrorist groups. Moreover, raw materials like timber are plentiful and the “technology” of charcoal production is incredibly simple and cheap. There are few barriers to entry into the business.  

Enforcement agencies, in addition, face the daunting task of trying to distinguish between legal and illicit charcoal inventories. This process is particularly difficult when the market consists of numerous local sellers and financial transactions are cash-based and therefore rarely produce a paper trail. Under such circumstances, the interdiction and confiscation of illicitly produced or taxed charcoal becomes virtually impossible.

The United States is acutely aware that certain illicit charcoal markets finance terrorism and moreover, effective policies to eradicate trafficking in illegally produced charcoal are few. Still, President Obama issued a well-meaning order banning Somali charcoal imports. While this ban is symbolically important, there remains ample revenue from local markets for al-Shabab and others to exploit. Thus, combatting this problem necessitates a more localized response.

Where broad government bans and sanctions have proven insufficient, helping to change consumer habits and preferences away from charcoal use could be a more effective solution. Efforts to combat this source of terrorism financing could be driven by NGO initiatives to reduce the carbon imprint resulting from home charcoal use.

Organizations, like the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves, and others that distribute small, contained alternative fuel stoves that replace fuelwood and its byproducts for home cooking could be key in this effort. Supporting campaigns like these provide an alternative method to drive down consumer dependence on terrorist-related charcoal, as well as contribute to environmental preservation.