Commentary: Security measures critical amid heightened risk in West Africa

West Africa map. Credit: iStock/LorenzoT81Western Africa map. Credit: istock/LorenzoT81

The following is a summary of conclusions coming out of the West Africa Mining Security Conference provided by the Australian High Commission in Accra and the Australia-Africa Minerals & Energy Group, which represents Australian companies engaged in the development of Africa’s resource industry.

More than 78 mining companies based in Australia came together in Accra in June to consider solutions to the deteriorating security situation in West Africa, particularly in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger. The convening event, the West Africa Mining Security Conference, sought to equip business leaders to make more informed security and investment decisions around the threats and risks to their operations.

“With the mining industry in the region facing threats from kidnapping for ransom, direct action raids and denial of access attacks, companies are encouraged to engage in risk management and mitigation, and complete risk assessments and a risk registry,” said William Witham, CEO of the Australia Africa Minerals and Energy Group.

Hosted collaboratively with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, and the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, discussion focused on greater industry collaboration, information sharing and collective action against the backdrop of underlying drivers, including: impacts of the 2011 Libyan uprising; partial displacement of Islamic State (IS) from Iraq and Syria into West Africa; the 2014 fall of the Blaise Compaoré regime in Burkina Faso; and challenges confronting the United Nations’ multidimensional integrated stabilization mission in Mali (MINUSMA) peacekeeping initiative.

While threats over the past 12 months have shifted from historic religious drivers to varied and overlapping factors, including income and protection, growing risks exist where terrorist groups (Ansaroul Islam, Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin [JNIM] and IS in the Greater Sahara), new violent extremist groups and coalitions are increasing the tempo of complex attacks via local disgruntled groups.

These terrorist groups are focused on addressing the concerns of local communities and exploiting community divisions and regional vulnerabilities, often engaging a combination of intimidation, exploitation of ethnic tensions and financial control to gain influence.

“Unfortunately, large ransoms paid by some countries and people have helped sustain terrorist activity, and we are worried that it is possible that extremist groups will shift focus to commercial targeting in the future. This requires a more securitized approach to mining operations, and the Australian High Commission — in consultation with other stakeholders — will explore opportunities for further mining industry-wide initiatives to improve safety and security for personnel and assets in the region,” said Glen Askew, Australian High Commission, Chargé d’affaires.

The West Africa Mining Security conference was held under Chatham House rules (meaning feedback and discussions at the event were anonymous.)

Fallout from the Libyan uprising in 2011 continues to affect West Africa. Breaches of Gadhafi’s weapons caches led to an unprecedented flow of black market weapons into the region. The resulting instability led to a coup d’état in Bamako in 2012, which allowed Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and later IS-affiliated factions to expand south into Mali and Burkina Faso.

The recent disruption of IS in Iraq and Syria has partly displaced the problem to other theatres. Although there is little evidence of a widespread influx of IS fighters into West Africa, AQIM and IS-affiliated groups have increased their presence in the region. In Niger, IS in the Greater Sahara has recently renewed its pledge of support for the central leadership of IS and increased attacks against government targets north of Niamey.

The fall of the Compaoré regime in 2014 eroded the capacity of Burkina Faso’s security and intelligence apparatus to respond to terrorist threats. At the same time, community discontent with the government and high rates of poverty allowed the expansion of influence of terrorist groups in some regions. While Burkina Faso’s small, poorly equipped and poorly trained military and police lack the capacity to respond effectively to the threat, there is little appetite within the international community to provide major military assistance. Overall, the security outlook in Burkina Faso is poor.

In Mali and Burkina Faso, multilateral security operations engage in active targeting, training and containment, but are unlikely to have a strategic affect. MINUSMA, which is the UN’s deadliest peacekeeping mission, faces major challenges, including the strength of its mandate, poor intelligence sharing among contributing states, inconsistencies in troop capabilities, and limitations on logistics and mobility. The capacity of the Malian military is extremely constrained, including weapons with no ammunition, trucks with no fuel, insufficient rations and absent leadership. There are no plans to expand the current peacekeeping operations in Mali to directly address the terrorist threat.

In this context, security in parts of West Africa — particularly in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger — has deteriorated further in the past 12 months. Terrorist groups, often acting in concert with local bandits, have occupied large areas of east and southeastern Burkina Faso since mid-2018. New violent extremist groups and coalitions have formed and expanded beyond the Sahel and increased the tempo of complex attacks on symbolic targets.

To date, there has been an overemphasis on religion as a driver of recruitment and radicalization. Rather, multiple and overlapping factors, such as income and protection, particularly in locations where the state is absent or contested, are more significant drivers of recruitment. Terrorist groups increasingly focus on addressing the concerns of local communities and exploit community divisions and regional vulnerabilities. Groups often respond to local needs faster and more effectively than the state, and use a combination of intimidation, exploitation of ethnic tensions and financial control to gain influence. Violent extremist groups are segmented, which provide opportunities to engage differently with potential foot soldiers or leaders. To address the threat effectively, military intervention is sometimes necessary, but always insufficient without broader community-focused, political and economic strategies.

Terrorist groups effectively use kidnap for ransom (KFR) attacks to raise funds. Large ransoms paid by some countries have helped sustain terrorist groups and fund their operations. Other sources of terrorist financing include trans-Saharan smuggling, taxation, extortion, theft and external financing. The illegal artisanal gold trade has been flagged as a potential source of funding in Mali and Niger, and Burkina Faso.

The potential “spillover” of insecurity from Burkina Faso represents a challenge to the coastal West African states, which lack the operational coordination and capacity to respond effectively. Kidnap for ransom and other “hit-and-run” terrorist operations, conducted from relative safe havens in Mali and Burkina Faso, are likely to increase in coastal states in the short- to medium-term. Ghana’s vulnerabilities include 181 known unapproved border crossing points, high youth unemployment, and existing religious, ethnic and political tensions.

It is possible that extremist groups will shift focus to commercial targeting in the future, which will require a more securitized approach to mining operations. The industry in the region faces threats from KFR, direct action raids and denial of access attacks. The risk of attacks from improvised explosive devices are likely to increase. Companies are encouraged to identify the level of risk from these devices, engage in risk management and mitigation, and complete route assessments and a risk registry.

The Australian Government’s ability to respond in the event of a major security incident, or kidnap-for-ransom case, is limited in West Africa. As a result, companies are urged to take appropriate security measures to address the threat and mitigate the risk.

The security response should be proportionate to the risk and insurance should include appropriate cover for potential threats. While large mining operations often have sophisticated security architecture, smaller exploration companies, which lack financial resources, face greater challenges operating in high-threat environments.

Companies are encouraged to:

Fund security operations appropriately;
  • Conduct risk assessments;
Maintain effective plans, policies and practices supported by training and drills;
  • Review the adequacy of insurance;
Observe effective security protocols;
Promote a culture of security awareness;
Maintain a high level of situational awareness;
Develop a network of contacts to facilitate information sharing;
Ensure physical protection of assets, including journey management;
Engage local communities and authorities;
Collect appropriate information at the local level; and
Enact targeted community-based corporate social responsibility programs to address local concerns and grievances.

Be the first to comment on "Commentary: Security measures critical amid heightened risk in West Africa"

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.


By continuing to browse you agree to our use of cookies. To learn more, click more information

Dear user, please be aware that we use cookies to help users navigate our website content and to help us understand how we can improve the user experience. If you have ideas for how we can improve our services, we’d love to hear from you. Click here to email us. By continuing to browse you agree to our use of cookies. Please see our Privacy & Cookie Usage Policy to learn more.