ISS: Is the illegal trade in Congolese minerals financing terror?


Many resource-rich states across the globe have used revenues from mining to finance their development. In Africa, however, a lack of sufficiently robust or effectively enforced regulatory systems often means that states lose vast amounts to the illicit trade of natural resources.

In the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the scourge of illegal resource acquisition and smuggling has been taking on a new dimension with terrorist groups becoming increasingly involved.

The Institute for Security Studies (ISS) is currently conducting a research project that tracks illicit financial flows related to resource extraction in the DRC.

Our studies have found that where multinationals were once the major players, terror groups are now increasingly joining the criminal networks that extort minerals from the eastern part of the country. This underscores the need for urgent and drastic measures to improve natural resource governance, both in the DRC and the broader region.

According to a 2009 report in African Business magazine, the total mineral wealth of the DRC is estimated to be about US$24 trillion: equal to the gross domestic product (GDP) of Europe and the United States combined. The country is home to the world’s largest reserves of cobalt, along with vast quantities of diamonds; so-called 3T minerals (tin, tungsten and coltan – which are mostly used in electronics such as laptops and mobile phones); gold; copper and others.

This incredible abundance of natural resources could make the country the richest in the world. However, in spite of this mineral wealth, the DRC is ranked among the most underdeveloped states on the planet. In 2013 for instance, it was ranked the poorest worldwide, with almost 88% of the population living on less than US$1.25 a day. Clearly the vast majority of citizens are not benefiting from the country’s mineral wealth. So, where do these minerals go? And who does benefit?

Multinational companies have long been identified as key players and beneficiaries of illegal and unethical mineral smuggling in the DRC. A 2013 joint report by the African Development Bank and Global Financial Integrity found that a staggering 60% to 65% of lost revenue in Africa disappears in commercial transactions by multinational companies. According to the report, the ‘illicit haemorrhage of resources from the continent is about four times Africa’s current external debt.’

The dynamics appear to have been changing, however. Deliberate efforts from multinationals and their proxies to undermine the formalisation of the extractive sector have allowed other groups to take advantage of the situation. While a weak regulatory environment has served multinational companies’ profits well, it has also allowed terror groups to join smuggling networks. The eastern DRC is a clear case in point.

In 2013, civil society groups in North Kivu uncovered the presence of al-Shabaab mercenaries in Bunagana, on the border with Uganda. Their presence in this region marks the spill-over of the al-Qaeda linked group, which is based in southern Somalia.

In an interview with the ISS, Remy Kasindi, Director of Research at the Centre for Research and Strategic Studies in Central Africa (a think tank based in Bukavu) confirmed that terrorist organisations have infiltrated the illicit mineral networks in the region. Kasindi explained that terror groups such as al-Shabaab and the Allied Democratic Forces-National Army for the Liberation of Uganda (ADF-NALU) have joined hands in smuggling minerals from North Kivu. According to Strategic Intelligence News, ‘ADF-NALU participates in illegal gold mining, timber smuggling and precious metal mining in DRC.’

In 2013, the DRC government accused Somali mercenaries connected to al-Shabaab of joining ADF-NALU in North Kivu province to destabilise the country. Al-Shabaab’s allegiance to larger international terror groups such as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and al-Qaeda means its expansion into the DRC poses a significant threat.

The increase in large-scale smuggling and laundering of natural resources by organised criminal and terror groups is inextricably linked to conflict in the region. Last year, the United Nations Environment Programme reported that: ‘Every year, minerals, timber, charcoal and wildlife products such as ivory, valued between US$0.7 and 1.3 billion annually, are exploited and smuggled illegally out of the conflict zones and surrounding areas of the eastern DRC.’

It further explains that: ‘Around 98% of the net profit from these illicit deals goes to transnational organised criminal and terror networks operating in and outside DRC. In contrast, indigenous armed groups retain only around 2%.’

In January this year, al-Shabaab attacked a Kenya Defence Forces camp in El Adde, Somalia. The move points to a change of tactics, and is a clear indication of the continued threat posed by the group. Their involvement in mineral smuggling in the DRC will likely ensure that it remains sufficiently resourced to keep funding its activities, despite efforts by the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) and the United Nations to cut off channels for financing.

The terror group has been coming under intense pressure in Somalia, and al-Shabaab leaders have been looking for new ways to target the states engaged in Somalia’s counter-terrorism efforts. The AMISOM military component is comprised of troops from Uganda, Burundi, Djibouti, Kenya and Ethiopia, and al-Shabaab might try to destabilise Burundi and Uganda, given its presence in the neighbouring eastern DRC.

The growth of Islam in the region has begun to fuel fears of radicalisation among local DRC communities. According to the 2014 Journal of International Organisations Studies, 28 of the 44 mosques (63%) in the Medina region of eastern DRC were erected between 2005 and 2012. Most of these mosques are funded by Pakistan, a country that has been labelled as an exporter of terrorism. Pakistan has also allegedly been involved in the ‘guns for gold’ trade and mineral smuggling via the presence of its peacekeepers in the eastern DRC.

The use of African resources in global conflicts is not new. ‘The brass casings of allied shells fired at the battles of Passchendaele and the Somme during the First World War were 75% Congolese copper all of which led to the massive deaths on the Western Front,’ reports the BBC. ‘Similarly, during World War II, the uranium for the nuclear bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki came from a mine in southeast Congo.’

It is time for the exploitation of DRC minerals by terrorists and illicit networks to be put to a halt; not only to curb the role of these resources in fuelling and financing conflict – but also to ensure that these resources generate much-needed revenue to promote development. Global cooperation and collective action, as envisaged by the African Mining Vision, is needed now more than ever.

Written by Sebastian Gatimu, Researcher, Governance, Crime and Justice Division, ISS Nairobi

Republished with permission from ISS Africa. The original article can be found here.