Jihadist Expansion into Burkina Faso

In my previous article I mentioned Burkina Faso to be one of the countries contributing to Sub-Saharan Africa’s account for half of the largest increases in deaths from terrorism in the world between 2017 and 2018. I had this at the back of my mind when speaking to two Burkinabe people in Ghana at a conference, one of whom claimed to work in the Northern region, just a few kilometers from the Mali border. Both attested to their concern of the increase of terrorism in Burkina Faso, resulting in many remote villages being torched, mass displacement, forced recruitment and even casualties. More than anything, what stood out for me was one of their accounts of the indiscriminate nature of attacks, targeting any and all religious and ethnic communities without any claim as to who they were and why they were instigating these attacks. This has contributed to an absolute state of paranoia and mistrust among community members at a time when unity is so desperately needed to counter radical narratives which have spurred the rise of terrorism-at least locally. So while the rest of this article won’t rest on these two individual accounts, it certainly opened my eyes to the magnitude of what is developing in Burkina Faso, a country where incidents of terror were unheard of…and for the longest time had managed to stave off acts of violent extremism as it unravels in neighboring countries.

According to the (Global Terrorism Database, 2019) GTD there have been 120* incidents of terrorism in Burkina Faso between 2015 and 2018. The most prominent attack was on the 13th of August 2017, when Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM), Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and Ansar al Islam allegedly opened fire at Aziz Istanbul restaurant and Hotel Bravia in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso’s capital city, resulting in 21 fatalities. The attack involved an 8-hour hostage situation which eventually led to security forces killing two attackers and releasing approximately 40 hostages from the scene. No group claimed responsibility for the attack while Ansar al-Islam attributed the attack to JNIM. The attack formed one of many terror attacks which began around 2014/15 when the country began to experience 93% of all incidents of terrorism until 2018 within this 3-4 year period. Below I broke down the various groups listed on the GTD (2019) said to be instigating terror attacks in Burkina Faso:

Source: Author’s construction using data from the Global Terrorism Database (2019)

When putting this together, I obviously couldn’t help but think back to the above mentioned account of what was described as attacks by an unknown group, which the GTD records instigated 56 out of 120 attacks. No claims or allegations pertaining to these 56 incidents have been made or recorded. In addition to this ambiguous category is that of unaffiliated Muslim extremists, responsible for 12 attacks. Exactly how this was determined is unclear to me beyond “sources” claims.

Second most active group is Ansar al-Islam, a Salafi-jihadist group located in the northern province of Soum against the border of Mali. The group was established in 2016 by a Burkinabe religious figure, Malam Ibrahim Dicko, who fought alongside AQIM in Mali between 2012 and 2013. Malam later built ties with the Katibat Macina which later merged with Ansar Dine to form part of JNIM (see organisational map). Upon his return, Malam sought to capitalize on socio-economic grievances among the Fulani minority regarding state discrimination and lack of access to basic services. Ansar al-Islam has thrived in rural communities where state institutions and services are scarce and unregulated. Here, Ansar al-Islam has found solace in communities aggrieved by neglect, abuse and corruption. In the absence of sound religious authorities and traditional justice systems to address local grievances and counter extremist narratives, remote areas have become increasingly susceptible to Ansar al-Islam’s attacks and radicalization.

An Organisational Map and Timeline of Perpetrator Groups Instigating Terror Attacks in Burkina Faso and their Offshoots

Source: Author’s construction

Followed by Ansar al-Islam is the Mali-based Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS), which was established in 2015 when Adnan Abu Walid al Sahrawi pledged allegiance to the Islamic State. ISGS emerged from a split with the AQIM affiliated Al-Mourabitoun (see organisational map), and has gone on to instigate attacks beyond Mali to include Niger, and Burkina Faso. Much like Ansar al-Islam, ISGS exploits ethnic grievances among various groups such as Fulanis, Bozos, Bambaras, and Mossis. ISGS has been key to filling the void surrounding state discrimination and the desire for self-defense particularly among the youth of minority ethnic groups. Furthermore, there has been much speculation over possible cooperation between ISGS and Ansar al-Islam following the latter’s claim to a joint operation against a military base in Nassoumbou in December 2016. Certainly, in a region with alliances that shift as swiftly as the sand dunes, this is highly possible. However, the nature would perhaps be confined to operational cooperation at lower levels of the respective organisations in order to achieve short-term joint interests. As a local jihadist organisation, Ansar al-Islam, led now by Malam’s brother-Jafar, is most likely to try defend whatever hegemony it has established over the years with roots that run deep in rural Fulani communities.

AQIM and its affiliate, JNIM have instigated 12 and 9 attacks in Burkina Faso respectively, bearing further testament to the intrusion of Malian jihadist groups like ISGS flowing into the border of Burkina Faso.

Source: Author’s construction based on location data from the Global Terrorism Database (2019) on a map obtained from NationsOnline (2019), Political Map of Burkina Faso, https://www.nationsonline.org/oneworld/map/burkina-faso-political-map.htm

Although AQIM and JNIM have instigated attacks in other parts of Burkina Faso, due to their capacity to execute an attack against operational obstacles such as higher levels of security in the capital city, both groups have been involved in 6 out of 9 attacks in Ouagadougou.

Beyond the city center, the map above shows attacks to have spread across the country, particularly around Soum, Loroum, and the remote Sahel reserve, all against the border of Mali with virtually no surveillance or border control. From here, groups can attack and retreat for refuge or train, engage in illegal trade, supply each other with weapons, recruits, and vehicles, unrestrained by the Burkinabe or Malian state. This continues to contribute to their operational capacity, which has led to a severe deterioration of security in the country. The map above shows how most attacks spread out through the country occurred between 2017 and 2018, and with 41% unaccounted for, it’s becoming apparent that the Burkinabe government is way over its head in terms of exactly what its dealing with.

This is further compounded with what I think is the nature of groups in the Sahel and West Africa, to split, merge, cooperate or formally affiliate, with each phase building the capacities of participating groups. At the most basic level, this is demonstrated by the fact that Burkina Faso has experienced at least 15 attacks with multiple groups involved, 2 of which saw the country’s deadliest attacks in which 21 people were killed on the 13th of August 2017 in Ouagadougou and 17 people were killed on the 16th of December 2016 in Nassoumbou.

Burkina Faso is faced with a major crisis, which emerged both locally and regionally. Therefore, strategies of combating “unknown groups”, or the like of Ansar al-Islam, ISGS, AQIM and JNIM requires sustained internal and external pressure. This is because wherever progress is made on either sides of the border, groups flee to where there hasn’t. Closing in on their areas of operation at the most basic level requires cross border cooperation among states in surveilling their borders so as to identify and secure main points of entry so as to not exhaust their resources on policing their entire border. This will go a long way in interrupting a crucial life source of existing groups and effectively rendering them immobile. Secondly, the state needs to work with communities in countering extremist narratives by addressing discrimination against minority ethnic groups, empowering locals to establish and facilitate their own arbitration systems, provide basic services and infrastructure, as well as include communities in being part of genuine security sector reforms that prioritizes accountability and cooperation at grassroots level.

I think this is possible and I don’t think it’s too late.

Featured Image Source: Intellivoire: Porte Ouverte Sur I’Afrique (9 October, 2018), Une nouvelle cellule de « Al-Qaïda » se forme au Burkina Faso Pour lire plus, https://intellivoire.net/une-nouvelle-cellule-de-al-qaida-se-forme-au-burkina-faso/

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