Spotlight: Crisis of inaction hinders Africa’s response to terror financing

In a Security Council briefing on financing terrorism through natural resource trafficking, ISS called for less talk and more action.

Armed gangs and terror groups in Africa’s conflict zones exploit resources like wildlife and timber, trade people, weapons and drugs, and engage in illegal mining and minerals trafficking, creating insecurity for local communities and depriving states of revenue.

These groups exploit local conflicts and transnational crime networks to exert control over territory, then tax illegal activities or become involved in smuggling. The illicit funds sustain terrorist activities, destabilise fragile economies and threaten regional security.

Speaking at a United Nations Security Council (UNSC) debate in October 2022 on tackling the use of natural resource trafficking to finance terrorist activities, Paul-Simon Handy explained how these groups vary in structure and operational style. He said that generalised responses should be avoided because each situation is distinct. Handy is the ISS’ East Africa Director and Representative to the African Union, based in Addis Ababa.

The ISS is recognised as one of the most capable African policy research organisations working on human security, with deep knowledge of violent extremism, organised crime and armed groups from the Sahel to central Africa and Mozambique.

Handy explained that despite connections between terrorism and transnational organised crime, they are distinct phenomena. Their aims and ways of working differ, and they are addressed through different international legal frameworks.

Criminal networks within governments and national armed forces must be dismantled

The UN recognises an urgent need to better understand terrorist financing and money-laundering risks related to natural resources in Africa. It also seeks to deploy legislative, institutional and disruptive tools more effectively to deny terrorists access to funds.

Its tools include the Convention against Transnational Organized Crime and the International Convention for the Suppression of the Financing of Terrorism. The UN hopes to expand the use of financial investigation techniques to prosecute illicit trafficking in natural resources by armed groups and criminal networks. It aims to strengthen the capacities of justice, law enforcement and financial intelligence units to investigate money laundering and trace assets derived from environmental crime.

The challenge is that the many tools available to governments, regional or international organisations and civil society are not used effectively, Handy said. ‘Systems and procedures are in place, but political responses are failing through a crisis of inaction. We need political will and more action with less talk. Individual state action is insufficient to combat transnational crime, so we require more international cooperation and increased administrative, security and judicial capacity in governments.’  

Bilateral treaties and African Union and regional economic community protocols should be refined and better adapted to different and changing situations. Handy recommended the updating of sanction regimes, including travel bans and asset freezes. But these tools must become more focused and target networks and individuals who can adapt to avoid restrictions.

Criminal networks within governments and national armed forces must be dismantled. Instead of being on the frontline of the war against terror, these state entities are sometimes engaged in illicit activity in competition with the groups they are tasked to intercept.

Schemes such as the Kimberley Process, which aims to reduce the flow of conflict diamonds, should ensure embargoes on natural resources don’t deprive governments of tax opportunities.

‘Action taken must improve, not restrict fiscal revenue. If implementing the measures does not increase revenue, then something is not working properly,’ Handy said.

For more information, contact:

Paul-Simon Handy, ISS: [email protected]

Image: © Amelia Broodryk/ISS

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