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Gold is the New Oxygen for the Sahel’s Jihadists – Professor Hussein Solomon

November 25, 2019


Gold is the New Oxygen for the Sahel’s Jihadists

By Hussein Solomon

Volume 7 (2019), Number 16 (November 2019)

A new Reuters investigation on how jihadists in the Sahel fund their activities makes for chilling reading – terrorists have turned to gold to fund their terrorist expansion. Al Qaeda and Islamic State as well as local franchises of these organizations have continued to expand their footprint across Africa. One indication of this emerged earlier this month when the US State Department issued a report noting that the number of terror attacks in the Sahel has doubled from last year. However, no terrorist organization can function without funds. Without funds, there can be no money for stipends for recruits. Without funds, there can be no terrorist propaganda and media arms. Without funds, there can be no weapons. Terrorist organizations in Africa’s Sahel is increasingly moving into illicit gold mining and trading to boost their war chests.

According to the Reuters investigation, the informal gold trade in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger is an estimated US$ 2 billion. The proceeds of this revenue is largely outside of the control of the state. Increasingly, Islamists militants in the form of the Al Qaeda affiliated Jama’atNusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (Group for Support of Islam and Muslims), Islamic State in Greater Sahara and local jihadist group Ansarul Islam (Defenders of Islam) are turning their attention to illicit gold mining and intimidation of legitimate gold mining operators to part with the yellow metal. An example of such intimidation occurred earlier this month on a road in eastern Burkina Faso when 39 gold miners were ambushed. In another incident, in Pama, in eastern Burkina Faso, militants armed with assault rifles arrived and took control over the town as government troops fled. The jihadists immediately got local residents to begin gold mining operations. These incidents are indicative of the tenuous control that states have over their respective territories irrespective of initiatives like the Sahel G5 force, the 4000 strong French presence in the form of Operation Barkhane as well as the various initiatives of the United Nations, China, the European Union and the United States to strengthen central government authority across the Sahel.

The jihadists quest for gold has been greatly facilitated by a number of factors. First, as explained, above, few governments are in complete control over their territories. Consequently, too, few governments are in control over their borders. Thus gold, flows from these countries to Togo which has little gold production of its own and from there finds its way to the United Arab Emirates which is a global gold refining and trading centre and from there is sold in Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Switzerland. The writ of government in the region has to be restored over all territory. This has to be the central thrust of international partners’ counter-terrorism activities.

Second, the various militant groups has been greatly aided by the proliferation of organized crime syndicates in the region which have penetrated the security apparatus. Any counter-terrorism initiative must serve to neutralize such criminal influences within organs of state. This is absolutely essential in an effort to restore authority over the country. For that authority to be accepted by often alienated citizens, it has to be perceived to be legitimate. The state needs to be seen to be acting in the interests of all citizens and criminal activity on the part of state functionaries, therefore, needs to attract greater punitive measures. Consider the case of Mali which is at the epicenter of terrorist activities. Collaboration between organs of state and narco-trafficking has been occurring for much too long. At the same time, there has been close ties between jihadists and these same drug-traffickers. Is it an co-incidence that Bamako has little legitimacy amongst ordinary citizens and has fared so badly in its counter-terrorism drive despite all the international assistance it has received?

Third, there is a history of artisanal mining in the region given the poor economic opportunities existing across the Sahel. This is a fact which militants use to maximum effect as they provide stipends to their fighters and buying gold from these artisanal miners. As such, another important leg in the fight against extremism must be to focus on providing better socio-economic opportunities for the Sahel’s youth. In this way, terror groups in the restive Sahel can be starved from their oxygen.

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