How Western Mali could become a gold mine for terrorists

A flourishing gold mining economy in Kayes offers violent extremist groups an opportunity to expand their membership and reach.

Map of the Kayes region in Mali

Map of the Kayes region in Mali

(click on the map for the full size image)

On 9 April 2020, al-Qaeda-affiliated groups operating in the Sahel attacked a security and customs post on the Bamako-Kayes road in Mali’s western Kayes region. Four months later, on 5 August, groups attacked another post located on the Nioro-Kayes stretch.

These and other incidents signal that the region, which borders Guinea, Mauritania and Senegal, is increasingly becoming a hotbed of extremist violence. On 8 February 2021, Senegalese authorities announced that they had dismantled a katiba Macina support cell, in the border town of Kidira, just across the border from Kayes.

While Western Mali largely remains off the radar for stabilisation efforts, emerging trends suggest that violent extremist groups have identified this region’s strategic value. With an estimated 77% of Mali’s gold production, the Kayes region could be a windfall for them. The industry is central to Mali’s economy as it provides 75% of export revenues, 25% of the country’s budget, and 8% of the country’s gross domestic product.

Institute for Security Studies (ISS) research in Kayes shows long-standing vulnerabilities linked to the gold mining industry that extremists could exploit – not just to implant themselves in the region but to expand into Guinea and Senegal.

Violent extremist groups could exploit long-standing vulnerabilities linked to the gold mining industry

Earlier ISS research in the tri-border Liptako-Gourma region, straddling northern Burkina, southern Mali and western Niger, shows that groups operating in the Sahel are already tapping into gold mining. This helps them obtain the financial, logistical and operational resources needed to carry out attacks and sustain themselves. They do so partly by exploiting popular resentment, among other challenges, linked to government management of the mining sector. This enables them to recruit new members, gain communities’ support, and expand their operational reach.

Despite the Kayes situation, stakeholders have primarily focused on preventing and countering violent extremism in Mali’s northern and central regions. These regions remain relevant, but the west needs urgent attention too.

Regardless of government regulation efforts, most artisanal mining sites in the region continue to operate illegally. The sector is controlled by traditional leaders who aren’t always fully aware of violent extremists’ implantation strategies through the control of local resources.

Several artisanal sites open onto the perimeters of industrial mines with the support of community leaders

Artisanal gold mining in the region is anchored in cross-border trafficking. Traditional miners told ISS Today that chemicals used in mining (cyanide and mercury) and several narcotic drugs were brought to the region through illegal networks operating from Benin, Burkina Faso, Ghana, Morocco, Senegal and Togo. These multiple, generally loose networks could serve as conduits in the illicit gold trade, helping fund the violent extremists.

Violent extremist groups also use social tensions and frustrations linked to local land disputes – a grievance that has formed fertile ground for them to take hold elsewhere in the Sahel. Local communities resent the government for allocating them land they argue has fewer gold deposits than those the state gives to mining companies.

Several artisanal sites open onto the perimeters of industrial mines with the support of community leaders. Miners are often forcibly evicted by defence and security forces, resulting in violent clashes. This has nurtured perceptions of the state favouring industrial mining companies.  

Feeling resentful, communities increasingly resort to violence as a form of dispute resolution

Communities in the Kayes region also feel neglected and marginalised. Despite the region’s rich natural resources and the resulting income for the national economy, infrastructure is poor, and basic social services scarce. Successive governments have made little investment in roads, health, education and electricity supply.

Feeling resentful, communities increasingly resort to violence as a form of dispute resolution and challenge the Malian state’s legitimacy. Violent clashes such as the 2018 conflict in Kéniéba illustrate this trend. One person died, official buildings were burnt and the town was left paralysed for three days.

Such incidents offer a potential entry point for recruitment and implantation by violent extremist groups keen on expanding their folds. A young resident in the region told ISS Today: ‘If the jihadists come at 3pm and offer us [an opportunity] to exploit the industrial mine perimeters, we will join them at 4pm.’

To prevent what’s happening in the country’s north and centre from spreading, Mali’s government and its partners should pay particular attention to this area of the west.

Preliminary research shows that this requires tackling governance and development deficits, particularly the lack of basic social services. Mali’s government should involve communities early in the process of granting mining permits to industrial mining companies. It must prioritise negotiation in conflict situations over the use of force. And finally, the collaboration between security and defence forces and community actors responsible for the security reviews of artisanal gold mining sites should be reinforced.

Fahiraman Rodrigue Koné, Senior Researcher and Nadia Adam, Research Officer, ISS Bamako

This article was produced with support from the UK Conflict, Stability and Security Fund, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of The Netherlands.

In South Africa, Daily Maverick has exclusive rights to re-publish ISS Today articles. For media based outside South Africa and queries about our re-publishing policy, email us.

Photo: MALI, Kayes, Sadiola, artisanal gold mining at Camp. © Joerg Boethling / Alamy Stock Photo

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