Artisanal gold mines in the Sahel have become the targets of terrorist groups operating in Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger. The groups smuggle gold out of the region to finance their activities.
Kibsa Ouedraogo is chief of Noaka, a community in north-central Burkina Faso that is surrounded by artisanal gold mines that have become magnets for terrorists.
“The terrorists hear that this site or that one is thriving with gold, and then they target those sites — they can kill everyone or they take control and take taxes,” Kibsa told Financial Times. “To me, it’s not about religion — it’s a kind of mafia.”
Kibsa’s story has become a common one among communities in Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger. The region is peppered with gold mines — both official and unofficial — that have become sources of income for terrorist organizations operating in the countries’ shared Liptako-Gourma region and beyond.
The mining areas frequently lie outside the control of central governments, leaving residents largely at the mercy of armed groups that are offshoots of Islamic State group and al-Qaida. Even people like Kibsa, who leads a unit of Burkina Faso’s lightly armed Volunteers for the Defense of the Fatherland (VDP), can do little to fend off the extremists.
“No matter which region, their first target is to control the mining area,” Mahamadou Sawadogo, a Burkinabè security analyst, told Financial Times. “It’s their top revenue source, and also a good place for them to recruit young men.”
The mines serve as a haven and a revenue source for terrorist groups. A Reuters analysis found many terrorist attacks in Burkina Faso happened within about 25 kilometers of artisanal mining areas. Along with new recruits, gold mines also supply groups with a ready source of explosives that can be used in attacks elsewhere.
Extremists who take over gold mines, either directly or by demanding protection money, smuggle much of the gold out of the country, most often to buyers in the markets of Dubai, United Arab Emirates (UAE).
One recent United Nations study showed the scale of the smuggling. The analysis found that Mali reported exporting nearly 22,000 kilograms of artisanal gold to the UAE in 2021. The UAE reported importing from Mali just under 174,300 kilograms of artisanal gold. The disparity suggests that 87% of Mali’s gold, worth an estimated $6.3 billion, is being smuggled out of the country. That’s about one-third of Mali’s gross domestic product.
Gold smuggling from Sahelian countries can take place through neighboring countries, such as Togo, or via direct flights between the source countries and the UAE. The smuggled gold often travels in hand luggage.
Terrorist groups see the control of gold mining areas and transportation routes as vital to securing legitimacy and exercising power over local populations, according to the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime.
“This can result in a downward spiral, with violence being a key component of efforts to secure profits, power and legitimacy,” the group wrote in its analysis, “Beyond Blood: Gold, Conflict, and Criminality in West Africa.”
West Africa is not alone. Gold mining underwrites much of the violence in Sudan, where up to 80% of the country’s gold is smuggled out, helping to finance the Rapid Support Forces’ fight against the Sudanese Armed Forces.
Even as gold finances terrorism, it also diverts tax revenue needed for social programs and in the fight against extremism.
Mauritania provides a model for gold mining that could be replicated elsewhere to make sure mining revenue benefits the civilian population. There, the state supervises artisanal miners, guaranteeing that taxes go to the government.
Formalizing gold mines in Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger would be a way to starve terrorists of revenue while protecting miners, according to Jorden de Haan and Aly Diarra, experts in Sahelian gold mining with the nongovernmental organization Pact.
De Haan and Diarra point to Mali’s northern Kidal region where some Tuareg rebels put down their weapons to join a gold rush in 2018 that provided them with a viable income. Artisanal mining remains the main source of income for 80% of the population in Kidal, they report.
“At the national and regional levels, formalization can help curb transnational crime, generate government revenues, and provide broader socio-economic stability,” they wrote.