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Mali Livestock Theft Rising

FILE: Cattle herders just south of Douentza, Mali, June 24, 2016.
FILE: Cattle herders just south of Douentza, Mali, June 24, 2016.

BAMAKO - Cattle raiding by Islamic extremists is soaring at unprecedented levels in Mali, with jihadis linked to al-Qaida and the Islamic State group stealing millions of dollars' worth of cattle to fund their insurgency across the war-torn West African country and the Sahel.

As jihadis gain control of more territory, looting is increasing and fueling conflict among already impoverished communities fighting to keep their families fed and alive, according to a recent report by The Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime.

While cattle rustling has been at the heart of Mali’s war economy for years, the recent surge by Islamic extremists is worrying, according to the global network's report.

“Unlike other criminal markets (such as cocaine or kidnappings), cattle rustling has proven to be a resilient and stable source of income for armed groups, because Mali is a key regional producer and exporter of cattle,” said Flore Berger, Sahel analyst at GI-TOC. “It’s likely that cattle rustling continues to provide sources of revenue because countries in the region will continue to buy from Mali,” she said.

Villagers say jihadis are strategic about their theft, staking out watering holes where they know the cattle will come to drink.

“They set up shop next to the wells for several days and every time the thirsty animals come to get water the terrorists take them,” said Mahamad Ag Moustapha, the mayor of Inekar commune in the Menaka region.

Last April, the father of nine lost more than $84,000 worth of cattle when jihadists attacked his town. He now lives in a displacement site in Menaka.

While it is hard to determine how much money jihadis are making from stealing livestock, analysts estimate they are taking cattle worth tens of millions of dollars a year.

Net profits made from stolen livestock from one district in the Mopti region — under jihadi influence — was approximately $730,000 in one year, said the report.

By controlling the cross-border livestock markets, jihadis are strengthening their legitimacy in the territory they take and diminishing control by the state, said Mucahid Durmaz, senior analyst at Verisk Maplecroft, a global risk intelligence company.

“The consistent flow of income enables them to acquire arms, recruit new members, extend their power, and undermine state authority,” he said. To cut revenue, governments in the Sahel region need to establish authority, tighten border controls, regulate cattle markets and gain the trust of local communities, he said.