Special Report: How jihadists struck bullion in Africa’s Sahel

OUAGADOUGOU (Reuters) – People around Pama, a West African city on a corner of immeasurable forested charge areas, had prolonged been criminialized by their supervision to puncture for bullion in a reserves, to strengthen antelope, buffalo and elephants.

In mid-2018, organisation wearing turbans altered a rules.

Riding in with conflict rifles on motorbikes and in 4X4 trucks, they sent supervision infantry and rangers journey from a area in eastern Burkina Faso adjacent a Sahel, a belt of scrubland south of a Sahara Desert.

For a striking chronicle of this story, click: here

The armed organisation pronounced residents could cave in a stable areas, though there would be conditions. Sometimes they demanded a cut of a gold. At other times they bought and traded it.

The organisation “told us not to worry. They told us to pray,” pronounced one male who gave his name as Trahore and pronounced he had worked for several months during a cave called Kabonga, a brief expostulate northwest of Pama. Like other miners who spoke to Reuters, he asked not to be identified for fear of retribution. It was not stable for reporters to revisit a region, though 5 other miners who had been to Kabonga advanced his account.

“We called them ‘our masters,’” Trahore said.

The pits around Pama are no removed case. Groups related to al Qaeda and Islamic State, carrying mislaid belligerent in a Middle East, are expanding in Africa and exploiting bullion mines opposite a region, information on attacks and interviews with dual dozen miners and residents, and supervision and confidence officials, show. Besides aggressive industrial operations, dual of a world’s many feared nonconformist army are drumming a $2 billion spontaneous bullion trade in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger – a upsurge that is already mostly out of state control.

Researchers and a United Nations have warned of a risks of armed extremists reaching a region’s bullion mines; Reuters’ research of information from Burkina Faso, and testimony from people who have fled mining areas, uncover this is function during scale. For a Islamists, a mines are both a hideout and a value trove: of supports with that to partisan new members and buy arms, and of explosives and detonators to theatre a attacks that extend their power.

A bad nation of generally keep farmers, Burkina Faso has in new years spin a concentration of a debate by internal insurgents and spontaneous jihadi groups. The assault has killed hundreds of people, including during slightest 39 bullion cave workers ambushed on a highway progressing this month. Dozens of robberies and kidnappings have been reported that aim mining.

The attacks extend towards hundreds of small-scale mines in Burkina Faso alone. Around 2,200 probable spontaneous bullion mines were identified in a supervision consult of satellite imagery in 2018. About half of them are within 25 km (16 miles) of places where militants have carried out attacks, according to a research of incidents that were documented by Armed Conflict Location Event Data Project (ACLED), a consultancy that marks domestic violence.

The militants’ allege has traced a track from a north towards a south and a easterly of a country, according to a analysis, that mapped their movements and mining areas with assistance from a U.S.-based Countering Wildlife Trafficking Institute, a consultancy with imagination in examining geospatial data. The militants have forged a trail by some of Burkina Faso’s richest bullion fields, a research found.

It is tough to contend how most bullion a mines furnish or accurately who controls them – many are in places where supervision army are absent and bandits ramble – though a sums concerned are huge. In 2018, supervision officials visited usually 24 sites nearby where attacks had taken place and estimated they constructed a sum of 727 kg of bullion per year – value about $34 million during stream prices.

Oumarou Idani, Burkina Faso’s apportion of mines, pronounced in May that Islamists had taken control of some mines, generally in stable areas, where they speedy camps of miners to puncture in defilement of supervision bans. “They fed a stay and bought and sole gold,” he said.

Incidents related to Islamists forsaken neatly that month, after infantry operations helped expostulate insurgents from mining areas. But by October, a sum had roughly returned to a rise from before a infantry actions, a ACLED information shows.

Most of Burkina Faso’s informally constructed bullion is smuggled to a neighbors, quite Togo, to equivocate trade taxes, according to a 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 extended their ability to beget income by bullion – while state actors sojourn feeble positioned to do anything about it,” pronounced William Linder, a former officer with a Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) who served in West Africa and now runs a risk consultancy.

“Failure to repair this problem now will usually lower and assistance widespread a Sahel crisis.”

Burkina Faso’s Security Minister, Ousseni Compaore, pronounced a supervision was not failing: Governments in a segment are wakeful of a risk and operative together to tackle it, he said.

In Mali, a U.N. has reported that rebels taxation a bullion trade in a northern city of Kidal, and in Niger, supervision officials contend Islamists are perfectionist a share of bullion constructed in a west.

A comparison central in Mali’s method of mines pronounced it could not order out a probability of Islamists drumming into gold, generally in a north, though was operative to umpire small-scale mining. Niger’s mining apportion did not respond to requests for comment.

For a map of Islamist attacks and bullion mines: here


Gold has prolonged been an ideal commodity for insurgents: It retains a value; it is widely supposed as a substitute for banking in tools of Africa, a Middle East and Asia; and once refined, it can simply be smelted and smuggled.

Informal mines in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger furnish between them some 50 tonnes of gold, value $2 billion, a year, according to estimates by a Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Of this, small-scale miners in Burkina Faso furnish around 15-20 tonnes of bullion a year, value between $720 million and $960 million, according to supervision and OECD estimates.

In 2018, Burkina Faso accessible central exports of usually around 300 kg of bullion from small-scale mines – around 1.5% to 2% of a country’s estimated prolongation – indicating a scale of smuggling.

Informal miners mostly work out of steer of a authorities. Burkina Faso’s pull to locate a small-scale mines found that usually 25 had current permits country-wide, Salofou Trahore, handling executive of a supervision regulator, told Reuters.

Government researchers visited some-more than 1,000 sites to lift out simple checks, and found that 800 were active. They detected others not seen in a satellite imagery and looked in-depth during 64 more. But many they could not reach. Large tools of a north and easterly are out of control of a capital, call it to announce states of puncture in 14 of a country’s 45 provinces.

Security analysts charge many of a attacks to al Qaeda’s spontaneous affiliate, Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (Group for Support of Islam and Muslims) and a homegrown organisation named Ansarul Islam (Defenders of Islam). In a east, Islamic State in a Greater Sahara operates in forests that have prolonged been a breakwater for bandits, smugglers and poachers. None of a groups could be reached.


In Burkina Faso as elsewhere, jihadist groups are skilful during exploiting internal grievances to win people over. In a nation with annual incomes of usually $660 a conduct according to a World Bank, supervision efforts to tie off mines to particular diggers – either for charge or to make approach for large business – are unpopular.

“How many people in Burkina Faso can compensate a propagandize fees but artisanal mining?” pronounced Moamoudou Rabo, conduct of a inhabitant kinship of bullion miners. “Our economy is bullion mining. There is zero else.”

At one digging site, Ouargaye in a southeast, miners pronounced Islamists arrived usually as internal infantry were perfectionist bribes from miners who lacked ID cards. The 9 policemen were armed, pronounced a miner who was there. Even so, a infantry sped divided on motorbikes. “After that,” a miner recalled, “people pronounced a gunmen were a genuine masters.” Compaore, a confidence minister, pronounced it was not probable to determine this report.

In June, hundreds of civilians journey a call of attacks on churches in northern Burkina Faso began display adult on a hinterland of a capital, Ouagadougou. They arrived with usually what they could squeeze onto trucks and buses – a pouch of rice, jerry cans for water, pots and pans, mats to nap on.

Many women and children sought preserve in 3 dry propagandize yards. Among them were a handful of immature organisation who had been digging for bullion around a remote city of Silgadji, nearby a limit with Mali.

For months, they said, armed extremists who were not from their area had been stealing out among a miners. They had imposed their laws and threatened to kill anyone who spoke about their presence. Zakaria Sawadogo, 43, fled with his family to a capital.

“There used to be traders who would come buy a bullion and re-sell it,” he said. “But a terrorists were robbing them as they had lots of money.” The traders stopped coming, he said.

To a south, in a city of Bartiebougou, a mason who spent 4 months on a construction plan in a mining area there pronounced a pits were plentiful with fighters.

“They were some-more heavily armed than a soldiers,” a mason said. “They tranquil everything.”

The mason pronounced a gunmen hired some miners to puncture for them, shopping bullion from others. Sometimes a Islamist interlopers gave food to a poor, he said; other times they were ruthless. “We saw dual people who were killed for offered alcohol,” he said.


Gold flows out of Burkina Faso opposite porous land borders in cars and buses. It is strapped to cattle or dark in bales of grain trustworthy to bicycles. Miners during Kabonga, in an area nearby Pama indifferent for herders to lift their livestock, pronounced buyers enclosed locals and traders from adjacent countries, including Ghana, Togo, Benin and Niger.

Neighboring Togo, a nation that produces small bullion from a possess mines, is a bootlegging hub.

In new years, a United Arab Emirates – a tellurian core for bullion enlightening and trade – has determined itself as a categorical end for bullion from Togo, dogmatic imports of some-more than 7 tonnes (worth $262 million) in 2018, according to U.N. trade data. In turn, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Switzerland are a categorical takers of bullion from a UAE.

In early 2019, general officials pressured Togo to act to forestall gold-smuggling, fearing a trade was pushing dispute in a region, a chairman with approach believe of a commencement told Reuters. Nestor Adjehoun, executive of growth and control in Togo’s method of mines, pronounced bullion trade had been dangling there given a commencement of a year to make a trade some-more transparent. Togo’s 2018 trade total were not accessible in U.N. data.

Gold isn’t always carried by adjacent countries. Those with connectors and means can filch it out of Burkina Faso around Ouagadougou’s general airport, one former bullion raider with years of knowledge in West Africa told Reuters.

Gold-trafficking networks, aided by hurtful officials, are funneling bullion out of a nation by air, Evariste Somda, a tip Burkinabe etiquette officer, pronounced in response. The upsurge is depriving a nation of millions of dollars in income and etiquette officers are perplexing to branch it, he said.

The International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based consider tank, final week called on a UAE to tie adult regulations to forestall a bullion trade being used to financial terrorism. A comparison UAE central pronounced a nation maintains strong law in line with general standards.


Burkina Faso’s supervision has attempted to enclose a militants.

In January, miners said, a infantry forsaken leaflets from helicopters revelation miners to leave sites around Kabonga. The subsequent month, a infantry pronounced a army had killed around 30 fighters in airstrikes and belligerent operations in a area.

The supervision criminialized small-scale mining opposite a easterly and most of northern Burkina Faso, and supervision infantry mounted a six-week offensive, dubbed Operation Firestorm, to revive state management in a east. On Apr 12, General Moise Miningou, conduct of Burkina Faso’s armed forces, announced during a news conference: “Our goal was accomplished.”

In a north, a supervision launched a identical effort, Operation Uprooting, in May, that is still ongoing.

But some-more than 500 deaths have been accessible in assault related to jihadist groups in both regions given June.

As of September, Islamist fighters assigned during slightest 15 mines in a easterly of a country, giving them approach control over prolongation and sales, pronounced Mahamadou Savadogo, a confidence consultant and former Burkinabe heat who is researching a insurgency.

Despite supervision bans, mining continues in areas where Islamists operate: In October, 20 people were killed in an conflict by suspected jihadists on an spontaneous gold-mining site in a northern range of Soum, confidence sources said.

Slideshow (7 Images)

Today, it is misleading who controls Kabonga, a cave nearby a wildlife-rich haven by a Sahel.

“The Kabonga timberland is immense,” Security Minister Ousseni Compaore told Reuters in June. “We can't bar a thought that some competence have pulled behind and dark so they can lapse later.”

Additional stating by Thiam Ndiaga in Ouagadougou, John Zodzi in Lome, Moussa Aksar in Niamey, Tiemoko Diallo in Bamako, Maha El Dahan in Dubai, Cairo bureau; Edited by Alexandra Zavis and Sara Ledwith

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