The poorly-regulated and patchily-policed areas of West Africa near the Sahel and eastern Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger are experiencing a jihadist gold rush. As the Islamic State and Al Qaeda continue to lose territory in the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia their affiliate groups have their eyes on a glittering new prize: West Africa’s Sahel region. It’s a strip of land running southward of the Sahara with unstable government control and a patchy military presence. Even more importantly, the Sahel contains a highly fungible resource that can be used to finance terrorism: gold. Extremist groups have found the Sahel to be a perfect haven for establishing control of bountiful gold mines, a valuable resource which can be easily melted down and is accepted as payment throughout large swathes of the developing world.

How Does It Work?

Seizing control of mines serves a dual purpose: it gives militants a source of wealth that is very difficult to trace and it also lets them secure a powerful social and economic position in local communities. In nations like Burkina Faso where incomes are less than $700 per year and most people get buy on growing just enough food to eat, those offering a job and physical protection can be a significant attraction. Militants are helped along by a gold trade mainly run on the black market and a profusion of corrupt local officials unpopular with the people. As Nadia Adam and Lori-Anne Theroux-Benoni noted for the Institute for Security Studies, “Communities are infiltrated through co-opting, coercing or killing local leaders. Extremists take advantage of existing intra- or inter-community conflicts to recruit.” Gold is a highly-fungible asset that lets extremist groups continue to expand influence and run global operations including past attacks on the Ivory Coast and against foreign nationals. Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger export $2 billion in gold per year, the vast majority on the black market and out of sight of government regulation.

How Many Gold Mines Do The Terrorists Control In West Africa?

The short answer is that no government or analysts know exactly how many gold mines terrorists have in the Sahel or are taking a cut from. This is partly because Burkina Faso and neighbors have so many unofficial and remote mines that are hard to find even by satellite and difficult to access or assess. As Reuters reports, even data from the best sources is inconclusive about exactly how many mines and how much money terrorist groups are making from Burkinabe gold. However, at minimum terrorists in Burkina Faso were in charge of at least 15 gold mines in Burkina Faso as of this September. The amounts involved are massive: “in 2018, government officials visited just 24 sites near where attacks had taken place and estimated they produced a total of 727 kg of gold per year – worth about $34 million at current prices.” Scores of additional eyewitness reports and experiences make it clear that the problem is widespread and growing. The Armed Conflict and Event Data Project (ACLED) has identified that around half of Burkina Faso’s 2,200 gold mines in 2018 were within 16 miles (25 kilometers) of where extremists had launched attacks. Many foreign workers in Burkina Faso’s mining industry are now generally flown in by helicopter to bypass roads controlled by insurgents and militants.

Unofficial Mines Are Rampant in Burkina Faso, Mali And Niger

Small mines without valid licenses abound in Burkina Faso and neighboring nations, pumping out billions in gold wealth per year. Almost none of this is officially regulated or registered, in fact a mere two percent of Burkina Faso’s gold exports from 2018 were “officially” exported out of the country. The black market is king and it feeds the people. Gold mining, in general, has become a major draw for poor farmers who want a way to support their family. There is also significant use of child labor in the gold mines. Once working in the mines, conditions are often very harsh, hours long and pay relatively low, also providing a weak spot for extremists to exploit by offering slightly higher pay and more incentives than foreign companies and regular camps. Although oil, vanadium, titanium, zinc, iron and uranium also provide some lifeblood to the Burkina Faso economy, gold is certainly the big attraction today for investors and foreign firms. As the head of the gold miners’ union Moamoudou Rabo put it, gold mining is the heart and soul of the Burkinabe economy. “There is nothing else.”

Attacks On Mines Are Increasing

Earlier this month 47 Burkinabe were mowed down by terrorists along the road to the Canadian-owned Boungou gold mine in the country’s east near Arli National Park and more than 60 seriously injured. Last month 20 individuals were slaughtered by jihadists in the country’s north at an unofficial gold mine. In January Canadian geologist Kirk Woodman was kidnapped and murdered by jihadists after being taken at gunpoint from Tiabongou camp in the northern region of the Sahel. Numerous kidnappings and robberies have been reported over the past years and are contributing to growing instability in the country.

The overall levels of militant and tribal-driven violence in Burkina Faso and the region are extremely high and under-reported in much of the Western press, partly because a lot of focus has been on France’s battles with militants in Mali. The region also came up briefly into Western and American attention when four US soldiers were killed by militants in Niger in October 2017. So far in 2019 over 500,000 Burkinabe have been forced to flee their homes because of militant violence and 1,600 have been killed. The violence is particularly bad in the nation’s east but has also been increasing in Burkina Faso’s, south and north. Niger, too, is beset by intense terroristic and tribal violence, partly as a spillover. It is an extremely serious situation, to say the least. Last year in Burkina Faso was no better, with a string of vicious attacks against civilian and government targets. The escalating violence also spills over into neighbors, letting militants build up stable operational bases in-country, infiltrate into Togo and Ghana and launch attacks onto the West African coast including Benin.

How The Terrorists Export The Gold

The majority of Burkina Faso’s jihadist gold is secretly shipped out to Togo and other adjacent countries, refined, and then exported principally to the UAE and also to Turkey, Switzerland, India and Saudi Arabia. In 2018 alone the UAE imported over 7 tons of gold worth over $260 million from Togo which is then processed and sold to buyers in Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Switzerland. Burkina Faso has many holes in its border and does not have strict or effective border control. Terrorists and smugglers hide the gold in herds of cows, hay bales, and in bags on buses and cars. The high price of gold smuggling and sometimes strict penalties for failing motivates ordinary people to go to great lengths to get it over the border. Togo is where it is sorted and then processed and exported. The gold is also secreted out of country from the international airport in Ouagadougou.

Measures Being Taken

Attempts have been made to crack down on Togo’s Wild West gold industry by the UN but so far the results are not conclusive, and international pressure on the UAE regarding its gold import has been met with denial of any laxity or wrongdoing by Emirati authorities. Burkina Faso claims it is taking serious measures to counter the epidemic of violence and gold mine occupation, including warning miners to leave volatile camps and killing 30 militants this past February. Operation Firestorm this spring put Burkinabe troops up against militants in the east. Burkina Faso’s government says Firestorm was successful in quelling jihadist strength in the east; Operation Uprooting in the north began in May and operations are not yet concluded. Over 500 have been killed so far as a result of jihadist actions in the east and north according to the Burkinabe government.

French Involvement In Burkina Faso

France is also involved, and deployed troops into Burkina Faso earlier this month for counterterrorism operations named Operation Bourgou 4 at the behest of the Burkina Faso Government. France has previously provided air power and other assistance to Burkina Faso but the move represented France’s first solid commitment of ground troops to the African nation. It is necessary to bolster beleaguered Burkinabe troops but has received a mixed reaction in the country where some worry about a return to colonial times or believe that France is only acting out of economic incentives. Most of France’s 4,500 troops over the last half-decade are in Mali, Niger and Chad.

Future Security Implications Of The Situation

Put bluntly the security implications of this story are dark. Economically frustrated and unstable regions of the world being taken over by determined terrorist groups to fund their operations sounds like the plot of a Tom Clancy page-turner, but it’s real life. Without systemic and institutional changes to bring Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger’s economies out of the black market and a concerted effort to clean up corruption and wrest control of the gold mines from militant groups, it is exceedingly likely that terrorist groups will continue to make increasing amounts of money by leeching off the region’s considerable gold.

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