By Joseph F. Kirschke, News Editor-Mining

On January 18, the U.S. State Department warned Americans against travel to Mali, Africa’s third-largest gold producer. Amid ongoing fighting between Islamic militants and French forces and “threats of attacks and kidnappings,” embassy dependents and aid workers have evacuated; Canada, Australia and France also issued stern advisories.

It’s a situation leaving people like Howard Miller taken aback. “We have no security concerns at all,” said the CEO of Avnel Gold Mining Ltd., a junior miner with a project 160 miles south of Bamako, the capital. “We have had no difficulty moving personnel, equipment or gold—not a single shipment.”

Investors unfamiliar with one of the world’s most sparsely populated countries could be forgiven for thinking otherwise. Moreover, even though France has denied Al-Qaeda affiliates a desert haven—hundreds of miles from any extractive operations—some time may pass before Mali lives down its volatile reputation.

Miller isn’t alone: South Africa’s Randgold Resources, Mali’s biggest investor with three mines, reports “business as usual,” as has Toronto’s Iamgold, producing half its gold from Mali.

Still, this could change. Problems erupted after Mali’s fragile democracy, saddled with a festering insurgency by its northern Tuareg tribes, grew militarized with an influx of people and weapons from neighboring Libya following Col. Muammar Qaddafi’s 2011 ouster. Added to the mix is Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), jihadists pushed south by the Algeria army and a holdover of that country’s 1990s civil war.

The result is more than 230,000 refugees spilling into neighboring countries while leaving at least 150,000 Malians internally displaced.  

Mali’s gold mining tradition is steeped in history. From the region’s empires of Ghana-Ougadou, Mande and Songhay through the 1400s, texts speak of royals draped in gilded robes. French colonialism brought extractive modernization from the 1800s through independence in 1960 and—with 45.8 metric tons per year in 2011 and 95% of mineral assets—Mali is now the world’s 16th largest gold producer.

Debates over whether Mali’s principal breadwinner has properly benefitted its people, among the world’s poorest with a GDP of $2.3 billion, are not new either. And nor is the fundamentalist screed of AQIM.

“As militants seek reprisals on Westerners,” said a forecast by the Eurasia Group, a consulting firm, “kidnapping and other security risks could rise for miners and other foreign-owned businesses.”      

Kidnapping and extortion is the primary modus operandi for these groups, netting AQIM in particular some $120 million since 2004, according to the U.S. Treasury Department, reflecting Washington’s own concern. The U.S., for its part, has maintained a Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership, a civilian-military alliance with a half dozen other Saharan and North African countries, since 2005.

France’s action has assured peace in most of Mali and also—not coincidentally—its next door neighbor Niger, the main source of uranium crucial to the world’s biggest user of nuclear energy.

Indeed, just as President Francois Hollande arrived in Bamako and hailed a “savior” French special forces units had already taken up positions at Niger’s mines. The 2010 abduction of seven workers at a uranium mine in Arlit—and four French nationals who have yet to be returned—is surely a lingering memory.

France remains Niger’s biggest investor, having mined there, through mostly state-owned companies, for half a century. But it wasn’t until 1974’s global oil crisis that Paris decided to go fully nuclear; 40 years on, France boasts the greatest energy independence and lowest energy costs in Europe, according to the World Nuclear Association.

Soon to be the world’s second-largest uranium source, Mali’s Francophone neighbor of 16 million appears to be reaping relatively handsome bene-fits from France’s patronage, as well. The International Monetary Fund, most notably, reports that 2012 GDP is expected to soar to 14.1%, from 3.8% in 2011.

But France and its international allies may soon be paying more attention Mali’s more fertile southern flank. On January 19, that is, while traveling through northern Nigeria to Mali in a United Nations-backed peacekeeping operation, a Nigerian military convoy lost two soldiers to an improvised explosive device (IED) ambush by Boko Haram, a local militant group.

Beyond the headlines though, only one consensus really prevails among Mali’s top miners—one best characterized by Randgold CEO Mark Bristow. The situation, he said in a statement, is monitored “closely” with operations “well-stocked with fuel and other consumables.”

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