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Observatory of Illicit Economies in Eastern and Southern Africa


Summary highlights

  1. Investigating potential sources of arms flows to al-Shabaab in northern Mozambique.

    Since conflict broke out in Cabo Delgado in 2017, the weaponry used by the insurgents in northern Mozambique has become more sophisticated. Yet the source of these weapons has not been definitively determined. Some analysts have speculated that regional criminal networks have made use of northern Mozambique’s historical smuggling routes to traffic weapons to al-Shabaab. Recent Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime (GI-TOC) analysis of Cabo Delgado has investigated this possibility and considered several other potential routes of arms flows to the insurgent group.

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  2. The maritime interdiction of over a thousand assault rifles en route to Yemen is the latest iteration of Iranian state-sponsored arms smuggling.

    In December 2021, US naval forces intercepted a stateless fishing dhow crossing the northern Arabian Sea. Believed to have been en route to Yemen, the dhow was carrying 1 400 assault rifles and over 200 000 rounds of ammunition. This is the thirteenth such interdiction by international naval forces since September 2015. The weapons seized in December appear to be Chinese-manufactured Type 56-1 rifles, which is consistent with previous seizures of this type. Analysis of these arms shipments suggests that they are probably Iranian state supplies being provided to Houthi allies in Yemen. Previous GI-TOC analysis has found that these Type-56-1 rifles have also been smuggled to Somalia.

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  3. A violent environmental market: the heavy cost of South Africa’s abalone trade.

    The illicit abalone trade has been flourishing in South Africa for more than 25 years, with demand for the marine molluscs as a delicacy, primarily in China, driving a poaching economy. Today, the industry is rife with violence and corruption, enmeshed in the drug trade and controlled by organized-criminal gangs. A new GI-TOC study into the structure of the abalone market has found that while top-level traders maintain control of export and distribution to Asian markets, violent competition proliferates among local criminal networks involved in the trade in South Africa. Amid worsening environmental and social consequences, there is an urgent need to consider a harm-reduction approach to the illegal abalone trade.

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  4. What does the year ahead hold for organized crime in eastern and southern Africa?

    Organized crime is a notoriously difficult phenomenon to quantify. The ENACT Organized Crime Index is the first tool of its kind designed to assess levels of organized crime and states’ resilience to criminal activity. The Index measures a range of criminal markets (from environmental crime to human trafficking) and includes resilience indicators (from witness protection to anti-money-laundering measures). The 2021 results can give an insight into how organized crime has changed over the past two years in eastern and southern Africa. This, in turn, can show how trends may continue to develop into 2022. The scores show an overall increase in organized crime in eastern and southern Africa since 2019. States’ resilience to the harms of organized crime increased in East Africa but decreased in southern Africa.

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About this issue

Illicit arms flows are the central focus of two stories in this issue of the Risk Bulletin. This is a market that the GI-TOC’s Observatory of Illicit Economies in East and Southern Africa has investigated elsewhere in our research, particularly in South Africa, where we have identified how failings in governance (such as at South Africa’s Central Firearms Registry) have allowed guns from state sources to be siphoned off to gangs and other criminal networks.1 It goes without saying that illicit arms flows have a significant and direct impact on levels of violence, conflict and instability in the region.

Our analysis here investigates arms flows to Somalia, as a spillover of illicit arms flows that are transiting by sea from Iran to rebels fighting in the conflict in Yemen. Our research team documented weapons at various locations in Somalia, which appear to have been sourced from shipments of weapons destined originally for Yemen, demonstrating how one conflict can have a destabilizing effect on other conflicts and a wider region. These weapons are feeding into the decades-long and seemingly intractable conflict in Somalia.

We also look into weapons flows to the al-Shabaab insurgents in northern Mozambique (who are not connected to the Somali group that bears the same name). The northern Mozambique conflict – which since mid 2021 has seen the intervention of SADC and Rwandan forces in an attempt to bring stability to the troubled region – has governments around the region concerned about its effect on regional stability. In November 2021, for example, South African president Cyril Ramaphosa and Kenyan president Uhuru Kenyatta jointly called for increased cooperation to counter terrorism in Mozambique, arguing that this is a regional, rather than national, threat.

Looking beyond illicit arms flows, new GI-TOC analysis looks into how South Africa’s illegal abalone trade has a long history with gangsterism: while gangs muscled into the abalone trade, extorting fishermen and making the market more violent, the abalone trade also had a transformative impact on the gangs themselves, by providing the cash needed to give gangs readier access to supplies of drugs and weapons.

The GI-TOC – along with partners in the ENACT (Enhancing Africa’s Response to Organized Crime) project – has spent a long time developing a way of quantitatively measuring state’s levels of organized crime activity and resilience to organized crime in a comparable way. The resultant tool – the ENACT Organised Crime Index for Africa (which has also now been developed into a global Index) – will be of use to governments, civil society and international organizations to help understand the global landscape of organized crime.


  1. Jenni Irish-Qhobosheane, How to silence the guns? Southern Africa’s illegal firearms markets, GI-TOC, September 2021, https://globalinitiative.net/wp-content/uploads/2021/09/GITOC-ESA-Obs-How-to-silence-the-guns-Southern-Africas-illegal-firearms-markets.pdf