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Islamic State, GSIM, al-Qaeda: The jihadist gold rush in Burkina Faso

By Nadoun Coulibaly
Posted on Tuesday, 24 August 2021 17:06

Informal gold miners are seen taking a break from work under the midday sun at an artisanal mining site near Dano, southern Burkina Faso May 5, 2020. Picture taken May 5, 2020. REUTERS/Moussa Bouboucari

For the past five years, terrorist groups have been taking over gold mining sites in areas where the government of Burkina Faso is virtually absent. They are using their control as a means of financing themselves.

More than two months after the attack that took place during the night of 4-5 June, which killed 132 people, Solhan has still not fully recovered. This town of 10,000 inhabitants (including 7,000 gold miners, according to local authorities) – located about 15km from Sebba, the capital of the north-eastern province of Yagha – has become the target for gold smuggling by two rival groups: the Islamic State (IS) and the Groupe de Soutien à l’Islam et aux Musulmans (GSIM, affiliated with Al-Qaeda).

Gold panning is one of the sectors of the economy through which these organisations finance themselves.

Many experts see a correlation between insecurity and the country’s gold boom, which is attracting growing interest. In the north, east, west and south-west, insecurity goes hand in hand with the proliferation of gold mining, smuggling and trafficking of all kinds.

“Gold panning is one of the sectors of the economy through which these organisations finance themselves,” says Rinaldo Depagne, West Africa director at the International Crisis Group (ICG) think tank.

“There is no evidence to suggest that terrorist groups have been exploiting any gold sites,” says economist Barnabé Kambou, a specialist in development policy management and coordinator of the Observatoire Economique et Social, an offshoot of Burkina Faso’s Conseil Economique et Social.

However, it is common knowledge that in the areas under their control, these groups demand zakat [in Islam, legal alms] from the gold miners, in return for protection. Therefore, the gold miners sometimes see the jihadists’ presence as a boon, rather than a threat.

Handling explosives

“Terrorists groups are mostly engaging in illegal gold mining in eastern Burkina,” says one source from the mines ministry. As ICG pointed out in a report back in November 2019 entitled ‘Reprendre en Main la Ruée vers l’Or au Sahel Central‘ (Taking Back the Gold Rush in the Central Sahel), hostage-taking is becoming a much less common practice in the Sahel, and with it ransoms, which were an important source of income for jihadist movements. Therefore, gold is both a new means of financing themselves and of recruiting.

The ICG report also indicated that the gold sites were used as training grounds, particularly for learning how to handle explosives – a technique used in gold mining. Several members of the Khalid Ibn Walid Katiba, Ansar Eddine’s southern branch, reportedly admitted that they had received this type of training in one of the many artisanal mines located in northern Côte d’Ivoire, near the Malian border.

These quantities of gold are then sent to illegal refineries in neighbouring Mali and Ghana. Between 20tn-30tn are smuggled out of Burkina.

The gold industry thus acts as a supply route for the manufacture of improvised explosive devices (IEDs), particularly in central Mali and in certain regions of Burkina Faso, where ammonium nitrate, which is marketed by Sahelian companies, is the main component of these IEDs.

Transit through Mali, Ghana or Togo

The well-documented ICG report pointed out that the “boom within the artisanal gold sector is threatening the states of the central Sahel”. In addition to “the financial stakes associated with artisanal gold mining, which have become considerable in recent years,” the authors warned about “the formation of informal local, regional and international trading networks” that could “contribute to financing armed groups and/or terrorism and increase money laundering in the region”.

“The smuggling routes pass through Mali, Ghana and Togo,” says the source at Burkina Faso’s mines ministry. “Offenders hide their loot in vehicles or on passengers while they cross the border. These quantities of gold are then sent to illegal refineries in neighbouring Mali and Ghana. Between 20tn-30tn are smuggled out of Burkina.”

In 2020, the Observatoire Economique et Social in Ouagadougou conducted a study on money laundering and the financing of terrorism. The report said that Burkina Faso alone had accounted for 70bn CFA francs (about €107m) worth of illegally exploited gold between 2016 and 2019.

Police officers prepare to surround an opposition demonstration protesting against the deteriorating security situation, in Ouagadougou on 3 July 2021. Olympia de Maismont/AFP

Today, artisanal production would have accounted for nearly 50% of the volumes produced industrially. According to the ICG, artisanal production amounts to 20tn-50tn per year in Mali, 10tn-30tn in Burkina Faso, and 10tn-15tn in Niger. This represents a total value of between $1.9bn and $4.5bn per year, based on the global price of gold.

Most of this artisanal and/or illegal production is exported to Dubai, which recently reported receiving $1.9bn worth in imports from these three countries, plus Togo.

More than 2 million people are directly involved in artisanal gold mining in these three countries: 1 million in Burkina, 700,000 in Mali, and 300,000 in Niger, according to the ICG.

“From 2016-2017, in Soum [Burkina Faso], particularly in the Kéréboulé region, Ansarul al-Islam [the late radical preacher Malam Dicko’s group] fighters clashed violently with the koglwéogo self-defence groups for control of gold mining sites. The same events took place within some localities in the east and last June, during the attack on Solhan,” says the Observatoire Economique et Social‘s Kambou.

Omerta and beheadings

According to our information, this bloody attack – which targeted the headquarters of the Volontaires pour la Défense de la Patrie, responsible for protecting the site – was provoked by the arrest of two gold miners who were suspected of belonging to terrorist groups, in particular GSIM.

Like many analysts, Tristan Guéret of Risk Advisory believes the terrorists retaliated violently to impose their authority and “force the levying of parallel taxes.” The local authorities had failed to impose an annual tax of 10,000 CFA francs on the 7,000 gold extractors, (mainly from Burkina Faso, but also from Senegal, Guinea and Niger) who were trying to make a fortune there.

By imposing a blockade in the areas they control, and publicly beheading the defence and security forces’ supposed informants, the terrorist movements have managed to strengthen their hold by creating a climate of terror.

There are also funds from abroad, which come from foundations based in the Gulf countries, microfinance, and payments made by sympathisers and families under the influence through informal systems.

Even their financial channels have succumbed to an ominous silence. In Ouagadougou, poultry sellers who buy their supplies in the eastern part of the country told us that these armed men sometimes make do with snatching their supplies, all the while prohibiting them from bringing grain to the capital. IS has turned this method of financing into a system.

Illegal gold mining is not the terrorists’ only source of income. In addition, they collect zakat, rights of way and grazing rights, as well as traffic in precious wood, ivory, and protected species. They also gather food from areas that have been abandoned by the defence and security forces.

“Terrorist movements are creating a grey economy. In the southwest, for example, they participate in cross-border trafficking in cigarettes and everyday consumer goods,” says a Burkinabe security source. The looted and trafficked products (livestock, fuel and foodstuffs) are sold locally via intermediaries. These are organised circuits that are still difficult to infiltrate.

“There are also funds from abroad, which come from foundations based in the Gulf countries, microfinance, and payments made by sympathisers and families under the influence through informal systems,” adds Kambou.

Therefore, is it fair to say that illegally exploiting gold is part of the armed groups’ geographical expansion strategy in Burkina Faso and Mali? “This has been demonstrated,” says our security source in Burkina Faso. “These groups are extending their activities, particularly in the north, east and southwest of Burkina and beyond, in northern Côte d’Ivoire, so that they can control the exploitation of natural resources.”

According to one of our estimates, the kidnappers would be able to make more than 30m CFA francs by stealing a herd of 100 oxen. In the meantime, the state, which lacks the proper tools to fight the problem, is struggling to understand the financial ramifications of the terrorist group and to dry up its networks. The combination of insecurity and financial crime still has many bright days ahead.

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