Assessment of the Security Implications of Environmental Crime in Africa

Zachary Lubelfeld is pursuing a Master of Public Administration and a Master of Arts in International Relations at Syracuse University.  He is currently in Maputo, Mozambique on a Boren Fellowship studying Portuguese and the extractive sector in Mozambique.  All opinions in this article are those of the author and do not represent the official positions of Syracuse University or the National Security Education Program.  Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.

Title:  Assessment of the Security Implications of Environmental Crime in Africa

Date Originally Written:  January 22, 2018.

Date Originally Published:  April 30, 2018.

Summary:  Environmental crime is a growing component of transnational crime, as well as an increasingly lucrative one. Organized crime, militia groups, and terrorist organizations all profit off the illicit sale of everything from minerals to animals. This criminal activity poses a significant threat, not just to the communities in which it occurs or where these entities commit violence, but to the health and safety of people around the world.

Text:  As globalization continues apace, and the world becomes increasingly interconnected, the benefits, like greater access to goods and information, are matched by the costs, such as the increased space for transnational criminal activity. One of the least discussed aspects of this is environmental crime. Global environmental crime is a burgeoning market, worth an estimated $213 billion annually[1]. This environmental crime includes a wide range of illicit activities, such as illegal logging in rainforests, illegal mining of mineral resources, and poaching elephants and rhinoceroses for their ivory.  The lack of focus on environmental crime allows criminal organizations to wreak havoc with relative impunity, and nowhere is this truer than in Africa. The pernicious effects of wildlife exploitation are felt across all of Africa, the security implications of which are myriad. Regional stability, armed conflict and terrorism, and global health are all impacted by wildlife exploitation in Africa, with potentially dangerous results not just for Africans, but for people worldwide.

Environmental crime is an important driver of violence and conflict across Africa, as it provides integral revenue streams for many violent militia groups and terrorist organizations. Perhaps the most well-known example of this are conflict minerals, which refers to minerals that are sold to fund violence. Diamonds have long been a driver of conflict in Africa, a recent example of which is the ongoing civil war in the Central African Republic[2]. Violent militia groups in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) profit from the sales of minerals like cassiterite, a tin ore worth about $500/kg that is used in products such as phones, laptops, and cars[3]. The value of the illicit mineral trade in East, Central, and West Africa is valued at $2.4 billion to $9 billion per year, which rivals the value of the global heroin and cocaine markets combined[4].

Another key component of environmental crime is poaching, both for bush meat and for ivory. Armed militia groups as well as military units in Africa rely on poaching for food – for example, one adult elephant can feed an average army regiment. Ivory is the more lucrative reason for poaching, however. Elephant tusks sell for an estimated $680/kg[5], while rhinoceros horn is worth upwards of $65,000/kg. Ivory can be sold, or traded for supplies and weapons, and is a major funding source across Africa, from the Lord’s Resistance Army in eastern Africa to transnational criminal networks operating in Mozambique; there is even evidence that the Somali terrorist organization al-Shabaab profits from ivory smuggling. The illicit sale of ivory is also an important revenue source for armed militias in the DRC[6] and groups like the Janjaweed, the notorious Sudanese militias responsible for the genocide in Darfur[7].

Lesser known examples of environmental crime are essential to funding the operations of terrorist organizations across Africa, such as illegal logging. One of the primary uses of illegal logging is the production and taxation of charcoal, which is a fuel source for Africans who don’t have access to electricity. Al-Shabab had earned an estimated $56 billion from illicit charcoal by 2014, making it the primary source of funding for their operations.  Additionally, there are reports that the Nigerian terrorist organization Boko Haram derives funding from the trade[8]. Furthermore, profits from the illegal timber trade are used to facilitate arms smuggling in Africa, arming terrorists, as well as rebel groups such as in Sierra Leone and Cote d’Ivoire[9].

As concerning as it is that terrorist organizations and militia groups derive significant benefit from environmental crime, a potentially even greater danger is the consequences it could have on global health. A variety of animals are trafficked internationally, from rare birds and reptiles to gorillas, as well animal parts like pelts and tusks. This contact between animals and humans increases the risk of transmission of dangerous zoonotic diseases. Zoonotic diseases are transmitted from animals to humans. One example is the Ebola virus, which is thought to come from bats and primates, the latter of which may have spread the disease while being trafficked through cities is western Africa[10].

Increased transport of wildlife internationally increased the chances of the spread of dangerous pathogens, especially in the case of illicit trafficking. Pathogens that may otherwise have been contained in one location are sent around the world, increasing the risk of pandemic. While customs procedures designed to screen for these pathogens exist, wildlife traffickers bypass these to avoid detection, so infected animals are not discovered and put in quarantine. Therefore, wildlife trafficking could lead to the international transmission of a disease like Ebola, anthrax, or Yersinia pestis, otherwise known as the bubonic plague.

It is clear that environmental crime is as lucrative for criminals as it is dangerous to everyone else, and therefore shows no signs of slowing down. Given the potential harm that it could cause, by funding groups who seek to bring violence and chaos wherever they go, as well as by increasing the probability of devastating pandemic, environmental crime will certainly continue if it is not addressed by law enforcement and policy makers.


[1] Vira, V., Ewing, T., & Miller, J. (2014, August). Out of Africa: Mapping the Global Trade in Illicit Elephant Ivory. Retrieved October 18, 2017, from C4ADS:

[2] A Game of Stones: smuggling diamonds in the Central African Republic. (2017, June 22). Retrieved January 17, 2018, from

[3] Morrison, S. (2015, May 16). ‘Conflict minerals’ funding deadly violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo as EU plans laws to clean up trade. Retrieved January 17, 2018, from

[4] Environmental Crime. (n.d.). Retrieved January 17, 2018, from

[5] Chen, A. (2016, November 07). Poaching is on the rise – most illegal ivory comes from recently killed elephants. Retrieved January 20, 2018, from

[6] Toeka Kakala, Taylor. “Soldiers Trade in Illegal Ivory” InterPress Service News Agency. 25 July 2013. Web. 25 Mar. 2014.

[7] Christina M. Russo, “What Happened to the Elephants of Bouba Ndjida?” MongaBay, March 7, 2013. Available at

[8] Ibid.

[9] ILLEGAL LOGGING & THE EU: AN ANALYSIS OF THE EU EXPORT & IMPORT MARKET OF ILLEGAL WOOD AND RELATED PRODUCTS(Rep.). (2008, April). Retrieved January 17, 2018, from World Wildlife Foundation website:

[10] Bouley, T. (2014, October 06). Trafficking wildlife and transmitting disease: Bold threats in an era of Ebola. Retrieved January 15, 2018, from

Africa Assessment Papers Criminal Activities Environmental Factors Illicit Trafficking Activities Zachary Lubelfeld

Assessment of Cryptocurrencies and Their Potential for Criminal Use 

The Viking Cop has served in a law enforcement capacity with multiple organizations within the U.S. Executive Branch.  He can be found on Twitter @TheVikingCop.  The views reflected are his own and do not represent the opinion of any government entities.  Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.

Title:  Assessment of Cryptocurrencies and Their Potential for Criminal Use

Date Originally Written:  July 22, 2017.

Date Originally Published:  August 28, 2017.

Summary:  Cryptocurrencies are a new technology-driven virtual currency that has existed since late 2009.  Due to the anonymous or near-anonymous nature of their design they are useful to criminal organizations.  It is vital for law enforcement organizations and regulators to know the basics about how cryptocurrencies work as their use by criminal organizations is likely to continue.

Text:  Cryptocurrencies are a group of virtual currencies that relay on a peer-to-peer system disconnected from a central issuing authority that allows users an anonymous or near-anonymous method to conduct transactions[1][2].

Bitcoin, Ethereum, LiteCoin, and DogeCoin are among 820 currently existing cryptocurrencies that have a combined market capitalization of over ninety billion U.S. Dollars at the time of this assessment[3][4].

The majority of cryptocurrencies run off a system design created by an unknown individual or group of individuals published under the name Satoshi Nakamoto[2].  This system relies on a decentralized public ledger system, conceptualized by Nakamoto in a whitepaper published in October of 2008, which would later become widely known as “Blockchain.”

Simplistically, blockchain works as a system of electronic signature keys and cryptographic hash codes printed onto a publicly accessible ledger.  Once a coin in any cryptocurrency is created through a “mining” process that consists of a computer or node solving a complex mathematical calculation known as a “proof-of-work,” the original signature and hash of that coin is added to the public ledger on the initial node and then also transmitted to every other node in the network in a block.  These proof-of-work calculations are based on confirming the hash code of previous transactions and printing it to a local copy of the public ledger.  Once the block is transmitted to all other nodes they confirm that the transaction is valid and print it to their copy of the public ledger.  This distribution and cross-verification of the public ledger by multiple computers ensures the accuracy and security of each transaction in the blockchain as the only way to falsely print to public ledger would be to control fifty percent plus one of the nodes in the network[1][2].

While the electronic signatures for each user are contained within the coin, the signature itself contains no personally identifiable information.  From a big data perspective this system allows one to see all the transactions that a user has conducted through the used electronic signature but it will not allow one to know from who or where the transaction originated or terminated.

A further level of security has been developed by private groups that provide a method of virtually laundering the money called “Mixing.”  A third-party source acts as an intermediary receiving and disturbing payments removing any direct connection between two parties in the coin signature[5].

This process of separating the coins and signatures within from the actual user gives cryptocurrencies an anonymous or near-anonymous method for conducting criminal transactions online.  A level of the internet, known as Darknet, which is only accessible through the use of special software and work off non-standard communication protocols has seen a rise in online marketplaces.  Illicit Darknet marketplaces such as Silk Road and the more recently AlphaBay have levied cryptocurrencies as a go-to for concealing various online black market transactions such as stolen credit card information, controlled substances, and firearms[6].

The few large criminal cases that have involved the cryptocurrency Bitcoin, such as U.S. Citizen Ross Ulbricht involved with Silk Road and Czech national Tomáš Jiříkovský for stealing ninety thousand Bitcoins ($225 million USD in current market value), have been solved by investigators through traditional methods of discovering an IP address left through careless online posts and not through a vulnerability in the public ledger[7].

Even in smaller scale cases of narcotics transactions taking place on Darknet marketplaces local investigators have only been able to trace cryptocurrency purchases backwards after intercepting shipments through normal detection methods and finding cryptocurrency artifacts during the course of a regular investigation.  There has been little to no success on linking cryptocurrencies back to distributors that hasn’t involved regular investigative methods[8].

Looking at future scenarios involving cryptocurrencies the Global Public Policy Institute sees a possible future whereby terrorism devolves back to populist movements and employs decentralized hierarchy heavily influenced by online interactions.  In this possible future, cryptocurrencies could allow groups to covertly move money between supporters and single or small group operatives along with being a means to buy and sell software to be used in cyberterrorism attacks or to support physical terrorism attacks[9].

Cryptocurrency is currently positioned to exploit a massive vulnerability in the global financial and legal systems and law enforcement organizations are only beginning to acquire the knowledge and tools to combat illicit use.  In defense of law enforcement organizations and regulators, cryptocurrencies are in their infancy, with massive changes in their operation, trading, and even foundational technology changing rapidly.  This rapid change makes it so that until cryptocurrencies reach a stable or mature state, they will be an unpredictable moving target to track and hit[10].


[1]  Arvind Narayanan, J. B. (2016). Bitcoin and Cryptocurrency Technologies: A Comprehensive Introduction. Pinceton University Press.

[2]  Nakamoto, S. (n.d.). Bitcoin: A Peer-to-Peer Electronic Cash System. Retrieved July 10, 2017, from Bitcoin:

[3]  Cryptocurrency market cap analysis. (n.d.). Retrieved from Cryptolization:

[4]  CryptoCurrency Market Capitalizations. (n.d.). Retrieved July 10, 2017, from CoinMarketCap:

[5]  Jacquez, T. (2016). Cryptocurrency the new money laundering problem for banking, law enforcement, and the legal system. Utica College: ProQuest Dissertations Publishing.

[6]  Over 57% Of Darknet Sites Offer Unlawful Items, Study Shows. (n.d.). Retrieved July 21, 2017, from AlphaBay Market:

[7]  Bohannon, J. (2016, March 9). Why criminals can’t hide behind Bitcoin. Retrieved July 10, 2017, from Science:

[8]  Jens Anton Bjørnage, M. W. (2017, Feburary 21). Dom: Word-dokument og bitcoins fælder narkohandler. Retrieved July 21, 2017, from Berlingske:

[9]  Bhatnagar, A., Ma, Y., Manome, M., Markiewicz, S., Sun, F., Wahedi, L. A., et al. (@017, June). Volatile Years: Transnational Terrorism in 2027. Retrieved July 21, 2017, from Robert Bosch Foundation:

[10]  Engle, E. (2016). Is Bitcoin Rat Poison: Cryptocurrency, Crime, and Counterfeiting (CCC). Journal of High Technology Law 16.2, 340-393.

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