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. But in mid-2018, men armed with assault rifles rode in on motorbikes and in 4X4 trucks, sending government troops and rangers fleeing from the area in eastern Burkina Faso bordering the Sahel, a belt of scrubland south of the Sahara Desert.
The armed men said 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.
Groups linked to al Qaeda and Islamic State, having lost ground in the Middle East, are expanding in Africa and exploiting gold mines across the region, according to data on attacks and interviews with two dozen miners and residents, and government and security officials.
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. In 2018, government officials visited just 24 sites near where attacks had taken place and estimated they produced a total of 727 kg of gold per year – worth about $34 million at current prices.
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.
Burkina Faso’s government has tried to contain the militants. In January, miners said, the military dropped leaflets from helicopters telling miners to leave sites around Kabonga. The next month, the military said its forces had killed around 30 fighters in air strikes and ground operations in the area.
As of September, Islamist fighters 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 Islamists operate. In October, 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.