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Mali’s Gold Rush Pits Wagner Against Jihadists
Mar 07, 2024
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The rush for gold is fanning the conflict between jihadist organizations and the Wagner Group in Mali. Ever since the Russian militia took part in a Malian military campaign against Tuareg separatists in the Kidal region in August 2023, it has been training its sights on gold-mining areas in the center and south of the country. It appears the group sees mining revenues as an alternative way to collect its fees from the cash-strapped Malian government, in exchange for backing state campaigns against jihadist groups and Tuareg forces.

Indeed, all these forces are seeking financing to support their operations, and in Mali, nothing makes money quicker than investing in - or charging royalties on - gold mining.

Wagner and its Hunt for Gold

Four international companies are currently working in gold exploration and mining in Mali: Canadian firms Barrick Gold and B2Gold, Australia’s Resolute Mining, and AngloGold Ashanti from South Africa.

Wagner has signed a number of agreements with the government to invest in gold mining. In 2022, its co-founder Dmitry Utkin bought 78% of national gold-mining firm Marena Gold Mali. But Wagner’s appetite prompted it to expand its search for exclusive control over major mines.

On February 9, Wagner seized control of the largest mine in Mali, in the town of Intahaka some 80 kilometers from Gao and on the border with Burkina Faso. The militia sent a contingent of infantry and armored personnel carriers, backed with helicopters, and took the mine by force. It gave the Imgad Tuareg militia 24 hours to hand over the mine, to which it complied on February 10.

The Intahaka mine has passed through multiple hands in recent years, including the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wa-l-Muslimin (JNIM) and more recently the Imgad, which had operated the mine whilst paying protection money to the jihadists for the past two years.

The Malian government had been using taxes paid by Western mining companies to help finance its monthly fee to Wagner, worth $10 million. But when the government became unable to fulfill its obligations, Wagner moved to take control of the Intahaka mine, the first in Mali to be controlled by the group.

Malian officials say gold mining and exploration operations in the country produce about 26 tons of gold annually, around 70% of it from southwestern Mali, to a value of $1.3 billion. It is impossible to estimate how much gold jihadist and separatist groups were producing from northern Mali’s mines. However, if Wagner’s operations in Gao are a success and provide it with substantial wealth in gold – whose price was at record highs at the time of writing - it may seek to expand its control to the mines in the north as well.

The Blood Gold Report, which investigates links between Western mining companies, military regimes and Russian mercenaries in Africa, estimated in December that Wagner had provided Russia with about $2.5 billion-worth of gold and diamonds from the Central African Republic and Sudan since the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Wagner runs a network of intermediaries and companies to exploit loopholes in Western sanctions and sell gold on the global market, helping ease the impact of Western sanctions on Moscow. Russian officials appear to want to step this up: in November, the Kremlin signed a memorandum of understanding with the Malian military junta to finance and build a gold refining facility in the capital Bamako to produce 200 tons of gold annually - three times the country’s official production in 2022.

Jihadists Eye Gold and Territory

In September, Sheikh Al-Hajj Kibsa Ouédraogo, an elder from a towns in northern Burkina Faso near the border with Mali, gave a lengthy interview to the Financial Times, talking about the importance of gold to jihadist organizations. He said that as soon as any discovery of gold is made in eastern or southern Mali or northern Burkina Faso, jihadist fighters immediately turn up – their loyalty depending on who controls that territory – and take over the site, imposing royalties on those working there. The many gold mines in the Niger, Burkina Faso and Mali border region, both official and unofficial, have thus become a major source of income for jihadist organizations.

Indeed, local rumors of discoveries of large rocks filled with gold, extracted without strenuous effort, are a major attraction for many groups: from local youth with few other job opportunities to jihadist groups and now Wagner.

The Islamic State group, which also shared some of the profits from the Intahaka mine, was quick to respond to the Wagner takeover. The very next day, it carried out an ambush against an army convoy near the mine, 55 km from the strategic city of Ansongo in Gao state, which IS media outlets claimed killed some 50 soldiers. It also carried out several other attacks against Wagner and the Malian army, most notably on February 16, when it hit a mixed army-Wagner convoy in the Gatiana area, near the mine. That attack left two Wagner fighters and about six soldiers dead, with a further 10 wounded, according to local sources.

Is Wagner’s Control of Mines an Economic Threat to IS?

Governments in the Sahel region do not usually directly oversee gold mining operations, meaning local militias and gangs have emerged that are able to control much of this trade. Al-Qaeda and IS have seen an opportunity here, offering to protect local communities from bandits and organized crime in exchange for a share of the gold extracted in the region.

Hence, since around 2020, revenues from gold have been the main income for these groups, which control their own gold mines or impose taxes on people working at other mines. They then sell gold to merchants who smuggle the gold out of the country, via neighboring countries such as Togo and Benin, or on direct flights between gold-rich Sahel countries and other countries such as the United Arab Emirates. This gold is often smuggled in hand luggage, with bribes paid to airport employees to look away. Moreover, these groups provide protection to villages where young people work in mining, which has in turn formed a gateway for recruitment of those young people into their its ranks.

It is certain that Wagner’s moves to take control of dozens of small mines in areas under the influence of jihadist groups will push these groups to escalate their attacks against government forces and Wagner personnel. The activities of such organizations in areas of informal gold mining will in turn give Wagner greater reasons to expand its activity there. For example, the group was not until recently active in the gold-rich areas of southwestern Mali’s Kayes State - but JNIM’s increased activity there in late 2023 constituted an ideal pretext for the Russian militia to expand its activity there in the future, enabling it to gain control over its gold mines too.

Mali’s gold rush is likely to increase violence between these parties, and pushing large numbersof young people to join jihadist groups in their areas, which will deploy propaganda against the “new occupier” and “aides of the tyrant”, an easy case to make as Wagner commits massacres and violations on a daily basis against civilians in the villages it raids and inspects.

Moreover, intense competition for influence and control over these mines is likely to increase in the future, fueling further unrest in the region, and increase the likelihood of attacks against these mines and massacres against the civilians operating them.

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