Wed, Nov 27, 2019 - Page 9 News List

How jihadists struck gold in Africa’s Sahel

As al-Qaeda and the Islamic State group expand in Africa, hundreds of gold mines are bringing a billion-dollar trade within the militants’ reach

By David Lewis and Ryan McNeill  /  Reuters, OUAGADOUGOU

Illustration: Mountain People

People around Pama, a West African town on the edge of vast forested conservation areas, had long been forbidden by their government to dig for gold in the reserves, to protect antelope, buffalo and elephants.

In the middle of last year, men wearing turbans changed the rules.

Riding in with assault rifles on motorbikes and in 4X4 trucks, they sent government troops and rangers fleeing from the area in eastern Burkina Faso bordering the Sahel, a belt of scrubland south of the Sahara Desert.

The armed men said that residents could mine in the protected areas, but there would be conditions. Sometimes they demanded a cut of the gold. At other times they bought and traded it.

The men “told us not to worry. They told us to pray,” said one man who gave his name as Trahore.

He said he had worked for several months at a mine called Kabonga, a short drive northwest of Pama.

Like other miners who spoke to reporters, he asked not to be identified for fear of retribution.

It was not safe for reporters to visit the region, but five other miners who had been to 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 the Islamic State group, having lost ground in the Middle East, are expanding in Africa and exploiting gold mines across the region, data on attacks and interviews with two dozen miners, residents, and government and security officials show.

Besides attacking industrial operations, two of the world’s most feared extremist forces are tapping the US$2 billion informal gold trade in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger — a flow that is already largely out of state control.

BURKINA FASO

Researchers and the UN have warned of the risks of armed extremists reaching the region’s gold mines; analysis of data from Burkina Faso, and testimony from people who have fled mining areas, show that this is happening at scale.

For the militants, the mines are a hideout and a treasure trove: of funds with which to recruit new members and buy arms, and of explosives and detonators to stage the attacks that extend their power.

A poor country of mainly subsistence farmers, Burkina Faso has in the past few years become the focus of a campaign by local insurgents and regional militant groups. The violence has killed hundreds of people, including at least 39 gold mine workers ambushed on a road earlier this month.

Dozens of robberies and kidnappings have been reported that target mining.

The attacks extend toward hundreds of small-scale mines in Burkina Faso alone.

About 2,200 possible informal gold mines were identified in a government survey of satellite imagery last year.

About half of them are within 25km of places where militants have carried out attacks, according to the analysis of incidents documented by Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED), a consultancy that tracks political violence.

The militants’ advance has traced a route from the north toward the south and the east of the country, according to the analysis, which mapped their movements and mining areas with help from the US-based Countering Wildlife Trafficking Institute, a consultancy with expertise in analyzing geospatial data.

The militants have carved a path through some of Burkina Faso’s richest gold fields, the analysis found.

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