Extremist rebel groups in Mali have long trafficked cocaine, engaged in illegal gold mining and kidnapping hostages for ransom to fund their operations.
As groups such as the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) and Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM) compete to extend their spheres of influence and control supply lines in the country, they are turning to cattle rustling, according to a Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime (GI-TOC) report.
“Cattle rustling is directly linked to the current armed conflict, as communities launch retaliatory attacks and counter attacks in Mali and in the border areas,” a village chief in northern Mali’s Timbuktu region told GI-TOC.
The volume of cattle rustled in the Gao, Ménaka, Mopti and Timbuktu regions in Mali in 2021 was unprecedented. In the Mopti region, considered the country’s epicenter for cattle theft, the number of cattle stolen rose 42,000 to almost 130,000 in 2021, according to the GI-TOC.
Locals say the extremist groups typically settle next to water points used by cattle and steal the animals when they come to get water. Mahamad Ag Moustapha, mayor of the commune of Inekar, in the Ménaka region, said he lost more than $84,000 worth of cattle when an extremist group attacked his town.
“There are no animals within a radius of 300 kilometers around the city of Ménaka,” Moustapha told The Associated Press (AP). “The terrorists are trying to weaken the population economically so that they do not fund the resistance.”
Many of the stolen Malian herds are taken to Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, Mauritania and Niger, while some go as far as Benin, Nigeria and Togo. Along the way, extremist groups control prices and trade terms. The profits are typically used to buy weapons and vehicles.
“Unlike other criminal markets (such as cocaine or kidnapping), cattle rustling has proven to be a resilient and stable source of revenue for armed groups, as Mali is a key regional producer and exporter of livestock,” Flore Berger, Sahel analyst at GI-TOC, told the AP. “Cattle rustling is likely to continue to provide sources of income because countries in the region will continue to buy cattle from Mali.”
According to the GI-TOC, extremist groups became increasingly involved in cattle rustling after French and European forces left the country in 2021 and 2022.
Cattle thefts have continued in 2023.
In March, a rebel group attacked a market in central Mali, killing dozens of people and stealing $10,000 worth of cows and camels.
“We lost everything,” Ayouba Ag Nadroun, 62, told the AP.
Both ISGS and JNIM are active in Mali’s tri-border region with Burkina Faso and Niger, a key zone of conflict and instability. The extremist groups have grown adept at exacerbating intercommunal tensions, while also intervening in them so they can be seen as justice providers.
A herder in the Timbuktu region told the GI-TOC that extremist groups typically approach unemployed young people to rustle cattle and pocket the majority of the proceeds.
A cattle owner in Timbuktu said that such tactics leave jobless young people vulnerable.
“Any youth in Mali who saw their parents being robbed of herds by bandits, or lost their parents to bandits, jihadists or the military, have become easy prey for bandits and jihadists to recruit,” the cattle owner told GI-TOC.