Non-State Actors

Terrorism in Africa IV: How is Terrorism Financed in the Sahel?

May 29, 2020

Ana-Maria Baloi


Key Judgements

KJ-1. Without systemic and institutional changes in the Sahel countries, black market economies will continue sustaining terrorist activity in the region. Corruption and civil unrest help organised crime groups to thrive, which are further approached and ultimately controlled by jihadist organisations.  


KJ-2. The main means of funding used by terror groups in the Sahel are human smuggling and trafficking, drug trafficking, gold smuggling, as well as incentives sent by the diaspora.


KJ-3. Many organised crime groups are based in Libya. They are well connected with West African terror groups, creating a symbiosis system. 



In 2019 alone, over 4,000 people have died in terrorist attacks in the Sahel region. The most affected countries are Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger. As for 2020, evidence indicates that jihadist threat is taking over the north of Nigeria, Benin and Ivory Coast as well. Togo and Ghana have also reported terrorist attempts to infiltrate inside their territory. Benefiting from increasing revenues, jihadist groups are expected to enhance their efforts to reach the coastal area of the Gulf of Guinea, where ports provide substantial financing through export. 


Unlike Somalia where Al-Shabaab is consolidating its own parallel state, the Sahel region is infested with a multitude of terror groups affiliated with the Islamic State or Al Qaeda. These groups control intertwined cells across the region, being able to carry out sophisticated attacks. However, the areas occupied by jihadists in West Africa are usually dispersed, meaning that the establishment of a Sharia-based community is harder to accomplish. This means that the groups cannot impose a well-connected tax system. Clashes and grievances in small communities can be exploited, but the incentives obtained cannot cover the financial needs of the groups. For this reason, terrorist organisations in the Sahel often cooperate with organised crime groups or even establish their own smuggling/trafficking networks. 


After the fall of the Gaddafi regime, Libya became a safe haven for many Sahel terror groups. Many of them are currently coordinating their organised crime activities from the North-African country. This phenomenon is caused by two main factors. 


Firstly, Gaddafi’s ousting created a power vacuum which allowed minority groups such as the Tuaregs to rebel in the South against persecuting Arab factions. Some Tuareg people are well known for their smuggling activities, while Tuareg militant factions are known for collaborating with terror groups in the Sahel. In Mali, a Tuareg militant branch emerged as a separate terror group known as Ansar Dine. 


Second, the French Operation Serval in northern Mali (2012-2014) drove many armed groups and jihadists out of the country, many of whom found safety in Libya. As for now, Ansar Dine, Boko Haram and Ansar-al Sharia are active in Mali, Nigeria and Libya respectively. Due to porous borders, high-level corruption and civil unrest, terror groups in the Sahel own the capacity to conduct transnational organised crime activities. 



The Gold Rush


Gold mines in the Sahel countries are protected by the government and only authorized companies have the right to extract. This measure is aimed at protecting the fauna, but also at maintaining resource exploitation. However, gold mines are often attacked and even seized by terrorists who look for increasing their budget. 

Using assault rifles, motorbikes and in 4X4 trucks, terror groups and militias raid the gold mines, smuggling the precious metal and selling it on the black market. Seizing control of mines helps jihadists to gain the necessary revenues for supporting their activities. It is also a safe means of making money, as the gains are hard to trace. Given also the high level of poverty and insecurity in the region, civilians in need of money or protection accept to smuggle the gold for the jihadists. 


The total number of gold mines controlled by terrorists is unknown, yet at least 15 gold mines in Burkina Faso are known as being seized by jihadists. The country has around 2,200 gold mines from which half of them are situated within 16 miles (25km) of where extremists often launch attacks. This proves an increased effort by extremist militias to smuggle gold, revealing also their struggle for funds. Due to security concerns, foreign workers in Burkina Faso’s mining industry are now flown in by helicopter to avoid roads controlled by insurgents.


Major gold shipments from Burkina Faso are illegally sent to Togo, from which they depart to the Middle East. Jihadist-smuggled gold usually reaches the UAE, Turkey, Switzerland, India and Saudi Arabia. In 2018 alone, the UAE imported more than 7 tons of gold worth over $260 million from Togo which is then processed and sold to buyers in Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Switzerland. Burkina Faso suffers from porous borders that facilitate the movement of terrorists and organised crime groups. The controls are inefficient and contraband can be easily transported in and out. Terrorists and smugglers hide the gold using herds of cows, hay bales, and bags. As it reaches Togo, the gold is sorted, processed and exported. Sometimes the gold is also smuggled through the international airport of Ouagadougou.



Human Trafficking, Kidnapping for Ransom & Smuggling 




Sahel territories are often riddled by the same terrorist factions using the same tactics. Human trafficking and smuggling, as well as kidnappings for ransom, are commonly used the armed militias to increase their funds.  Many West Africans are travelling through the Saharan desert to reach the Libyan shores, making their way to Europe. However, such perilous journeys determine migrants to appeal to smugglers who offer transportation and protection. Many of the travellers become victims of human trafficking, being sold as slaves in Libya. 


Refugees from the West usually follow the route from Mali to Libya through southern Algeria, or the route through Niger, to Agadez – known as a major trafficking hub. This lucrative business has caused a dramatic increase in the number of groups involved in trafficking. Nomadic tribes such as the Tuareg and the Tebu are currently facilitating the transit of anywhere between 5000-20,000 migrants a year through the trans-Sahara towards Libya. These tribes are affiliated with terror groups to increasing their revenue, but also for protection and arms trade. Orchestrating large-scale illegal migrations requires an established “contract” with tribal smugglers, which include people from many clans in Mali, Niger, and Chad (often controlled by terror organisations). 


Victims of violence and forced recruitment are frequently labelled as “affiliates” by both terrorists and governmental forces. The assistance services are highly ineffective or simply don’t exist. Feeling alienated within their own society, many minorities groups become increasingly vulnerable to recruitment, radicalisation and trafficking. 


The Special Deterrent Forces, the Libyan Coastguard, and the Directorate for Countering Illegal Migration (all affiliated with the Tripoli-based Government and supported by the European Union) earn profits by selling migrants to traffickers and smugglers. In the most notorious case, the Libyan coastguard and militant groups on the coast, at Zawiya, have opened private detention centres for extorting migrants and selling them to other groups.



Drug Trafficking



During the ’90s, the Sahelian trade in arms, cigarettes and drugs grew significantly. One of the countries highly affected by drug trafficking is Mali. The businesses are conducted at a regional level. Cartels cooperate with insurgent militias, exchanging arms, protection and means of transportation. Mali is known for playing an important role in cocaine trafficking across the Sahara. Although Islam forbids the consumption of drugs, Saharan insurgent groups are accommodating the Islamic faith with their trade, in order to gain funds. In the Sahel, proximity to drugs trafficking can be justified as a way of supporting a “good” Islamic lifestyle.


It is important to understand that “narco-terrorism” or “narco-jihadism” do not stand for the assumption that terrorists traffic the drugs themselves. These groups benefit from well-established relations with cartels across the regions. The leadership of terror groups become notorious in the drug trafficking business not for explicitly smuggling and selling drugs, but rather for using personal connections, offering supplies and drug carriers, as well as weapons. Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the leader of al-Murabitun is a well-known smuggler. His organisation is the most integrated one with drug networks. 



Sahel Groups Based in Libya 


Although terror groups are highly active throughout the Sahel, their organised crime activities are usually coordinated from Libya.  There they have established logistical bases and training camps, with the cooperation of local security forces. Using the Libyan mountainous landscape, jihadist cartels manage to cover their tracks, protect weapons and avoid thermal surveillance cameras. 


Another overlooked connection the jihadists have established is with the Azawad Liberation Movement in Mali. The latter is part of the peace negotiations with the Malian government. Highly determined to strike a deal for regional stability, the Malian government alongside the French-led coalition ignore the criminal operations conducted by these groups. One group largely accountant for human smuggling and trafficking is the Tebu tribe. Its population spans four countries in the Sahel and the Maghreb, with a concentration in Chad and southern Libya. Recently, they have expanded their business in northern Niger as well, a place known for terrorist cells.



Intelligence Cut-off Date (ICOD) 01-03-2020

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