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.
Illustration: Mountain People
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.
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.
It is hard to say how much gold the mines produce or exactly who controls them — many are in places where government forces are absent and bandits roam — but the sums involved are huge.
Last year, Burkinabe government officials visited just 24 sites near where attacks had taken place and estimated they produced a total of 727kg of gold per year — worth about US$34 million at current prices.
Burkinabe Minister of Mines and Quarries Oumarou Idani in May said that militants had taken control of some mines, especially in protected areas, where they encouraged camps of miners to dig in contravention of government bans.
“They fed the camp and bought and sold gold,” he said.
Incidents linked to militants dropped sharply that month, after military operations helped drive insurgents from mining areas, but by last month, the total had almost returned to its peak from before the military actions, the ACLED data shows.
Most of Burkina Faso’s informally produced gold is smuggled to its neighbors, particularly Togo, to avoid export taxes, according to the government.
From there, it is flown to refineries before it is exported to countries including Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Switzerland and India.
“Violent extremists have extended their areas of control and have enhanced their ability to generate income through gold, while state actors remain poorly positioned to do anything about it,” said William Linder, a former CIA officer who served in West Africa and now runs a risk consultancy.
“Failure to fix this problem now will only deepen and help spread the Sahel crisis,” Linder said.
Burkinabe Minister of State for Internal Security Ousseni Compaore said that the government was not failing.
Governments in the region are aware of the risk and working together to tackle it, he said.
In Mali, the UN has reported that rebels tax the gold trade in the northern town of Kidal, and in Niger, government officials say that militants are demanding a share of gold produced in the west.
A senior official in the Malian Ministry of Mines, Energy and Water Resources said it could not rule out the possibility of militants tapping into gold, especially in the north, but was working to regulate small-scale mining.
Niger’s minister of mines and energy did not respond to requests for comment.
STATES OF EMERGENCY
Gold has long been an ideal commodity for insurgents: It retains its value; it is widely accepted as a proxy for currency in parts of Africa, the Middle East and Asia; and once refined, it can easily be smelted and smuggled.
Informal mines in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger produce between them about 50 tonnes of gold, worth US$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 about 15 to 20 tonnes of gold a year, worth between US$720 million and US$960 million, according to government and OECD estimates.
Burkina Faso recorded official exports of only about 300kg of gold from small-scale mines last year — about 1.5 to 2 percent of the country’s estimated production — indicating the scale of smuggling.
Informal miners often operate out of sight of the authorities.
Burkina Faso’s push to locate its small-scale mines found that just 25 had valid permits nationwide, said Salofou Trahore, managing director of the government regulator.
Government researchers visited more than 1,000 sites to carry out basic checks, and found that 800 were active. They discovered others not seen in the satellite imagery and looked in-depth at 64 more, but many they could not reach.
Large parts of the north and east are out of control of the capital, prompting it to declare states of emergency in 14 of the country’s 45 provinces.
Security analysts attribute many of the 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 named Ansarul Islam (Defenders of Islam).
In the east, Islamic State in the Greater Sahara group operates in forests that have long been a haven for bandits, smugglers and poachers.
None of the groups could be reached.
In Burkina Faso as elsewhere, jihadist groups are adept at exploiting local grievances to win people over.
In a country with annual incomes of just US$660 a head according to the World Bank, government efforts to close off mines to individual diggers — whether for conservation or to make way for big business — are unpopular.
“How many people in Burkina Faso can pay the 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 one digging site in the southeast near Ouargaye, miners said that militants arrived just as local police were demanding bribes from miners who lacked identification cards.
The nine policemen were armed, a miner who was there said.
Even so, the police sped away on motorbikes.
“After that, people said the gunmen were the real masters,” the miner said.
Compaore said that it was not possible to verify this report.
In June, hundreds of civilians fleeing a wave of attacks on churches in northern Burkina Faso began showing up on the outskirts of the capital, Ouagadougou.
They arrived with only what they could cram onto trucks and buses — a sack of rice, jerry cans for water, pots and pans, and mats to sleep on.
Many women and children sought shelter in three dusty schoolyards. Among them were a handful of young men who had been digging for gold around the remote town of Silgadji, near the border with Mali.
For months, they said, armed extremists who were not from their area had been hiding out among the miners. They had 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 come buy our gold and re-sell it, but the terrorists were robbing them as they had lots of money,” he said.
The traders stopped coming, he said.
To the south, in the town of Bartiebougou, a mason who spent four months on a construction project in a mining area there said the pits were teeming with fighters.
“They were more heavily armed than the soldiers,” the mason said. “They controlled everything.”
The mason said the gunmen hired some miners to dig for them, buying gold from others. Sometimes the militant interlopers gave food to the poor, he said; other times they were ruthless.
“We saw two people who were 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, in an area near Pama reserved for herders to raise their livestock, said that buyers included locals and traders from neighboring countries, including Ghana, Togo, Benin and Niger.
Togo, a country that produces little gold from its own mines, is a smuggling hub.
In the past few years, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) — a global center for gold refining and trading — has established itself as the main destination for gold from Togo, declaring imports of more than 7 tonnes worth US$262 million in last year, UN trade data showed.
In turn, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Switzerland are the main takers of gold from the UAE.
Early this year, international officials pressured Togo to act to prevent gold-smuggling, fearing the trade was driving conflict in the region, a person with direct knowledge of the initiative told reporters.
Gold trading had been suspended there since the beginning of the year to make the trade more transparent, said Nestor Adjehoun, director of development and controls under the Togolese Ministry of Mines and Energy.
Togo’s export figures for last year were not available in UN data.
Gold is not always carried through neighboring countries. Those with connections and means can smuggle it out of Burkina Faso via Thomas Sankara International Airport Ouagadougou, one former gold smuggler with years of experience in West Africa told reporters.
Gold-trafficking networks, aided by corrupt officials, are funneling gold out of the country by air, said Evariste Somda, a top Burkinabe customs officer.
The flow is depriving the country of millions of US dollars in revenue, and customs officers are trying to stem it, he said.
The International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based think tank, on Nov. 13 called on the UAE to tighten up regulations to prevent the gold trade being used to finance terrorism.
A senior UAE official said that the country maintains robust regulation in line with international standards.
Burkina Faso’s government has tried to contain the militants.
In January, the military dropped leaflets from helicopters telling miners to leave sites around Kabonga, miners said.
The next month, the military said that its forces had killed about 30 fighters in airstrikes and ground operations in the area.
The government banned small-scale mining across the east and much of northern Burkina Faso, and government troops mounted a six-week offensive, dubbed Operation Firestorm, to restore state authority in the east.
On April 12, Burkinabe Chief of General Staff General Moise Miningou said at a news conference: “Our mission was accomplished.”
In May, the government launched a similar effort in the north, Operation Uprooting, which is ongoing, but more than 500 deaths have been recorded in violence linked to jihadist groups in both regions since June.
As of September, militants occupied at least 15 mines in the east of the country, giving them direct control over production and sales, said Mahamadou Savadogo, a security consultant and former Burkinabe gendarme who is researching the insurgency.
Despite government bans, mining continues in areas where militants operate: Last month, 20 people were killed in an attack by suspected jihadists on an informal gold-mining site in the northern province of Soum, security sources said.
Today, it is unclear who controls Kabonga, the mine near the wildlife-rich reserve by the Sahel.
“The Kabonga forest is immense,” Compaore told reporters in June. “We cannot exclude the idea that some might have pulled back and hidden so they can return later.”
Additional reporting by Thiam Ndiaga, John Zodzi, Moussa Aksar, Tiemoko Diallo, Maha El Dahan and the Cairo bureau.
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