Conflict Minerals: The Dark Side of the Digital Age Electronics Boom

Photo: AP/Joseph Kay

With the advent of digital communications, people thousands of miles apart can engage with each other seamlessly, and businesses can operate at a scale previously unknown, thanks to a burgeoning consumer electronics industry. But not all aspects of this industry are positive. Some contribute to global insecurity and human suffering.

In all computing machines, including mobile phones and laptops, are the minerals tin, tungsten, tantalum, and gold – also known as 3TGs. These hyper-conductive and resilient metals are mined around the world, but much of the global supply chain begins in mines in Central Africa.

The often-informal mineral trade there provides revenue for brutal militant and terrorist groups and deepens corruption throughout the Great Lakes region, particularly in the northeast region of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) where many of the mines are located.

If the United States is serious about its commitment to stop international terrorism and transnational threats, then it must sever the financial lifeline these minerals provide to groups that stand in the way of stability. That’s not simple when they are critical to the booming digital industry.

Central Africa has long been plagued by exploitation of minerals that fed into war machines. During World War I, Congolese copper was used to make some 75 percent of the brass casings fire by Allied troops during the battles of Passchendaele and Somme.

Today, largely because of the electronics industry, demand for these minerals is skyrocketing. More households in developing countries own a mobile phone than have access to electricity or clean water. There are just as many mobile phones on the planet as people. And the number of internet users has tripled in merely a decade – from 1 billion in 2005 to an estimated 3.2 billion at the end of 2015.

This explosive growth in demand for consumer electronics – and, in turn, Congo’s minerals – came on the heels of two devastating civil wars in the DRC that impeded the state’s capacity to govern the peripheral regions of the country. According to the Fund for Peace’s Fragile State Index (FSI), the Congolese state’s legitimacy has steadily declined to a nadir in 2013 as lawlessness and violence pervaded the northeast, stoking group grievances and ethnic and religious turmoil. The DRC remains one of the world’s poorest nations in terms of Gross Domestic Product per capita, despite its estimated mineral wealth of some $24 trillion.

Militant groups – such as the Lord’s Resistance Army, Democratic Force for the Liberation of Rwanda, and Allied Democratic Forces – that have spilled over from neighboring countries roam the DRC’s mineral-rich provinces of North and South Kivu. The militants provide security to informal artisanal mines and extort taxes on minerals as they are extracted and moved to market. During processing, usually in neighboring counties, minerals from illicit mines are mixed with those that have been legally extracted, making it difficult to distinguish which ones contribute to violence. 

Some may argue that the international community’s attempts to trace and outlaw conflict minerals is purely a humanitarian gesture, since the militant groups that profit from them are not attacking the United States or Western interests.

They should reconsider. Militant groups enriched by the contraband mineral trade destabilize whole regions of Africa – and beyond.

Doug Wise, the former deputy director of the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency, writes that “while locally destructive, these groups pose a significant threat to the United States and Western national security interests since many have expressed an allegiance to al Qaeda and the Islamic State.”

For instance, in 2013 it was discovered that the Somali-based al-Shabaab terrorists – who have overt ties to al-Qaeda and possibly ISIS – were in North Kivu, working alongside the Allied Democratic Forces, a militant group from Uganda. “Al-Shabaab,” Wise argues, “depends almost exclusively on the sale of conflict minerals to financially support its terrorist activities,” though other sources of income include illicit trade in charcoal and ivory.

Sally Yozell and Emma Myers of the Stimson Center’s Environmental Security program argue that “many of the destabilizing consequences of illegal and unregulated mining extend to other natural resources as well.” Commonly referred to as the “resource curse,” extractive industries, including lootable resources beyond minerals – to include illegal forestry, fishing, and poaching – have significant financial value to militant groups.

According to the United Nations Environment Programme, criminals in the eastern part of the DRC reap some $1 billion in profits annually through the off-the-books trade of minerals, timber, charcoal, and wildlife products such as ivory. What’s more, an estimated 98 percent of the profit from these illicit dealings is believed to wind up in the hands of transnational organized criminal and terror networks, leaving only 2 percent with indigenous armed groups.

“To functionally prevent these groups from operating, we need to break the cycle by hindering their ability to generate revenue from selling commodity minerals,” says Wise. “Stopping the supply of money to these violent groups will quickly impact their ability to survive and will have an enduring effect on preventing their resurgence.”

Because the illicit trade of conflict minerals is spurred by the electronics industry’s global demand, regulating the supply chain of major hardware manufacturers under Section 1502 of the Dodd-Frank Act is one approach to ensuring that companies don’t obtain minerals from sources that could fund militant groups. Signed in 2010 by former President Barack Obama, the provision has come under criticism for harming the livelihoods of Congolese miners as well as the economic competitiveness of U.S. technology companies.

Last February, President Donald Trump indicated that he wanted to roll back the conflict minerals provision of Dodd-Frank, prompting Martin Kabwelulu, the Congolese mines minister, to send a letter to the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), which oversees company compliance with the law, arguing that killing the U.S. prohibition on conflict minerals “will jeopardize the stability and security of the DRC” by encouraging an “escalation in the activities of non-state armed groups.”

Some companies have suggested that they are willing to self-regulate if Dodd-Frank is rolled back. Up to now, they have faced a practical problem: conducting a country-of-origin inquiry with the necessary due diligence to avoid illicit sourcing of minerals is difficult. Some researchers aim to change that by developing forensic investigative techniques that can pinpoint the mine that was the source of the minerals.

“Preliminary research at the Minerals Industry Research Laboratory of the University of Alaska-Fairbanks has demonstrated a statistically valid process to determine the source mine of origin and to achieve traceability of artisanal metals based on the geochemical analysis of the impurities,” Wise writes. “Researchers at the laboratory are in the process of establishing a Conflict Minerals Research Laboratory and global artisanal minerals repository, as well as an internationally-standardized geochemical sampling methodology and data analytics library.”

Without such innovative methods to track and trace the supply chain of minerals, the global economy will continue to sustain the activities of violent extremist groups while corrupting the governments tasked with countering them.

“Violence and insecurity will continue to destabilize Central Africa,” Yozell and Myers write, “unless businesses and the global market place take the necessary actions toward transparency and traceability across the supply chain and the U.S. government steps up its efforts with leadership and necessary foreign assistance.”   

View our expert commentary on this topic:

How Africa’s Minerals Underground Threatens U.S. Security Interests, by Sally Yozell, Senior Associate and Director of the Environmental Security Program at The Stimson Center

Researchers Craft Forensic Tests to Trace Contraband Conflict Minerals, by Doug Wise, former Deputy Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency

Levi Maxey is a cyber and technology analyst at The Cipher Brief. Follow him on Twitter @lemax13.