Mali: Weaponizing Gold


July 7, 2023: The military government recently appointed a new Minister of Mines after the previous one resigned because recent cuts in electrical power caused popular unrest and complaints from Mali’s important gold mining companies that they could not maintain current production levels because there was less electricity available. The government then cut electricity supplies for the general population in order to keep the mines operating at full capacity. Mali currently produces over 50 tons of gold a year, which makes it the third largest gold producer in Africa. Not included is the small but growing quantity of gold extracted illegally by individuals and small groups. Growing poverty in Mali has caused more men to join this effort. The gold is used to buy essential good that were previously supplied by foreign aid.

Gold is also used to pay the Russian Wagner Group mercenaries that were hired by the Mali military government in 2021 to train Mali troops, especially in the use of weapons purchased from Russia. The supply of Russian weapons, and Wagner mercenaries was disrupted in February 2022 when Russia invaded Ukraine and heavy sanctions were imposed on Russia by NATO countries. African countries didn’t care what Russia was doing in Ukraine but did care about their disrupted weapons supply line from Russia.

There are about a thousand Wagner personnel in Mali and the Mali military government has no problem paying the mercenaries or for weapons purchased from Russia. Mali is a major producer of gold and the Russians will take payment in gold. Russia maintains a huge gold stockpile (about 2,300 tons), the fifth largest in the world. The Russian gold is an emergency fund that is now being tapped to pay for military operations in Ukraine.

The military government in Mali hoped that hiring Russian Wagner Group mercenaries would enable Mali to maintain control of northern and central Mali. These two regions have been under growing attack by Islamic terror groups but the Russians made it worse. The Mali military government is running out of people to blame for the mess they got themselves into. The problems began when the military government ordered the independent French Barkhane counter-terrorism force out of Mali by the end of 2021. Since then, Mali threatened to force the 15,000 UN peacekeepers out of the country unless the UN agreed to give the Mali military government control over what the peacekeepers can do. The UN and AU nations supplying the peacekeepers refused. The government is particularly angry at the way the peacekeepers report on atrocities committed by Mali security forces as well as the Russian Wagner Group military contractors. Brutality and incompetence by the military is what triggered a 2011 rebellion in the north and it was France that restored government control in the north. Mali then held elections and restored democratic government. The new “reform” government quickly proved to be as corrupt as previous ones and there followed two more military governments. The current one staged a coup against the previous military government. That is another example of how dysfunctional Mali governments are.

The government forced the French and G5 peacekeepers out by the end of 2021. Mali wanted to keep the 13,500 UN peacekeepers that maintains government control over the rebellious north. These peacekeepers are supplied by AU (African Union) nations and some of the African nations supplying these peacekeepers are withdrawing that support. A few percent of the peacekeeping force consists of troops from NATO nations that supply specialized services, especially transport helicopters and other services. People in areas where the peacekeepers are stationed warn that the security situation will deteriorate once the peacekeepers depart because the military government has not got the ability to maintain local security. That’s going to hurt the economy and cause more residents to flee the country. This is how corruption often ruins the local economy. Then again, elected officials were often corrupt. The pattern is that too many corrupt elected officials leads to rebellion or, more likely, a coup by the military, who tend to be no more effective than the people they replaced.

There was growing opposition among UN members for maintaining the expensive peacekeeper force, which is the most dangerous the UN is currently involved with. The Mali peacekeeping operation costs about half a billion dollars a month and that is about the only foreign aid Mali gets now that the military government is in control. Most foreign aid was halted because the government was stealing so much of the aid. It is difficult to steal any of the money spent on peacekeepers but the government seems to be trying to do just that.

Once the UN voted to maintain the Mali peacekeeping force for another year, the military government began harassing the peacekeepers and threatening to expel all of them. The peacekeepers serve on contracts (with the UN) for varying periods usually between two and six months. The withdrawal of the peacekeepers began on July 1st and will be completed by the end of 2023.

While the military government feuds with the UN, the Islamic terror groups continue advancing south towards the capital, which is near the southern border and Guinea, which provides access to the sea. In the southwest is Burkina Faso, which also has a military government and growing problems with Islamic terrorists.

Without the French-led counterterrorism effort in Mali, the Islamic terrorists are expanding the territory they control while terrorizing civilians and killing soldiers and peacekeepers. The Islamic terrorists are also fighting each other. The larger Islamic terror group, an al Qaeda coalition called JNIM (Jamâ’ah Nusrah al Islâm wal Muslimîn, or Group for the support of Islam and Moslems), is gaining control over more of Mali and even making more frequent attacks near the capital of Bamako down south.

In the north, ISGS (Islamic States in Greater Sahara) Islamic terrorists near the Niger border have taken advantage of the departure of French counterterrorism forces in 2021 by seizing and holding territory in Mali. This began with more attacks on the Niger border. The departing French and G5 counter-terrorism forces had kept the Islamic terrorists out of Mali. The Mali army and a small number of Russian (Wagner Group) military contractors have been unable, or unwilling, to carry on with that effort or prevent the Islamic terror groups from crossing the border and advancing into Mali. ISGS is one of the two ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) groups in the region. When they showed up in 2018, ISGS operated mainly in Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger, especially the area where the three borders meet.

Since late 2022 ISGS have been working to take control of the border between Mali and Niger. Mali responded with soldiers and a handful of Wagner Group mercenaries but that was unsuccessful. After that Mali did nothing about the situation as its security forces and the UN peacekeepers were needed elsewhere. The Niger government was also unable to respond and sought to negotiate a deal with ISGS. Appearing in 2015 as an affiliate of ISIL and part of ISWAP (Islamic State West Africa Province) that changed in 2021 when ISGS declared itself separate from ISWAP and declared northern Mali and some areas in Niger and Burkina Faso its future caliphate. The ISIL affiliated Islamic terrorists are far more violent than the more numerous al Qaeda. This also means casualties for the 12,000 UN peacekeepers. ISGS violence involves attacks on Islamic terror groups that refuse to take orders from ISIL.

The tri-border (Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso) area has been a terrorist hotspot since 2018 because Islamic terror groups can just cross the border to escape any effective counterterrorism efforts. For that reason, this area has been called the Menaka Region. Previously this area was just part of the larger Gao Region, centered on one of the few cities in the north. The area being fought over is near where the borders of Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso meet. Menaka has become ungovernable because so many Islamic terrorists and bandits now operate here. The French counterterrorism forces regularly searched for and attacked specific Islamic terrorist targets. The Mali government underestimated how important the French forces, with their airmobile troops, UAV surveillance and ground attack aircraft were in keeping the Islamic terrorists from establishing themselves inside Mali. The current Mali military government has no clear plan for dealing with this situation and are withdrawing their counterterrorism forces south, to protect the capital and the more prosperous and populous south.

The neighbors see the reliance on Wagner Group as the main cause for more Islamic terrorists operating in Mali and spreading to neighboring countries. This includes Algeria, which has been largely Islamic terrorism free for over a decade. Now Algeria is seeing a return of Islamic terrorist activity because of the growing number of active Islamic terrorists across the border in northern Mali. Despite this, Mali does not want the French back because that makes it easier for foreigners to document the growing corruption of the military government. These corruption reports lead to more countries imposing individual sanctions on officers running the military government and profiting from the corruption. So far the strategy of the Mali military officers running the government is to abandon northern, and portions of central Mali to the Islamic terror groups. Complaints from the neighbors are ignored even though that means less foreign aid for Mali. The source of all these problems is corruption and Mali is the most corrupt and ineptly governed nation in the region. Because of that the French and AU counter-terrorism forces expelled from Mali have regrouped in neighboring countries that want protection from the growing Islamic terrorist activity in Mali. In the midst of all this, ambitious Mali politicians continue to blame all the problems on African and non-African foreigners as well as neighboring countries that cooperate with these evil foreigners and their schemes to destroy Mali. Russia is seen as a friend of Mali because Russia is one of the few countries with a veto power in the UN. This is not the same as control of the UN but does allow Russia to disrupt some UN efforts to interfere in Mali, especially criticism of the military government or publicizing the corruption and brutality of the Mali generals.

Mali has become a dangerous place for foreign journalists and local journalists that criticize the government or the Russian presence. The Islamic terrorists continue advancing south towards the capital Bamako and the nearby gold mines. Bamako contains about twelve percent of the national population and an even larger proportion of the national GDP. For over a year there has been growing Islamic terrorist activity near Bamako. Most of this is attacks on police checkpoints or ambushing police or soldiers. Some of the attackers were later discovered to be locals who were recruited by Islamic terror groups and put to work. Most (95 percent) Malians are Moslem.

June 30, 2023: The UN approved the withdrawal of UN peacekeepers and other UN personnel from Mali. The departure will begin leaving in July and all will be gone by the end of 2023. The departure of the UN personnel will also mean less foreign aid because there is no one there to verify that the aid gets to those that need it. Unmonitored aid is often stolen.

June 29, 2023: The Russian government informed Mali that it would manage the Wagner Group forces in Mali directly. The former Wagner Group leader recently tried, and failed to overthrow the Russian government.

June 27, 2023: In the northeast (near Gao) Islamic terrorists attacked several rural villages, killing 13 civilians and wounding many more. Over a hundred villagers fled as the attackers looted their homes and took farm animals. In the past the Islamic terrorists would just show up and take what they needed. Now they are using violence, which causes the civilians to flee and often not come back. There is a growing refugee problem in the north because of these violent raids. Many of the refugee camps are across the border in Niger. The attacks take place in areas where there are no soldiers. There are not enough soldiers or peacekeepers in the north to protect everyone. This is the fault of the military government, which has expelled French counter-terrorism forces and UN peacekeepers. A decade ago, this kind of violence caused the government to lose control of the north, which became a lawless no-man’s land controlled by Islamic terrorists. In the past, this caused the elected government to be replaced by a military one. With the military still in control, and unable to cope with the growing violence up there, Mali is losing control of the north.

June 18, 2023: A national vote on a new constitution to replace the military government was held and the 30 percent of voters who participated approved the proposal. The new constitution is supposed to make possible a return of elected government in 2024 with another round of elections. Details of the new constitution indicate that the military will still have a lot of power. The return of elections is mainly about reviving foreign aid, which largely stopped because of the military government and expulsion of peacekeepers. Mali replaced the peacekeepers with a smaller force of Russian Wagner Group mercenaries.

June 9, 2023: In the north (near Timbuktu) a peacekeeper patrol was attacked with a roadside bomb and gunfire. One peacekeeper was killed and eight wounded or injured. The attackers were believed to be Islamic terrorists, whose activities in the north are growing more frequent.




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