Burkina Faso: anomalous and worrisome killing of Canadian gold miner

Burkina Faso authorities announced January 17 that the Canadian citizen kidnapped from the Progress Minerals mining site in the West African country two days prior was found killed January 16. Though militant violence is a frequent occurrence in northeastern Burkina Faso, the targeting and quick killing of the expatriate worker are near-anomalous developments that reveal an Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb hand and will impede confidence in the country’s important gold mining sector.

The Canadian had been working for the Vancouver-based Progress Minerals in Tiabangou, Yagha province, located in the country’s east bordering Niger. Kidnapped late on January 15, the civilian’s body was recovered a day later, during the afternoon of January 16 in the locality of Beiga-Salmoussi, in the Gorom Gorom department of Oudalan province located at the extreme northeast of Burkina Faso, bordering both Niger and Mali.

Eastern and northeastern Burkina Faso are areas rife with suspected Islamist militant violence. The country has experienced a regular tempo of militant attacks in these very remote parts, but the target selection had principally been Burkinabé government facilities and personnel, such as local offices and patrols by national security forces. The intent behind prior attacks has been to steal cash and other crucial supplies from relatively remote and under-secured sites, free prisoners, and threaten freedom of movement of police and the nation’s military. Small arms, landmines and improvised explosive devices had been the means used during attacks perpetrated by suspected Islamist militants. 

To be clear Burkina Faso and especially its eastern and northeastern regions is part of a broader area of Islamist militant operations that pervade Mali and Niger in the Sahel sub-region of West Africa. It is because of the destabilizing threat of Islamist terrorism in the region that foreign governments, including Canada, have deployed military forces. Canadian armed forces, including a helicopter and medical detachment, are based in Gao, Mali, in support of the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA). 

The principal militant threat pervading the loosely governed sub-region encompassing Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger is Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM, who also use local tribal militia as fronts or to augment their capabilities). While AQIM forces may be concentrated in Mali, the geographic spread of their attack capability is broad and include the capital cities of Ouagadougou, Bamako, and Niamey, and, on occasion, far beyond, notably when AQIM claimed responsibility for the March 2016 attack on a beach resort in Grand Bassam, located on the Atlantic Ocean coast in Cote d’Ivoire. 

The intention of AQIM has always been to establish northern Mali as a lasting base of operations from which the militant group can expand the Islamic Caliphate. Much territorial success was gained by AQIM until its tactical overreach in 2013, when, from its bases in the northern Malian cities of Mopti, Gao and Kidal, attempted to overrun southern Mali and take over territorial control of the entire country. Spurred by such a broad threat of transnational terrorism, foreign military forces, led by France and supported by Canada, intervened to disrupt and degrade AQIM. The Islamist fighters lost control of Mali’s urban areas, but, six years later, remain a significant tactical threat throughout the sub-region. As for AQIM recovering its goal of strategic territorial control, they in 2019 are far more covert in their behavior, having learned from their haste in 2013 that impelled the foreign military intervention.

Means and methods remain unchanged: AQIM needs to deny freedom of movement, undermine government capacities, and earn confidence among local and host communities. Ambushes on military patrols and civilian movements in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger are to destabilize these territories, discourage regular and broad patrolling, so as to grant the Islamist militants more area to maneuver, and to undermine confidence in these nation’s governments (and, conversely, try to convey that they, in a way, can act as a replacement means of security). 

Which brings us to the kidnapping and killing of the Canadian expatriate employee at Progress Minerals. The killing will result in foreign gold mining companies reviewing and putting new security measures in place to prevent this tragedy from reoccurring. While not halting gold mining in Burkina Faso, as many other companies are active there, including IAMGOLD (another Canadian company, also with mining operations in Mali), there will be reviews of whether the country and region are safe investment destinations that will slow new approvals and place new restrictions on existing operations, certainly in northeastern Burkina Faso. 

But the intent of the kidnapping and killing is likely less about disrupting mining production and its economic contribution to the Burkinabé treasury (if that was the intent, we would see attacks on convoys carrying ore output, or on the mining site facilities, which we haven’t). The intent was more likely about kidnapping so as to raise a ransom, of which AQIM has a long track-record (a fact the Canadian government has direct experience with, from when, in 2008, former Canadian ambassador to the United Nations Robert Fowler was kidnapped in northwestern Niger, not all that far from the site of the Progress Minerals kidnapping). 

Kidnappings by AQIM have earned the Islamist militant group tens of millions of dollars in ransom payments over the last decade, which it uses to sustain its campaign. The kidnapping of the gold miner could have resulted in a ransom demand in the low millions of dollars. The killing, while not unprecedented to expatriates held in AQIM custody, is a rare occurrence and happened likely during a scuffle and as a result of the hostage attempting to escape while he was being transported northwards, almost certainly to an AQIM safe house in remote Mali.  

The January 15 kidnapping is not the only unresolved Canadian missing in Burkina Faso and follows that of a tourist (along with a fellow Italian) unheard from since December 15 in the western Burkinabé city of Bobo-Dioulasso. Attacks in this, Burkina Faso’s second largest, city, (after the capital, Ouagadougou) are essentially unheard of. That there has been no news for more than a month now is unfortunately not unprecedented, and likely points to AQIM efforts raise the pressure in order to successfully negotiate a ransom payment to release the hostages. As the two travelers were tourists on holiday, the potential ransom payment would be less than what the Islamist militant group would aim to negotiate for the release of the expatriate miner, but could still be in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. AQIM is not rigid about the value of ransom payments received, nor, however, are they impatient about concluding hostage release negotiations.

The tragedy involving the Canadians in Burkina Faso likely won’t alter the scheduled departure date of Canadian armed forces from Gao, set for the end of July, who aim to be replaced by European military forces. While foreign military operations have been successful at disrupting AQIM at a strategic level, it is evident the Islamist militant group remains a potent tactical threat still very persistent in traditional means and methods of insurgent warfare.

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