Burkina Faso has experienced an alarming increase in the geographic spread, tempo, and complexity of attacks by Islamist militants in the past year. This trajectory of violence, in a country which appeared only five years ago to be insulated from wider regional security issues, is concerning, as the local political and security apparatus seem ill-equipped to counter the threat.
During the 2019 Operation Flintlock joint regional training exercise, the head of US Special Operations Command Africa told media that the US was considering providing intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance support, as well as “modest investments” in training and material support to Burkinabe forces given an “alarming deterioration” in the local security situation. The potential pledge of support, which comes amid a decrease in US military involvement across the rest of the continent, was made in response to requests from the Burkinabe military to combat militants operating across the shared borders with Mali and Niger.
Indeed, Burkina Faso has experienced a dramatic increase in attacks in recent years. While a handful of attacks were reported in 2015 and 2016, the number of incidents climbed to over 30 in 2017 before exponentially rising to around 200 in 2018. More than just an increase in tempo, there has been an escalation in the geographic reach, complexity, and brazenness of incidents. A notable example was the 3 March 2018 attack on the Burkinabe military headquarters and French Embassy, in the capital, Ouagadougou.
Attacks have been attributed to transnational groups, such as Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM), Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) and various Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM)-affiliated militants, as well as to a quasi-domestic group, Ansaroul Islam. This plethora of actors speaks to both the growing capabilities of and cooperation among militant groups, as well as the failure of the Burkinabe security forces to adequately respond to what appears to be a regional insurgency.
A full spectrum of attacks
Several militant groups are active in Burkina Faso, particularly in its northern and eastern regions along the borders with Mali and Niger. JNIM, formed as a merger of four Mali-based groups (namely AQIM, Ansar Al Dine, Al Mourabitoun, and the Macina Liberation Front) appears to be the regional kingpin, while ISGS and Ansaroul Islam remain focused on their local operations.
It is difficult to attribute individual attacks to each group, however, primarily because of unclear or contradictory messaging. Out of the 200-suspected militant attacks in 2018, for example, JNIM claimed responsibility for just three incidents. As a result, a breakdown of each group’s capabilities is largely speculative. Instead, it is worthwhile broadly reviewing a sample of incidents to gain an understanding of the capabilities and intent of militants in general in Burkina Faso.
In this regard, attack tactics have ranged from kidnappings, raids on villages, hit-and-run shootings at checkpoints, and roadside improvised explosive device (IED) attacks to complex attacks, involving combinations of IEDs, suicide bombs, and vehicle-borne explosives. Militants typically use a selection of small arms during incidents, including the usual batches of Kalakhnikov-variant rifles, light machine guns, rocket propelled grenades (RPGs), and heavy machine guns mounted on light vehicles.
Targets have also varied. Most attacks focus on Burkinabe military personnel and assets and are conducted in retaliation for the government’s participation in regional stabilisation efforts as well as support of France’s military presence in the Sahel. Burkina Faso participates in both the G5 Sahel regional counterterrorism force and the UN Mission in Mali (MINUSMA), driving both an anti-government and significant anti-Western/French/secular agenda. However, militants have also demonstrated the intent to target state institutions, embassies, schools, mining operations, restaurants, and religious sites. Personnel at these institutions are also targeted, whether local or foreign.
The following sample further illustrates that attacks have encompassed the entire spectrum of terrorism and insurgency in Burkina Faso.
• Example: On 15 September 2018, militants on motorcycles carried out two attacks on the Diabiga and Kompienbiga villages in Kompienga province, eastern Burkina Faso. The attackers killed eight people including a local religious leader in addition to three people belonging to the same family.
Commentary: This is a low complex attack against a soft target. It demonstrates the specific targeting of religious figures, typical of an extremist group seeking to dominate the religious spectrum or attempting to stoke ethnic tensions in its area of activity.
• Example: On 1 October, over ten suspected Islamist militants attacked a gendarmerie outpost in Lanfiera, Sourou province, northern Burkina Faso. The incident lasted more than three hours, resulting in major material damage and severely injuring at least three gendarmes.
Commentary: This engagement is a high-risk encounter, illustrating the willingness and capability of militants to directly engage security forces in a sustained, high impact attack.
• Example: On 12 December, Malian security officials announced that a terror cell comprising two Malian citizens, one Burkinabe and one Ivorian had been dismantled and the suspects arrested for plotting to carry out New Year’s Eve attacks in Bamako, Ouagadougou and Abidjan.
Commentary: While the attacks were foiled, the planned attacks demonstrate the cross-border abilities of militants and their intent to carry out coordinated, simultaneous attacks across multiple jurisdictions, particularly major cities.
• Example: On 10 January 2019, a large group of around 30 militants raided Gasseliki village in Soum Province, northern Burkina Faso. The attackers killed two people, wounded 12 others, destroyed property by setting six shops and a granary on fire, and stole cattle and motorcycles.
Commentary: An attack like this demonstrates the intent of militants to carve out some measure of territorial control and presence, particularly in the east. It is a low complexity, low-risk attack on a soft target, which might just as easily be attributed to bandits.
• Example: On 16 January 2019, unidentified assailants kidnapped a Canadian executive during a raid on a mining site in Tiabongou, Yagha province, eastern Burkina Faso. The following day he was found shot dead by local security forces in Oudalan province, northern Burkina Faso: 100km from the original incident.
Commentary: This incident demonstrates the intent and capability of militants to target foreigners and/or mineworkers as well as their geographic reach. This incident was preceded by a suspected kidnapping of a Canadian and Italian in southwest Burkina Faso in December, and the kidnapping of two foreigners – one Indian and one South African – in northern Burkina Faso in September. The two victims in the latter incident were employees of a gold mine.
• Example: On 14 February 2019, an IED hidden in a corpse dressed in military uniform, detonated, killing an army doctor and wounding two police officers. The body had been left on a road in Djibo town near the Mali border. The IED was reportedly triggered when the doctor rolled the body over.
Commentary: This attack is complex, as it required both a bait body and an IED. Notably, the attack occurred in the same week that G5 leaders were meeting in Ouagadougou to discuss further operationalisation, speaking to a willingness of militants to engage in political and psychological warfare.
The dramatic acceleration in attacks is cause for concern for Burkinabe and regional security forces. Since 2015, we can track three phases of southern militant expansion across the Sahel. The first, the spread of insurgency from northern to central Mali by groups that later formed JNIM. The second, a spread to northern Burkina Faso and western Niger by ISGS and Ansaroul Islam. And the third, the entrenchment of militants in Burkina Faso’s eastern region that began in 2018.
Militants have been able to expand southwards by exploiting weaknesses in the local security and political environment. Part of this weakness stems from the removal of President Blaise Compaoré in October 2014, or more specifically, the dismantling of the Presidential Security Regiment (RSP), and the stripping of key figures from intelligence services. This weakening of the intelligence services was a significant factor in the ability of militant groups to stage repeated, complex attacks in Ouagadougou in 2016, 2017 and 2018. The current Burkinabe security apparatus is further reported as unprepared to address or contain the recent wave of attacks, with the most capable soldiers reportedly deployed outside the country, in neighbouring Mali as part of the regional security force, MINUSMA.
Militant groups have further been able to entrench themselves in the country by capitalising on political grievances in the poorer northern and eastern regions. In these areas, the government is perceived to have failed to provide adequate social services, employment opportunities and infrastructure. In response, locals are believed to support militants, who have often provided those services meant to be rendered by the state. Opposition to the government has not only been confined to these regions however, as grievances have also mounted in the capital, with thousands, including police officers, having participated in major anti-government demonstrations since late 2018.
In response to the increase in attacks, in late December and early January, the government declared a state of emergency in several provinces. Attacks continued unabated, however, allegedly prompting the Prime Minister and 30 of his Cabinet members to resign just one month into the New Year. Despite this clear failing, Burkinabe security forces are likely to receive limited foreign support. Unlike in Mali, where UN peacekeepers and EU soldiers have been deployed to tackle Islamists militants, the crisis in Burkina Faso has emerged at a time when the US is ultimately reducing its support to the continent while France has been reluctant to enhance its military presence.
As such, there is a high likelihood of further attacks, and possibly a continuation of the escalating tempo and impact of attacks. Attacks are likely to be focused in the north and east, although the risk permeates to the central and southern regions as well. Indeed, the current US travel advisory for the country notes militants “may conduct attacks anywhere with no warning”. While attacks are likely to target security forces, as well as state institutions, foreign personnel and commercial operations are also at risk. The Burkinabe government recently advised mining companies to increase their security measures to counter this threat.
Looking briefly beyond Burkina Faso and more long-term, the spread of attacks further south, facilitated by the entrenchment of regional support networks, suggests the risk also potentially extends to neighbouring Ghana, Togo and Benin. The northern populations in all three countries are predominantly Muslim, putting these regions at risk of radicalisation. Regional Islamist militants are also likely to attempt to infiltrate these countries to attempt to capitalise on access to major West African ports to increase the opportunity for weapons trafficking.