Preventing violent extremism in south-eastern Senegal

Only integrated, mutually reinforcing responses will avoid the worst-case scenario in the gold zones.

Despite being in a region where terrorism is a serious threat, Senegal has not officially recorded a single terrorist attack. However for two years the country has experienced sporadic security incidents along its south-eastern border with Mali.

The Kédougou and Tambacounda regions, which border Mali’s Kayes region, have come under increasing security pressure. In Mali, attacks by violent extremist groups – which were initially confined to the north and centre – have gradually spread, including westwards towards Senegal.

Attacks by violent extremist groups: 2021

Attacks by violent extremist groups: 2021

(click on the graph/map for the full size image)

Senegalese officials have put security measures in place. But the risk to Senegal goes beyond possible attacks – it also involves extremists’ potential use of the country as a source or transit point for financing, procurement and recruitment.

Recent joint Institute for Security Studies’ and Centre des Hautes Etudes de Défense et de Sécurité research on the risk of violent extremism spreading to Senegal shows vulnerabilities in the Kédougou and Tambacounda regions that could feed into extremists’ expansion strategies.

Key among these are informal and illegal artisanal gold mining and marketing. Mining financiers are not traceable. Neither are the proceeds generated from the sale of mined gold, thereby providing a potential opening for terrorist financing. Gold mining is already a source of funding for violent extremist groups operating in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger.

Despite being in a region where terrorism is a serious threat, Senegal has not officially recorded a single terrorist attack

Another vulnerability that groups could exploit for expansion is the feeling of exclusion among local populations due to a lack of economic opportunities and basic social infrastructure. Both Kédougou and Tambacounda are among Senegal’s most impoverished regions, despite their significant gold deposits and economic potential. In the case of Kédougou, having gold mining as an economic mainstay has not translated to better living conditions, as the 2021 poverty rate was 61.9%.

In the Sahel, tense relations between the state and frustrated local populations have enabled violent extremist groups to embed themselves in specific localities. Similarly, these groups could exploit the conflict situation in south-eastern Senegal as an expansion strategy.

In particular, the large migratory and financial flows resulting from gold panning are causing tensions over access to resources. This is likely to worsen as gold mining intensifies. Extremists could either pose as arbiters or take sides as a way to embed themselves.

Furthermore, violent extremists could benefit from transnational organised crime and its associated illicit economy in the region. Gold mining in Kédougou and Tambacounda has been accompanied by a proliferation of different types of trafficking (drugs, fake medicines, mercury and cyanide, explosives and human). Groups align with organised criminals to recruit new members and obtain and move funds and operational resources.

Gold mining is a source of funding for violent extremist groups operating in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger

Effectively addressing the risk of violent extremist expansion to Senegal requires integrated responses designed to be mutually reinforcing and generate short-, medium- and long-term impacts. This will help prevent a security crisis in Senegal’s gold-rich south-eastern region.

Senegal’s preventive action should be based on a multidimensional approach that focuses on improving the living conditions of local populations, particularly in border areas. This requires accelerated, effective and harmonised implementation of state development programmes in Kédougou and Tambacounda. Doing so would signal the state’s willingness and commitment to change the socio-economic situations of the two regions.

A key component of the response should be accelerating the formalisation of artisanal and small-scale mining and making it inclusive. This would enable local populations to participate in and benefit from the two regions’ natural resources. They would also have a say in the exploitation and commercialisation of gold. This would limit the financial losses for Senegal and reduce the risks of terrorist financing and money laundering.

Senegal’s preventive action should be based on a multidimensional approach that focuses on improving local populations’ living conditions

A response must also include security measures that consider the needs of the population and the various dynamics of criminal activities and social tensions in the regions. This would strengthen relations between the defence and security forces and the communities and limit criminal activities that violent extremists could exploit. A heavy-handed and poorly managed security presence could fuel tensions between representatives of the defence and security forces and the population.

An important part of the solution lies in the multi-faceted responses to be implemented at national level. However, Senegal will only be able to deal effectively with these challenges and threats to human security if it places its action within a regional dynamic, together with Guinea, Mali and Mauritania.

Paulin Maurice Toupane, Senior Researcher, ISS Regional Office for West Africa, the Sahel and the Lake Chad Basin

This article was published with the support of the governments of the Netherlands and Denmark, the United Kingdom Conflict, Stability and Security Fund and the Swiss Embassy in Senegal.

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Photo: Joerg Boethling / Alamy Stock Photo

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