Dracorius White/U.S. Army

Burkina Faso: Islamic State and al-Qaeda’s New Sanctuary

For many years, violent extremists have exploited the impoverished and lawless Sahel region of Africa. Salafist-jihadist militias have frequently transited through the region’s porous borders, easily taking advantage of local grievances to establish a presence in countries such as Mali and Niger. Consequently, there have been countless terrorist attacks throughout West Africa, including a high-profile attack by al-Qaeda’s North Africa branch against the Ivory Coast’s Grand Bassam in 2016.

Burkina Faso—a steadfast U.S. ally in the ‘War on Terror’—managed to avoid the scourge of the Sahel’s extremists until somewhat recently. Since 2015, however, Burkina Faso has been suffering from the violent Salafist-jihadist forces that it had previously managed to keep at bay. Throughout the past four years, lethal attacks have become frequent in northern Burkina Faso, mainly in Soum Province, where tens of thousands of locals have had to flee because of violent extremists.

Ansaroul Islam (Protectors of Islam), founded by Malam Ibrahim Dicko in late 2016, has carried out a large share of these attacks. Although locally rooted, Protectors of Islam is linked to several Mali-based extremist groups. A host of other groups are also terrorizing and destabilizing northern Burkina Faso. Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), which played a pivotal role in the capture of northern Mali in 2012, maintains its influence in Burkina Faso and other African countries. Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM), which the U.S. State Department designated a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) in September 2018, was founded in 2017 and is viewed as al-Qaeda’s West African branch. JNIM, led by Iyad Ag Ghali, came into existence through the unification of multiple extremist groups, including AQIM, Ansar al-Din (which Ag Ghali previously led and to which Dicko also belonged), al-Murabitoon, and the Macina Liberation Front (a.k.a. the Macina Battalion). The Islamic State (IS) has a Sahelian branch that operates in Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger: the Islamic State in the greater Sahara (ISGS). At times fighters from JNIM and ISGS have purportedly cooperated with one another.

Since 2015, these Salafist-jihadist groups have carried out hundreds of attacks, killing roughly 400 people. Most of them have been hit-and-run operations, usually targeting army bases, schools, local businesses, and Burkinabe citizens accused of collaborating with their government’s security apparatus. Although all ethnic groups in northern Burkina Faso have been targets of such violence, the Bella, Foulse, and Mossi communities have been the main targets largely due to perceptions of their links to the government. Burkina Faso’s terrorism crisis prompted the U.S. Peace Corps to remove its volunteers from the country following an attack targeting a Turkish restaurant in the capital, Ouagadougou, in 2017. Salafist-jihadist groups in Burkina Faso have also taken western citizens hostage, a common tactic used by terrorists in the Sahel for the purpose of raising vast amounts of money via ransom payments.

ISGS received encouragement from IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in an 18-minute propaganda video produced in late April. In this video, the so-called caliph called on ISGS to carry out attacks against Burkina Faso’s former colonial ruler, France. It is not entirely clear what relationship ISGS has with IS’s central leadership in the Levant, although Burkina Faso’s IS offshoot did pledge bayat (allegiance) to Baghdadi in 2016.

Multinational military training exercise in Po, Burkina Faso. (Mary S. Katzenberger/U.S. Army)

So, what led to Burkina Faso to become a new sanctuary for violent extremists? The reasons are mainly twofold. First, the Presidential Security Regiment (RSP)’s dismantlement resulted in the weakening of Burkina Faso’s security forces after former president Blaise Compaoré resigned in 2014. Compaoré took power in a coup d’état in 1987 that ousted the country’s pan-Africanist leader, Thomas Sankara. Compaoré, strongly backed by Washington and Paris, went on to rule Burkina Faso with an iron fist and to become one of the African continent’s longest-serving strongmen. The RSP, an elite unit within the Burkinabe army that was responsible for protecting Compaoré, was disbanded after Compaoré’s rule ended amid violent protest in 2014, and a handful of its members deserted the government. Furthermore, the intelligence services that served Compaoré’s regime were divided into three units that have competed with each other and functioned with overall inefficiency. Consequently, the current government’s security apparatus has struggled to address the threat posed by Salafist-jihadist militias that have targeted Burkina Faso in the post-Compaoré period.

Second, given that the Mali/Burkina Faso/Niger border triangle is porous, Mali’s ongoing security crisis has taken a major toll on Burkina Faso, which has not been able to defend itself. Additionally, with IS having lost its strongholds in Iraq, Syria, and Libya following years of conflict with their local, regional, and international enemies, the so-called Caliphate has naturally been seeking refuge in other regions beyond the Levant and Maghreb, including West Africa.

In 2012, many experts warned about northern Mali becoming a “new Afghanistan” that could destabilize surrounding states. The warnings were justified, as events in Burkina Faso and other West African countries have highlighted. The forces that usurped control of northern Mali (AQIM, Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa, and Ansar al-Din) and the offshoots that they have created over the past seven years have exploited the weakness of West African states, the region’s porous borders, desert terrain, and the large amounts of weaponry seized by non-state actors during the collapse of Libya’s Gaddafi regime in 2011.

Although France and the Paris-led “G5 Sahel” military bloc (Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger) have dislodged a number of these extremist groups and killed many of their militants, the French government and its former colonies in the region have relied excessively on pursuing military solutions to West Africa and the Sahel’s terrorism crises. Strategies that depend solely on military action are doomed to fail because they fail to address the root causes of the problem, such as extreme poverty, high youth unemployment, and a lack of hope among large swathes of these countries’ populations.

The Sahel has not received nearly enough attention from the international community. To add to the region’s misery, the corrupt elites who hold power in this part of Africa have failed to address a plethora of grave challenges, including food insecurity and the growing impact of climate change, which will make water shortages in this already parched landscape an even greater concern in the future. According to the United Nations, temperature increases in the environmentally degraded Sahel, which is home to approximately 300 million people, are expected to be 1.5 times above the global average.

It is within this context of desperation and indignity that many West African youth believe that they can only find purpose in life by joining Salafist-jihadist groups that seek to impose harsh interpretations of Islamic (Sharia) law in areas where moderate forms of Islam have been traditionally practiced. Making a living from hostage-taking and arms and drugs smuggling seems a viable alternative to unemployment and starvation for too many of them.

Although IS has suffered major defeats in the Middle East, it has not disappeared. Moreover, it remains extremely active in cyberspace and its loyalists are entering new domiciles such as West Africa. The state of affairs in Burkina Faso is deeply troubling, given how ongoing Sahelian security crises have clearly spilled into northern parts of the country, as well as Ouagadougou.

The world is not paying enough attention to the terrorism crisis impacting this former French colony. The risk is that Burkina Faso will become more of a sanctuary for IS and al-Qaeda adherents in the months and years ahead. With extremists spreading terrorism across the Sahel, Burkina Faso needs assistance from regional and global partners to combat violent jihadist groups that have exposed the weaknesses of its security establishment while spilling much blood in the process. Although not in the global spotlight, Burkina Faso could well become an international flashpoint if the proper resources are not committed to preventing its northern territories from becoming a haven for extremists.