Ayouba Ag Nadroun was at the market in central Mali in March when Islamic extremists attacked his village, killing dozens of people and stealing about $10,000 worth of his cows and camels.
"We lost everything," the 62-year-old told The Associated Press by phone from the Menaka region in the West African nation.
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 buy weapons and vehicles to fund their insurgency across the war-torn West African country and region below the Sahara Desert, known as 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.
Mali has been battling to contain an Islamic extremist insurgency for more than a decade.
Despite a victory in 2013, when France sent troops in to help its former colony drive al-Qaida-linked militants from northern areas of the country, violence has not only continued but spread. Attacks have spilled into neighboring Niger and Burkina Faso, where extremists are exploiting people's grievances against the state to recruit fighters and control land.
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.
Thefts provide cash flow
In the central Mopti region, one of the hardest-hit by more recent violence, 130,000 cattle were stolen in 2021, about the same amount taken from 2018 through 2020, said the report by the global initiative known as GI-TOC. While the groups have several funding streams, including drug trafficking, hostage taking and gold mining, analysts say livestock raiding is one of the most preferred because of the consistent cash flow, especially in Mali, which is the second-biggest cattle exporter in the region after Nigeria. Jihadis loot livestock and then rely on a network to sell it and use the money to buy weapons and vehicles.
"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."
Villagers say jihadis are strategic about their thefts, 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, 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.
"There are no animals within a 300-kilometer radius of the town of Menaka. ... The terrorists are trying to weaken the population economically, so the population does not fund a resistance," he said.
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. In neighboring Burkina Faso, where violence has been raging since 2016, jihadis can bring in nearly $50,000 a month from cattle raiding in regions such as the Sahel, north and center-north, where they operate.
"We are aware that the money generated by the sale of stolen cattle is used to finance activities of the terrorists," Colonel Abdoulaye Dembele, spokesman for the Malian army, told the AP.
"It is difficult to secure the cattle of Mali from terrorists. The country is vast, and our first concern is to secure the people," he said.
However, in recent months, "we have recovered several hundred head of cattle in Mopti, in the center, and also in the Menaka region. In both cases, we have handed the cattle over to the local authorities who will take charge of finding their owners and returning the animals to them. As long as the stolen cattle are within a radius of our military camps, we can intervene, but if it is far from the military camps, it becomes difficult," he added.
Hostages worth even more
Despite the increase in cattle theft, conflict experts say it doesn't compare to the highly profitable business of hostage taking.
"We've heard unconfirmed reports that ransoming hostages is [jihadis'] most lucrative revenue stream, generating approximately 30% of [their] income," said William Linder, a retired CIA officer and head of 14 North Strategies, an Africa-focused risk advisory. At least 25 foreigners and untold numbers of locals have been kidnapped in the Sahel since 2015, according to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project.
French journalist Olivier Dubois was kidnapped by jihadis from northern Mali in April 2021. He was released last month, however, the conditions of his release, including whether it involved a ransom, have not been disclosed.
Still, the surge in cattle raiding unsettles some residents in the Sahel region more because it cuts into their ability to survive.
Two years ago, villagers in the Gourma region said they noticed a spike in jihadis selling thousands of stolen cattle in villages at a third of the price, making it hard for traders to compete. The jihadis sell cattle in the thousands, generally to beef traders who take it across the border to neighboring Burkina Faso or Niger, said a 34-year-old tea seller at a market in Gossi town who did not want to be named for fear of reprisal.
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.