People around Pama, a West African town on the edge of vast forested conservation areas, had long been forbidden by government to dig for gold in the reserves, to protect antelope, buffalo and elephants.
In mid-2018, men wearing turbans changed the rules.
Riding in with assault rifles on motorcycles and in 4X4 trucks, they sent government troops and rangers fleeing from eastern Burkina Faso bordering the Sahel, a belt of scrubland south of the Sahara Desert.
The armed men said residents could mine in protected areas, with conditions. They demanded a cut of the gold and at other times they bought and traded it.
The men “told us not to worry. They told us to pray,” said a man who gave his name as Trahore who worked for several months at a mine called Kabonga, north-west of Pama. Like other miners who spoke to Reuters, he asked not to be identified for fear of retribution. It is not safe for reporters to visit the region. Five other miners at Kabonga corroborated his account.
“We called them ‘our masters,’” Trahore said.
The pits around Pama are no isolated case. Groups linked to al Qaeda and Islamic State, having lost ground in the Middle East, expand in Africa and exploit gold mines across the region, data on attacks and interviews with two dozen miners and residents and government and security officials, show.
Apart from attacking industrial operations, two of the world’s most feared extremist forces are tapping the $2 billion informal gold trade in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger – a flow already largely out of state control.
Researchers and the United Nations warned of the risks of armed extremists reaching the region’s gold mines; Reuters’ analysis of data from Burkina Faso, and testimony from people who fled mining areas, show this is happening. For the Islamists, the mines are both a hideout and a treasure trove: funds to recruit new members and buy arms and explosives and detonators to stage attacks.
A poor country of mainly subsistence farmers, Burkina Faso has in recent years become the focus of a campaign by local insurgents and regional jihadi groups. Violence killed hundreds, including at least 39 gold mine workers ambushed on a road earlier this month. Dozens of robberies and kidnappings that target mining are reported.
The attacks extend to hundreds of small-scale mines in Burkina Faso alone. Around 2 200 possible informal gold mines were identified in a government survey of satellite imagery in 2018. About are within 25 km of sites where militants attacked, according to analysis of incidents documented by Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED), a consultancy tracking political violence.
The militants’ advance traced a route from north to south and in the east of the country, according to the analysis, which mapped movements and mining areas with help from the US-based Countering Wildlife Trafficking Institute, a consultancy with expertise in analysing geospatial data. Militants carved a path through some of Burkina Faso’s richest gold fields, the analysis found.
It is hard to say how much gold mines produce or who controls them – many are where government forces are absent and bandits roam – but the numbers involved are huge. In 2018, government officials visited 24 sites near where attacks took place and estimated they produced a total of 727 kg of gold per year – worth about $34 million at current prices.
Oumarou Idani, Burkina Faso’s minister of mines, said Islamists took control of some mines, especially in protected areas, where they encouraged miners to dig in violation of government bans. “They fed the camp and bought and sold gold,” he said.
Incidents linked to Islamists dropped after military operations drove insurgents from mining areas. By October, the total returned close to its peak before military action, the ACLED data shows.
Most of Burkina Faso’s informally produced gold is smuggled to its neighbours, particularly Togo, to avoid export taxes, according to government. From there, it is flown to refineries before it is exported to countries including Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Switzerland and India.
“Violent extremists extended their areas of control and enhanced ability to generate income through gold – while state actors remain poorly positioned to do anything about it,” said William Linder, a former officer with the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) who served in West Africa and now runs a risk consultancy.
“Failure to fix this problem will only deepen and spread the Sahel crisis.”
Burkina Faso’s Security Minister, Ousseni Compaore, said government was not failing. Governments in the region are aware of the risk and work to tackle it, he said.
In Mali, the UN reported rebels tax the gold trade in the northern town Kidal, and in Niger, government officials say Islamists demand a share of gold produced in the west.
A senior official in Mali’s ministry of mines said it could not rule out the possibility of Islamists tapping into gold, especially in the north, but was working to regulate small-scale mining. Niger’s mining minister did not respond to requests for comment.
STATES OF EMERGENCY
Gold has long been an ideal commodity for insurgents. It retains its value; is widely accepted as a proxy for currency in parts of Africa, the Middle East and Asia; and once refined can easily be smelted and smuggled.
Informal mines in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger produce some 50 tonnes of gold, worth $2 billion, a year, according to estimates by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). Of this, small-scale miners in Burkina Faso produce around 15-20 tonnes of gold a year, worth between $720 million and $960 million, according to government and OECD estimates.
In 2018, Burkina Faso recorded official exports of 300 kg of gold from small-scale mines – around 1.5% to 2% of estimated production – indicating the scale of smuggling.
Informal miners often operate out of sight of authorities. Burkina Faso’s push to locate small-scale mines found 25 had valid permits country-wide, Salofou Trahore, managing director of the government regulator, told Reuters.
Government researchers visited more than 1 000 sites for basic checks and found 800 active. They discovered others in the satellite imagery and looked in-depth at 64 more. They could not reach many. Large parts of the north and east are out of control of the capital, prompting states of emergency in 14 of the country’s 45 provinces.
Security analysts attribute many attacks to al Qaeda’s regional affiliate, Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (Group for Support of Islam and Muslims) and a homegrown group Ansarul Islam (Defenders of Islam). In the east, Islamic State in the Greater Sahara operates in forests long a haven for bandits, smugglers and poachers. None of the groups could be reached.
In Burkina Faso as elsewhere, jihadist groups exploit local grievances to win people over. In a country with annual incomes of $660 a head according to the World Bank, government efforts to close mines – whether for conservation or to make way for big business – are unpopular.
“How many people in Burkina Faso can pay school fees without artisanal mining?” said Moamoudou Rabo, head of a national union of gold miners. “Our economy is gold mining. There is nothing else.”
At the Ouargaye site, miners said Islamists arrived as local police were demanding bribes from miners without ID cards. Nine armed policemen sped away on motorcycles. “After that,” the miner recalled, “people said the gunmen were the real masters.” Compaore, the security minister, could not verify this.
In June, civilians fleeing a wave of attacks on churches in northern Burkina Faso showed up on the outskirts of Ouagadougou. They arrived with what they could cram onto trucks and buses – sacks of rice, jerry cans for water, pots and pans, mats to sleep on.
Women and children sought shelter in dusty school yards. Among them a handful of young men who were digging for gold around the remote town Silgadji, near the Mali border.
For months, they said, armed extremists not from their area were hiding out among miners. They imposed their laws and threatened to kill anyone who spoke about their presence. Zakaria Sawadogo (43) fled with his family to the capital.
“There used to be traders who would buy our gold and resell it,” he said. “Yhe terrorists were robbing them as they had money.” The traders stopped coming, he said.
To the south, in Bartiebougou, a mason who spent four months on a construction project said the pits were teeming with fighters.
“They were more heavily armed than the soldiers,” the mason said. “They controlled everything.”
The mason said gunmen hired miners to dig for them, buying gold from others. Sometimes the Islamist interlopers gave food to the poor, he said; other times they were ruthless. “We saw two people killed for selling alcohol,” he said.
HIDDEN IN THE HAY
Gold flows out of Burkina Faso across porous land borders in cars and buses. It is strapped to cattle or hidden in bales of hay attached to bicycles. Miners at Kabonga, near Pama and reserved for herders, said buyers included locals and traders from neighbouring countries Ghana, Togo, Benin and Niger.
In recent years, the United Arab Emirates – a global centre for gold refining and trading – established itself as the main destination for gold from Togo, declaring imports of more than seven tonnes (worth $262 million) in 2018, according to UN trade data. In turn, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Switzerland are the main takers of UAE gold.
In early 2019, international officials pressured Togo to prevent gold smuggling, fearing the trade was driving conflict, a person with knowledge of the initiative told Reuters. Nestor Adjehoun, director of development and control in Togo’s ministry of mines, said gold trading was suspended since the beginning of the year to make the trade more transparent.
Gold isn’t always carried through neighbouring countries. Those with connections and means smuggle it out of Burkina Faso via Ouagadougou International Airport,a former gold smuggler with years of experience in West Africa told Reuters.
Gold trafficking networks, aided by corrupt officials, funnel gold out by air, Evariste Somda, a top Burkinabe customs officer, said. The flow is depriving the country of millions of dollars in revenue and customs officers are trying to stem it, he said.
The International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based think tank, called on the UAE to tighten regulations to prevent the gold trade being used to finance terrorism. A senior UAE official said the country maintains robust regulation in line with international standards.
Burkina Faso’s government tries to contain the militants.
In January, miners said, the military dropped leaflets telling miners to leave sites around Kabonga. The next month the military killed around 30 fighters in airstrikes and ground operations in the area.
Government banned small-scale mining across the east and much of northern Burkina Faso and government troops mounted a six-week offensive, Operation Firestorm, to restore state authority in the east. On April 12, General Moise Miningou, head of Burkina Faso’s armed forces, declared: “Our mission was accomplished.”
In the north, government launched a similar effort, Operation Uprooting, in May, which is ongoing.
More than 500 deaths have been recorded in violence linked to jihadist groups in both regions since June.
As of September, Islamist fighters occupied at least 15 mines in the east, giving them control over production and sales, said Mahamadou Savadogo, a security consultant and former Burkinabe gendarme researching the insurgency.
Despite government bans, mining continues where Islamists operate. In October, 20 people were killed in an attack by suspected jihadists on an informal gold-mining site in the northern province Soum, security sources said.
It is unclear who controls Kabonga, the mine near the wildlife-rich reserve adjacent the Sahel.
“Kabonga forest is immense,” Security Minister Ousseni Compaore told Reuters in June. “We cannot exclude the idea some might have pulled back and hidden to return later.”