Since early 2018, security has significantly deteriorated in Burkina Faso. The threat posed by jihadist groups, previously affecting the northern areas of the country (bordering Mali) mostly, has gradually spread to the eastern areas (on the border with Niger) and to the south-eastern areas (border with Benin and Togo). A sign of this progressive deterioration is the decision of the local authorities to declare a state of emergency as of 31 December 2018 in the entire Sahel and Est regions and in the provinces of Kossi and Sourou (both in Boucle du Mouhoun region), in Koulpélogo province (Centre-Est region), Kénédougou province (Hauts-Bassins region) and Lorum region (Nord region).
While the group Jamat Nusrat al-islam wal-Muslimin (JNIM) – an al-Qaeda branch active in part of the Sahel, has been confirmed to be present in the north – we still do not know the group that is actually responsible for the asymmetric operations in the east. None of the attacks carried out in those areas have been claimed. Such terrorist operations are mostly likely the work of the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS), although we cannot rule out the possibility that a mixed group of local and transnational terrorists was responsible for the attacks.
Since 2014, the country has gradually become a recruitment area and logistic hub for jihadist groups in the Sahel region. The growing insecurity has resulted not only from the infiltration of militants from neighbouring countries (in particular from Mali), but also by the local security forces being unable to effectively counteract terrorism.
While in 2016-2017 the country was increasingly used as a logistics base and transit area for terrorists active in the region, as well as for arms and explosives trafficking, since 2018 Burkina Faso has gradually become a direct target for jihadist asymmetric operations.
In 2018 alone, there were about 64 asymmetric attacks throughout the country, a sharp increase compared to the 32 attacks in 2017 and 13 in 2016. With reference to fatalities, although civilian deaths decreased between 2017 and 2018 (53 in 2017, 24 in 2018), military fatalities significantly increased (7 in 2017, 74 in 2018). This data shows how the JNIM intends to weaken foreign military presence in the Sahel area and undermine the national armed forces acting as part of multinational operations.
This increasing trend can also be observed if we compare the number of asymmetric operations in the first 4 months of 2019 with the number of attacks in the same period of 2018 (the number of attacks rose from 16 in 2018 to 37 in 2019, up 131%). In this same period, there was a significant increase in the number of civilian deaths (from 6 to 55, around + 800%). If confirmed, this data could mark a change in the strategies of the terrorist groups active in the country.
In 2016-2017, attacks mainly hit the north of the country (Soum and Oudalan provinces, Sahel Region), on the border with Mali, and were mostly the work of Malian groups.
The gradual increase in violence in northern Burkina Faso is closely linked to security simultaneously deteriorating in the central and southern regions of Mali and, above all, to jihadists leaving Mali due to pressure from the French troops. This progressive relocation has led to an increase in Malian jihadists infiltrating Burkina Faso due to both inadequate border control and the morphology of the northern areas (mostly covered in forests).
Not only has the infiltration of Malian jihadists progressively resulted in the creation of a local jihadist Burkinabe faction – the homegrown group Ansaroul Islam – but it has also helped the al-Qaeda network stabilise and become well-structured in Burkina Faso. This is also shown by the 18 September 2018 video in which al-Qaeda officially announced it had taken root in Burkina Faso. Starting at least on that day, Burkina Faso can no longer be considered as a mere logistical base for Malian militants, but is now officially a country terrorist groups use for direct operations too.
A clear sign of the sharp security deterioration and the rising jihadist threat in the country are the two 2 March 2018 simultaneous JNIM-claimed attacks on the French embassy and the armed forces headquarters in the capital Ouagadougou. The attacks are a sign of enhanced operational capabilities of the groups active in Burkina Faso, which are now not only able to hit high-profile targets, but also to tactically plan coordinated attacks. Besides, the said attacks have raised doubts about the possibility that the JNIM may have received useful intelligence from sources inside the security forces to plan the operation. This is confirmed by some army members having been arrested on 11 March and by the resulting trials and proceedings.
Since February 2018, the terrorist threat has also increased significantly in the eastern part of the country, particularly in Séno, Tapoa, Gourma provinces bordering Niger, and in the south-eastern part of the border with Togo and Benin.
We can say that, once again under pressure from the counter-terrorism operations of the Sahel G5 Multinational Force and France’s Operation Barkhane in Mali and northern Burkina Faso, a number of jihadists have found a free hand to the east, in the areas bordering Niger and increasingly in the eastern forests. Plus, the eastern region is located right in the transhumance corridors used by the Fulani ethnic group, and this may have helped the movement and progressive infiltration of terrorist groups.
In Burkina Faso, like in other areas of the Sahel region, jihadist terrorism is also linked to ethnic minorities, with particular reference to the Fulani community. The Fulani people have long been accused by the Mossi ethnic group, which is the majority in the country (about 53% of the total population), of complicity and collaboration with the jihadist groups active in the eastern region.
None of the attacks in the east has officially been claimed to date. It is mostly believed that the attacks were the work of the Islamic State in the Greater Sahar (ISGS), as the method of operation is consistent with the ISGC (in particular, the type of bombs used, the ambush tactics, the coordination of simultaneous attacks). If confirmed, this would mean that a new variable is now part of terrorist activity in Burkina Faso, linked to the simultaneous presence of al-Qaeda and IS-tied groups. Besides, the “external” ISGS component may have joined forces with a mixture of homegrown cells, thus giving rise to a hybrid militant group. In general and regardless of who is actually responsible for the attacks in the east, the method of operation shows that local groups can now rely on better operational capabilities, probably learned on the ground in Mali and more generally in the Sahel region. The growing Islamic State presence on the ground and the Daesh’s increasing interest in Burkina Faso is confirmed by the 29 April 2019 video released by al-Furqan Foundation: the video shows Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi praising the mujahideen in Burkina Faso and their loyalty to the “Caliphate”.
In the eastern regions, the progressive territorial expansion of jihadist groups has been helped by the almost complete lack of direct state and security force control, the morphology of the territory and the socio-economic condition of the region, which is among the poorest in the country.
In general, the Burkinabe security and police forces are absolutely lacking in terms of training and equipment to effectively respond to jihadist threats. Despite the technical support and the redevelopment process started in the past few years with France’s financial and logistical support, the situation does not seem likely to improve in the short to medium term.
It is right because the local armed forces are chronically weak that native self-defence militias called Koglweogo have been created in different areas of the country, and in particular in the eastern areas (traditionally affected by banditry). While they initially acted in aid of the national police to repress crime, such groups have started acting more and more the same way as both police forces and courts, competing with legitimate state institutions.
Especially in the east, the central government tends to delegate the management of security to such self-defence groups, because the terrorist threat is underestimated in the east and the few police personnel available have been redeployed to the northern regions of the country.
In addition to these militias, traditional groups of hunters called Dozo are also active in some areas of the country, particularly in the west and south-west; like the self-defence groups, the Dozo militants have progressively started engaging in anti-crime activities. The simultaneous presence of self-defence militias and hunter groups has sometimes caused Dozo and Koglweogo people to clash to defend their respective areas of operation and influence.
SHORT TO MEDIUM-TERM SCENARIO
In such a complicated security environment, the country will have to face a number of important challenges in the short to medium term. With reference to the security forces, let’s focus on their actual ability to respond to the terrorist threat. Despite international aid coming in particular from France, we do not believe that the situation could improve in the short to medium term such as to allow the Burkinabe military to effectively protect the country. Besides, as shown by 2 March 2018 attacks, inadequate operational capabilities are often coupled with the pervasive corruption that the country’s security forces are rife with.
There is also another issue to be dealt with, namely relations between self-constituted militias and the regular army. Although they have reached remarkable results in the fight against crime, the Koglweogo militants would not be effective without cooperating and liaising with the regular and international forces in the event security were to further escalate.
One of the main challenges that the Burkinabe leadership will be faced with in the short to medium term is how to deal with the requests of local groups, which are slowly and dangerously getting close to jihadist groups (like in the case of the Fulani ethnic group). After all, any steps by the government in this regard will necessarily collide with the opposite objective of al-Qaeda-related terrorist groups in the country, which are growingly interested in capitalising on Fulani discontent to increase their own the ranks. In a video released in November 2018, the leaders of the main jihadist groups of the Sahel area (Iyad ag Ghali, former leader of Ansar Eddine, Amadou Kouffa, former leader of Katibat Macina, and Yahya Abuel Hamman – also known as Djamel Okacha – leader of AQIM in Sub-Saharan Africa) called on the Fulani people throughout central and western Africa to join the jihad. Amadou Kouffa is the only one to speak in the video; he expresses himself in Fulani language, as the only Fulani representative among the three leaders. According to a number of sources, at least some Fulani members have already radicalised, so much so that they can be considered as part of a specific jihadist ethnic-based faction.
Lastly, we should focus on the relationship between the different terrorist groups in the country: if confirmed, the increasingly strong and active ISGS presence in the east could lead to higher tensions between Islamic State and al-Qaeda affiliates in the medium term for control over portions of the country.
In conclusion, terrorist incidents could increase in the short to medium term, with both homegrown and transnational terrorist groups growing stronger and more active, particularly in the east of Burkina Faso. Such strengthening, which is partly due to the relocation of jihadist militants from Mali and northern Burkina Faso, could be helped by Fulani militants joining active terrorist groups in the country. Potential greater convergence between ethnic demands and jihadist insurgency could, indeed, lead to an even faster security deterioration in the country at the hands of the various jihadist terrorist groups of the Sahel area.