Burkina Faso’s perceptible slide into endemic jihadism

APA - Ouagadougou (Burkina Faso)

Jihadist attacks have been steadily on the increase in Burkina Faso in recent years.

On Thursday, June 9, jihadists not only killed nine gendarmes in Seytenga but three days later, they returned to the northeastern town in the Seno province, 276 kilometers northeast of Ouagadougou, to slaughter dozens of civilians.

According to several witnesses, they fired without warning, ultimately killing 86 people. 

This bloodshed is one of the signs of the deteriorating security situation in Burkina Faso since 2015. 

Previously, the country had not experienced any event related to jihadist activity, despite the fact that such violence was expanding in its immediate vicinity.

What has changed so much so that Burkina Faso, once considered a “mediator state” for offering its good services in the Mali conflict in 2012, has seen “40 percent of its territory” out of the grasp of the state?

The north of the country served as a receptacle for the first activities of jihadist groups. 

On August 23, 2015, the Oursi police station in Oudalan province was attacked by armed individuals from Mali. 

The country was engaged in a transition period after the departure of Blaise Compaoré, ousted from power in October 2014 by a popular uprising. 

The former Burkinabe president, sentenced to life imprisonment for the assassination of his predecessor Thomas Sankara on October 15, 1987, has been living in exile in Cote d’Ivoire since his fall.

Entitled “The Rise of Border Insecurity: What 800 Sahelians Say,” a 2016 study by the Center for Humanitarian Dialogue and the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) considered the threat of insecurity as the most serious on the political transition at the time. 

It referred to the mobilization of security forces for political concerns instead of territorial defense. 

General Gilbert Diendere’s aborted attempt to seize power on September 16, 2015, relying on the presidential security regiment (RSP) of which he was the boss, is a perfect illustration.

When Roch Marc Christian Kabore took office after the presidential election of November 29, 2015, the security issue became one of the priorities of his five-year term. 

Meanwhile, northern Burkina Faso, essentially the Sahel region that was already suffering from its proximity to countries already blighted by jihadism and deficiencies in basic social services, continued to experience new incidents related to such insurgency.

In September 2016, Sahrawi jihadist Adnan Abu Walid al Sahrawi claimed responsibility for the first action by the Islamic State affiliate in the Sahel, though not yet recognized by the central command from the Syrian-Iraqi zone. 

The attack was directed against a customs post in Markoye. One customs officer and one civilian died there.

On January 15, 2016, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), which had just sealed its reunion with Al Mourabitoune, struck in the heart of Ouagadougou. 

The Splendid Hotel, the Cappucino restaurant, and the popular Taxi Brousse were targeted by three assailants, one of whom was Burkinabé. 

That same year, a local group was formed in the Soum province, also in the Sahel region. 

Close to Amadou Kouffa, a Malian jihadist and leader of the Katiba Macina, Malam Ibrahim Dicko created “Ansarul Islam” (the partisans of Islam). 

The group killed 12 soldiers in Nassoumbou on December 26, 2016.

This spiral of violence gained momentum during Roch Marc Kaboré's rule. 

The birth, on March 2, 2017, of the Groupe de soutien à l'Islam et aux musulmans (GSIM) will only make things worse. 

A year after its birth, this federation of the main Sahelian jihadist organizations close to Aqmi succeeded in a new intrusion into Ouagadougou. 

This time, the offensive targeted the headquarters of the Burkinabe army and the French embassy in Ouagadougou, in retaliation for the death of Mohamed Ould Nouini, eliminated a few days earlier by the French army in Mali. 

A commander of Al Murabitoune, this Malian Arab from Gao was the main instigator of the first “terrorist” attacks in Ouagadougou and in the seaside resort of Grand Bassm in Cote d’Ivoire. 

This development is reflected in the fact that he is now firmly established on the territory of Burkina Faso.

Heni Nsaibia, a senior researcher at the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED), chronicled for APA the jihadist groups present on Burkina Faso soil. 

“GSIM is present in most regions, but remains most active in the Sahel (Soum and Yagha in particular), the Centre-North, the North, the Boucle de Mouhoun, the East, Cascades, the Hauts-Bassins, the South-West, and the Centre-East and is emerging in the Centre-West.

As for the Islamic State, the researcher continues, its undeniable areas of influence are in the Oudalan and Séno regions. 

“Its elements can also be seen in the northern part of the Yagha and in the northeastern part of the Centre-Nord,” he adds.

Faced with the presence and worrying rise of jihadism, the Burkinabe authorities have been forced to readjust their combat strategy. 

Thus, in January 2020, the Volunteers for the Defense of the Homeland (VDP) corps were formed, with the objective of “supporting the defense and security forces in their mission to secure the national territory.” 

They receive a 14-day training delivered by the army.

At the end of this training, they receive equipment consisting of communication, vision and weapons. 

“Except that the creation of this militia is counterproductive because it has contributed to stirring up tensions between the civilian population and the jihadists, who now consider them as targets,” notes Wassim Nasr, a journalist with France 24.

This propensity of jihadist groups to commit abuses against civilians can also be explained by the freedom of action that some of them can claim vis-à-vis the chain of command. 

“The most telling example is that of Solhan, where a massacre was committed by a unit close to the JNIM (the Arabic acronym of the GSIM), but which was denied or criticized by the group's official communication. 

Finally, it was understood that it was an undisciplined unit,” says Wassim Nasr.

The last straw

But the country will change at the end of the year 2021. 

In November 2021, the attack on Inata by jihadist groups claimed 53 victims, including 49 gendarmes and 4 civilians. 

The inhumane conditions in which the gendarmes of this detachment were left caused a shockwave in the country and precipitated the fall of Roch Kabore.

Despite his promises to further equip the army, Kabore, who was re-elected for a second five-year term, could not avoid being overthrown on January 24 by the ‘Mouvement Populaire pour la Sauvegarde et la Restauration’ (MPSR) led by Lieutenant-Colonel Paul Henri Sandaogo Damiba. 

But this regime change did not improve the security situation. 

The NGO Armed Conflict Location and Data Project (ACLED) reports that “violence linked to al-Qaeda and the Islamic State increased by 7 percent in the first three months of the junta’s rule, compared to the previous period.”

To reverse the trend, the country’s new strongman, Lieutenant Colonel Damiba, announced on April 1, 2022, the “creation of local dialogue committees for the restoration of peace, whose mission is to initiate approaches with members of groups that have broken off dialogue with the nation.”

“But the situation has not improved. It has even deteriorated,” says Wassim Nasr. 

Heni Nsaibia, a senior researcher at ACLED, counted 404 attacks, without specifying the groups, resulting in 795 deaths between the beginning of the mutiny on January 23 and June 3. 

For comparison, the Islamic State has claimed 67 attacks from January 16, 2019 to November 12, 2021, Damien Ferre, managing director of Jihad Analytics, a company specializing in global and cyber jihad analysis, tells APA.

Wassim Nasr explains that the deterioration of the situation was caused by the absence of a “magic solution” to the problem of jihadism. 

The task is likely to become even more complicated, according to the journalist, who claims to have learned that “certain populations went to seek help from the GSIM to confront the Islamic State during the Seytenga attack.

“We are witnessing a dynamic similar to that of Mali, where civilians who feel abandoned are forced to seek help from one of the two jihadist groups,” says the journalist, an expert on jihadist movements.

To this will be added the disastrous consequences of the withdrawal of Mali from the bodies and joint force of the G5 Sahel, in protest over “manoeuvres” aimed at preventing it from taking the rotating presidency of this organization created in 2014 to fight against jihadist groups in the Sahel.

The lack of solid regional cooperation, combined with Ouagadougou’s reluctance to call on Barkhane forces in the event of an attack, could favor the arrival of the Russian private military company Wagner. 

Wassim Nasr acknowledges that the military is thinking about this option, which, in his opinion, has not had tangible and convincing results in Mali.

During a recent visit to the garrison town of Bobo Dioulasso, Lieutenant Colonel Damiba clearly stated that salvation will not come from outside. 

The current supreme commander of the armed forces wants to rely on his men to secure the national territory and submit a report to his compatriots in five months, as he promised in his April 1 speech.


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