Geospatial Intelligence Report: Transnational Arms Trafficking in West Africa

Team Name: Ciro Mazzola, Janice Zhong, CRIME

Date: September 21, 2020

Key judgments  

West Africa has long been a favored region for extremist groups and militias. Powerful terrorist organizations combined with instability within country governments offer the perfect conditions for an illicit arm industry. Here, criminals and insurgents looking to oversee a revolution are able to buy/rent weapons from corrupt police or military personnel.[1] In addition to being one of the poorest regions in the world, nations within West Africa often have long unguarded borders and expansive land which allows for the transnational nature of illicit arms trafficking. Key geographic features such as rivers play a role in the movement of goods and determine the firepower of organizations. This report seeks to examine the effect of geography and favored arms trafficking routes in relation to major terrorist groups in the West Africa region. Analyzing satellite imagery and secondary sources provides domestic and international authorities with tools to develop an effective counterterrorism strategy.

West Africa Regions[2]

Analyzing Weapon Trafficking in West Africa

Illicit weapon trafficking is only a single part of the intricate net encapsulating the criminal markets in West Africa. In point of fact, aside from arm trafficking, this web is composed of drugs, people, and other smuggled commodities that have their respective value based on their level of profit, risk, and tactical importance. Nonetheless, weapons find themselves at the top of the chain as they not only embody an important trafficked commodity, but also a means through which protection may be purchased and power may be exercised. With access to weapons already being easy in the region, the illegal traffic of weapons across national boundaries is further enabled by long, porous borders as well as contested governance in vast territories.[3] As this report will later uncover, these features, along with other geographical aspects of the region, prove to be a key variable in the larger equation that is arm trafficking in West Africa.

Google Earth: Niger River[4]

Another factor that determines the flow of arms trafficking throughout the West Africa region is the political stability of countries. Countries with volatile governing structures tend to see increased rates of arms trafficking (both by illegal smugglers and corrupt officials alike). The transition of weapons from purportedly trusted entities find their way into the hands of violent insurgents in some regions, fueling existing conflicts or exacerbating tense situations. West Africa in particular, is located such that it is open to trafficking from the air, land, or sea. Some of the most notable routes flow through or into Niger/Mali.[5] In more recent weeks, Mali has experienced notable protests against electoral malpractice and corrupted elections. Groups affiliated with ISIS and Al-Qaeda have utilized Mali as a launchpad of sorts; taking full advantage of the country’s lapse of authority.[6] As Mali's economy spirals, its people may turn to other methods of making money, just to make ends meet. This may include induction into one of many armed groups in the West Africa region or participating in illicit trades including the smuggling of weapons. With a lack of an organized force to combat terrorism and a weak leadership, countries like Mali will become reliant upon outside forces (ie. United Nations, International organizations, etc.) in order to combat domestic crime. As international organizations become increasingly based upon western ideals of governance, it is likely that conflicts will increase or escalate rather than disappear. Actions must be taken whereby if an outside force chooses to implement themselves in the affairs of another nation, they must remain conscious of the cultural, societal, and political differences of said state.

Google Earth: Major Arms Trafficking Routes[7]

In the higher echelons of society, government officials are not exempt; oftentimes eagerly participating in illicit deals for more power, money, and status. According to Transparency International, a global initiative against corruption, much of Sub-saharan Africa experiences some form of corruption (ie. having to pay to have access to public services); in cases such as these, the poor must acquiesce because to resist would mean an inability to access essential resources.[8] As such, the political and economic climates of many countries in the West Africa region provide the perfect conditions for armed groups and insurgents to thrive, thus permitting a prolific transnational arms trade industry. It is not possible to fully comprehend the issue of arms trafficking in the region without investigating the trafficking routes taken by the actors involved. For instance, recent studies have found that Niger serves the function of a transit country for weapons traffickers. Weapons, along with other illegal commodities, enter the northern region of Niger from the south-western Lybian border by passing through and around the Salvador Pass. Here, they are able to take advantage of ancient trans-Sahelian trade routes. Some of these routes now pass into southern Algeria in order to avoid American and French surveillance of the area, which has become a recurring phenomenon in recent years. These routes reach Mali, Burkina Faso, Nigeria, and other states in West Africa by following roads as well as passing through deserted areas near the border with Algeria. Another historical route taken for illicit weapon trafficking extends from the Lake Chad region going through Niger and ending in Mali. However, this route was much more active in the 1990s and the early years of the 21st century. A final route in Niger flows in the Tillabéri and Tahoua regions, western and southern Niger respectively.[9]

As opposed to Niger, Mali is a major destination for weapon trafficking routes. Despite a decent number of French military operations and a UN peacekeeping mission, security remains uncertain and, consequently, trafficking runs unhindered. As previously mentioned, a great part of weapons entering Mali come from Libya through Niger by exploiting roads, deserted borders, as well as the Niger River. Another route for weapons to enter Mali passes through Mauritania. These weapons tend to originate either from coastal West Africa or from the disputed territory of Western Sahara. Studies have discovered that the weapons come from various coastal towns and then converge in the city of Bakel, on the border between Senegal and Mauritania. This city is located on the Senegal River and serves as a major trafficking and smuggling hub. By simply crossing the river, the weapons reach Mauritania only to subsequently enter Mali through Mauritania’s south-eastern border. Once in Mali, they converge in Foïta with arms coming from Western Sahara. There is such a copious amount of routes exploited in Mali (and just as much lack of security) that traffickers are even able to use public buses to transport the illicit arms. As a consequence, the various authorities find it easier to focus on key towns well-known for their function as trafficking hubs. These towns are Foïta, Koygma, Ber, Lerneb, Raz El Ma, and Gossi in the Timbuktu and Taoudeni regions; in Khalil, I-n-Afarak, Talhandak, Tin-Essako, and Anefif in the Kidal region; finally, Ménaka and Gao (the capitals of the Malian regions with the same names).[10]

Additional areas in the region that witness a great deal of illicit arms trafficking are the tri-border areas between Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, and Mali. Traffickers move primarily utilizing motorbikes and are able to cross the vast and unchecked borders between the countries with ease. One of the key routes in Côte d’Ivoire is Bondoukou–Bouna– Varalé–Doropo, which serves the southern region of Burkina Faso, including the city of Gaoua. Other important routes are the ones that skirt the Ivorian border posts of Léraba and Pogo, the Burkinabe post of Yendere, and the Malian post in Zégoua. Mangan and Nowak also mention 13 small crossing points near Tingréla in northern Côte d’Ivoire, allowing traffickers to move without problems to Mali, as well as numerous smuggling hubs in and around towns such as Bawku, Tumu, Hamile, Sampa, and Elubo in Ghana. Legal trade across borders is another obstacle for authorities. A vast number of people cross the border from Ghana to Burkina Faso and Côte d’Ivoire on a daily basis in order to trade goods. As a consequence, the scale of movement at the various border-crossings does not allow border officials to identify and intercept traffickers and their goods.[11]

Unfortunately, the solution to the issue of illicit arms trafficking requires multiple complementary approaches. It is not as simple as instituting better border security or merely calling for greater international and national responses. Whilst these factors definitely have a say in the argument, the problem is much more complex. For instance, there are sociocultural and economic drivers behind illicit trafficking: interviews with traffickers and actors with ties to smuggling rings and organized criminal networks emphasized that economic hardship forces many to find jobs in the criminal world. Interviewees shared their will to give up such activities and find more legitimate ways of earning money, however a lack of viable employment opportunities and the challenges facing people attempting to secure a stable income (particularly in remote communities and border areas) make trafficking an attractive option.[12] Moreover, terrorism and intercommunal violence have increased the demand for small arms. The continuous use of firearms by self-defense militias and hunter brotherhoods as well as in the resolution of local conflicts has only caused longstanding intercommunal tensions to further escalate. This phenomenon consequently inspires tit-for-tat attacks, which then help increase the demand for other weapons, thus fueling a vicious circle.[13] As Mangan and Nowak state, addressing these complex dynamics will require responses that go beyond the improvement of border patrols and the development of security sector counter trafficking capabilities. Interventions to support community mediation, strengthen good governance, and prevent violent extremism are just part of a broader package that deals with illicit arms flows by addressing the drivers of both demand and supply.[14]

Secondary sources

Illegal Weapons Traded in Libya via Facebook[15]

Illegal weapons are traded in a variety of ways. One such format is via social media platforms such as Facebook. In the image above, an illegal weapon is being sold off in Libya, Africa. Lapses in security as well as resources to counter illicit weapons trades/online deals oversees a continuing flow of arms into and out of West Africa.


The future of arms trafficking in the West Africa region is dependent upon international relations with global powers as well as the stability of governing authorities within respective countries. Joint efforts between organizations such as the United Nations and local governments must compile resources and a grounded plan to counter both terrorism and transnational illicit arms trafficking. Because of its global nature, arms trafficking involves multiple state actors as well as numerous individuals. The process itself requires a complex approach to a multi-layered issue. Countries are most likely to benefit given a structurally sound government, legislation to block against corruption, and increased security along borders, blocking supply routes and targeting suspicious people suspected of participating in the illegal trade.

____________________________________________________________________________ The Counterterrorism Group (CTG)

[1] “Firearms Trafficking in West Africa”, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, n.a.,

[2] “West Africa Regions” by Peter Fitzgerald licensed under Creative Commons Share Alike 3.0 Unported.

[3] “The West Africa-Sahel Connection: Mapping Cross-border Arms Trafficking”, Small Arms Survey, December 2019, p. 3,

[4] Screenshot GoogleEarth 2020.

[5]  “Firearms Trafficking in West Africa”, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, n.a.,

[6] “Explainer: What has caused Mali’s political unrest?”, Aljazeera, August 2020,

[7]  Screenshot GoogleEarth 2020. Edited on Paint3D by Janice Zhong.

[8] “Sub-Saharan Africa: Overview of corruption and anti-corruption”, Anti-Corruption Resource Center, 2020,

[9] “The West Africa-Sahel Connection: Mapping Cross-border Arms Trafficking”, pp. 5-6.

[10] Ibid., pp. 6-7.

[11] Ibid., pp. 7-8.

[12] “The West Africa-Sahel Connection: Mapping Cross-border Arms Trafficking”, p. 18.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Screenshot Facebook. Sourced from

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