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Smuggling in the Horn of Africa: An Agenda for Euro-Gulf Cooperation

BY Nikola Zukalová



Smuggling in the Horn of Africa: An Agenda for Euro-Gulf Cooperation

Interview with Yan St-Pierre

The Horn of Africa (HOA) is geo-positioned to add a new strategic interface for existing and ascending trans-regional powers alike.[1] This is largely due to its proximation between Africa and the Middle East. Together with the Arabian Peninsula, the HOA guards the entrance to the Bab El-Mandeb Strait, a key maritime chokepoint, which connects the Indian Ocean via the Red Sea and the Suez Canal to the Mediterranean Sea — and the European markets. However, the region has been unable to unlock its full potential, largely due to the cycle of inter- and intra-state conflicts that plague it. A fatal combination of its strategic position, historic linkages, weak governance structures, endemic corruption, runaway cronyism, internal fragmentation, marginalisation, poverty, burgeoning young population, proliferation of violent extremism and environmental challenges, among many other issues, renders the region vulnerable to exploitation by both internal and external actors. These ingredients have also facilitated illicit operations of transnational networks and seconded the flourishing of the crime-terror nexus. Growing instability in the HOA can directly affect both the adjacent Arabian Peninsula and, indirectly, the European Union (EU), particularly in relation to maritime trade, migratory pressures and violent extremism. Stabilising the Horn of Africa, promoting good governance and socio-economic development — while contributing to building local capacities — should, therefore, be a high-priority for both the EU and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members because of the dangers of spillover.[2]

The Gulf states have increasingly situated the Horn in their security considerations, acknowledging the region’s importance for food and national security. The war in Yemen, the wider Red Sea arms race, involving both local and international dynamics, are now in prime position on the agenda. Even the intra-GCC dispute has spilled-over into the Horn with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) locked in a competitive relationship with Qatar and Turkey. In fact, the Gulf states have stepped-up their regional economic, political and military engagements while, simultaneously, enhancing their soft power capabilities and deploying these to assist in mitigating a string of regional conflicts. Most notably, these efforts led to peace between Eritrea and Ethiopia in September 2018—after two-decades of hostilities. Earlier that year, the UAE allocated $3 billion (USD) in aid and investments to Ethiopia and recently an additional $100 million loan to support small local businesses. And, following Germany’s initiative, the EU called for launching a regional dialogue and security cooperation forum. In January 2020, Saudi Arabia, Djibouti, Egypt, Eritrea, Jordan, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen formed the Council of Arab and African Coastal States bordering the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden to enhance collaboration, notably in relation to maritime security issues, such as piracy.

Similarly, the EU recognises the region’s geopolitical importance and, already in 2012, appointed a Special Representative to the HOA to coordinate its regional political and economic activities. The Union contributes to enhancing maritime security in the surrounding waters, having deployed there its first naval military operation Atalanta (EUNAVFOR, established 2008) to target maritime crime, piracy and share information on criminal activities with law enforcement and military partners, including EUROPOL and INTERPOL. On top of that, the EU trains Somalia’s military (EUTM Somalia, 2010), builds up the capacities of local maritime law enforcement (EUCAP Somalia, 2012), funds the African Union’s peacekeeping mission in Somalia (AMISOM), in addition to providing development assistance, mainly to Ethiopia and Somalia. Remarkably, President of the new European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, chose Ethiopia for her first official visit outside the EU in December 2019, affirming Brussels’ commitment to boost cooperation with Addis Ababa, EU’s key regional partner, and support its transformation under Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed Ali, hoping to encourage more positive reforms in the neighbouring countries. Indeed, the Horn of Africa might be a place for the new European Commission to translate its geopolitical ambitions into practice.

Rather than competing in the HOA, and potentially further undermining regional stability, the EU and the GCC states should work on finding an intersection of interests; combine experiences, capacities and existing networks to develop comprehensive strategies for enhancing local conditions and stability. This can generate a positive residual impact for both the EU and the Gulf and potentially also enhance their position in competition with other external powers, such as China. That said, there is an ambivalence in relationship to the Horn at play — while it offers a wide range of opportunities, there are also many discouraging security issues. One such area of cooperation could be smuggling — both a cause and a symptom of weak state structures, which provides finances to various violent non-state actors, fuels conflict and contributes to further undermining state-building. At the same time, smuggling has become an integral part of local economies that help many people survive. Tailoring strategies to address this complexity needs to be reflective of the reality on the ground.

Yan St-Pierre, CEO and Counter-Terrorism Advisor at the Berlin-based Modern Security Consulting Group (MOSECON), who has conducted extensive work worldwide, with a focus on providing strategic counter-terrorism analysis, which includes the monitoring of smuggling flows and terrorism financing, provides an acute assessment of some key points regarding smuggling to and from the Horn of Africa and what can be done to fight it more effectively.


Nikola Zukalová (EGIC): Could you please introduce some of the most important smuggling routes from the Horn of Africa to the Arabian Peninsula and Europe and specify precisely what is being smuggled?

Yan St-Pierre (MOSECON): The smuggling of illegal goods — including overlooked goods such as poached ivory, donkey parts or coal — has a very uneven flow between the Horn and the Arabian Peninsula and a complicated road to Europe. So for clarity, I will break it down based on goods rather than routes.

Heroin/opium and weapons (mostly small arms) comprise the bulk of illegal goods smuggled into the Horn of Africa (mostly Somalia, Eritrea and Kenya) and the East coast of Africa (Tanzania and Mozambique). From these countries, opium will mostly be redistributed westwards towards West African countries like Senegal, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, the Ivory Coast and Nigeria. From these countries’ ports, heroin will be sent to Brazil or European states like the United Kingdom (UK) and Italy, where it will then be redistributed to end-markets such as Germany.

During transport across Africa, the opium will be transformed into other products: crystal meth in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) for example, and then smuggled further on to African end markets or to the western ports mentioned above.

Weapons smuggled into the Horn will usually find their way to the various African conflicts, especially to Libya, the Sahel and the Chad Lake region. Of course, the conflicts in South Sudan, Central African Republic or the DRC, for example, also benefit from the smuggling.

The outgoing illegal goods moving from the Horn towards the Arabian Peninsula are luxury goods such as ivory and certain animal parts—and people. The smuggling of people is comprised of two main elements. The first is slaves. The GCC states are, unfortunately, an important hub for human smuggling and many Africans — especially women — are lured there with the promise of well paying jobs. However, once on site, they will be assigned to a brothel to become sex slaves, hired as slaves in households or very commonly sent to other destinations like the UK to become slaves there. It is, tragically, a very lucrative market for which the Horn of Africa is a key departure point and the Arabian Peninsula is both hub and end destination.

The second element is fighters. The war in Yemen and the conflicts in East Africa have created a “fighter transfer zone,” which use the smuggling routes to transfer fighters from one theatre to another. For example, if needed, Al-Shabab will send fighters to support Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in Yemen and some Yemenis will travel to Somalia or Kenya to join Al-Shabab. Much of this is, by the way, done “legally,” because the paperwork is, technically, legal but the way the paperwork was obtained, through blackmail and corruption, is not.

As for Europe, the smuggling links between the two regions are not direct. Much of the heroin that ends up in Europe came through the Horn but is not from there and therefore the Horn must be perceived as a key regional transfer hub rather than a starting point.

Zukalová: Who are the main actors involved in smuggling operations and what are the main motivations behind their involvement in such activities? Does it represent a state security issue?

St-Pierre: This is where the grey zone comes into play. For this to function, legal and illegal, legitimate and illegitimate interests need socio-economic ecosystems where the meshing of such interests can occur. As such, Africa, Central Asia, the Middle East and several other regions are perfect environments for this.

I specify this because the world of smuggling is too often wrongly interpreted as a black and white world, good and bad, as if a choice was simply about choosing what goods should be transported along the centuries’ old commercial routes. It is not that simple. Therefore, the actors involved are states, organised crime, militias and terrorist groups but also farmers, associations, merchants, delivery and transports groups and companies, just to name a few.

Smuggling, regardless if it is illegal goods or not, operates within a chain. Some of the links are larger than others, but it cannot happen without the contribution of the much smaller links, and this contribution can be coerced, not only by repression, but by circumstances. This means for example that if the only way to adequately provide for a family is to produce or transport illegal goods in a specific area because other forms of revenue are extremely scarce, then the coercion is a product of the economic environment, but not necessarily an illegal or illegitimate purpose.

As such, it is a key security issue, but since states profit much by it, the willingness to deal with it will vary significantly.

Zukalová: In your opinion, what could realistically be done to tackle illicit smuggling to and from the region more efficiently?

St-Pierre: I think it begins with a proper understanding of the circumstances that fuel and catalyse illicit smuggling. Smuggling will happen, it is part of the natural economies of most regions around the world. And smuggling illegal goods pays a lot more than legal ones like cattle for example. Hence, if the smuggling is normal, and the incentive to smuggle illegal goods is high, you need to reduce the incentive.

Fact is that people involved in smuggling economies would much prefer to deliver legal goods if the incentives were just as good, or close to it, as smuggling illegal goods. So how to bridge the gap? By targeting the small links in the chain, which means creating the conditions within the socio-economic ecosystem that will incite smaller links to break away. A way to do this would be to ensure that a state buys a determined amount of local goods, to ensure a certain income, which in turn reduces the need for significant additional revenue elsewhere. Of course, that could only have an impact in areas with a degree of financial stability, by which I do not mean revenue, but the effective distribution of revenue through the timely payment of wages for example.

Finally, understanding that illicit smuggling is fuelled by numerous factors functioning simultaneously is the key. Solutions tend to focus only on one aspect or another, but we need solutions that apply simultaneously to the micro, meso and macro levels, which as always, is easier said than done.


For more information on the issue, please see the following analyses by Yan St-Pierre:


  1. The Horn of Africa includes four countries — Djibouti, Ethiopia, Eritrea and Somalia. The so-called Greater Horn of Africa includes additionally Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda, South Sudan, Sudan, Tanzania and Uganda.
  2. Members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) comprise six countries: Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.