Explained | The rise of Islamist militancy in Burkina Faso

In June last year, mass graves of 160 people were found in the northern Burkina Faso village of Solhan after militants had raided it, in the worst attack so far

July 15, 2022 11:43 am | Updated 03:20 pm IST

File photo of the damage outside the Cappuccino cafe in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, following a jihadist attack by al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) late on January 15.

File photo of the damage outside the Cappuccino cafe in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, following a jihadist attack by al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) late on January 15. | Photo Credit: ISSOUF SANOGO

The story so far: At least 34 people were killed in two attacks launched by suspected Islamist militants in the west African country of Burkina Faso, reports showed on July 4. In the northwest of the country, 22 people, including children, were reportedly killed earlier in the Kossi province while 12 people died in northern Burkina Faso’s Yatena province on Saturday. This came after a deadly attack in mid-June when gunmen killed more than 79 people in the northern Burkina Faso town of Seytenga, though multiple estimates pegged the death toll at over 100.

Burkina Faso remained largely free of terrorist attacks despite the rise of extremist militancy in the neighbouring countries till recently. But since 2015, the country has seen a spate of attacks carried out by armed groups associated with the al-Qaeda and Islamic State on civilians and security forces, replacing Mali as the epicentre of terrorist violence in the Sahel in recent years. According to a United Nations report from June this year, violent clashes have internally displaced 1.9 million people in Burkina Faso.

Burkina Faso has been seeing attacks mostly from FLM, Anasaroul Islam, JNIM and the ISGS (as of 2019)

Burkina Faso has been seeing attacks mostly from FLM, Anasaroul Islam, JNIM and the ISGS (as of 2019)

Tracing the rise of militancy in Burkina Faso

With a population of around 20 million, Burkina Faso is bordered by Mali to the North and West, and Niger to the Northeast. Burkina Faso had been relatively peaceful and stable before 2016, with relative ethnic and religious harmony.

In 2014, popular protests forced Blaise Campaore, the country’s President of 27 years, to step down after he attempted to tweak the laws to extend his term. Mr. Campaore, a former soldier, had assumed office in a military coup in 1987. In 2015, Burkinabes elected Roch Marc Christian Kabore as their second-ever civilian President and the first to have come to power through elections since the country got independence from French rule in 1960.

However, in January this year, Mr. Kabore was ousted in a military coup, citing his failure to quell Islamist militant attacks that have afflicted the northern and eastern parts of the country for more than six years. Lieutenant-Colonel Paul-Henri Sandaogo Damiba, who led the coup, became the President of the country, vowing to make the country’s security his priority.

The first terrorist attack took place in the capital city of Ouagadougou in January 2016, where militants killed 30 people, including foreigners, in an attack on the Splendid Hotel and Cappuccino Cafe. The attack was claimed by the outfit Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the north African branch of the al-Qaeda.

2016 also saw the formation of Burkina Faso’s first native extremist group, the Ansar ul Islam (also spelt Ansarul Islam or Ansaroul Islam), meaning defenders of Islam, founded by Malam Ibrahim Dicko, a preacher from the northern province of Soum. Mr. Dicko attempted to win the support of the disadvantaged sections of Burkinabe society, promoting equality between classes and challengingsocial stratification among Burkinabe ethnic groups. Mr. Dicko was reported to also have worked with Islamist militants in neighbouring Mali who captured certain northern towns in 2012.

Ansar ul Islam publicly announced its formation after carrying out its first attack in December 2016, on a joint camp of Burkinabe security forces and the French counterterrorism gendarmerie forces.

The beginning of these attacks also coincided with the spread of militancy to the south of Mali. The AQIM, an Algerian-origin group which later expanded operations to Mali, later merged with two Mali-based extremist groups- Ansar Dine and Al-Mourabitoun to form the Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (JNIM), better known as the Group for Supporting Islam and Muslims.

The JNIM has since carried out multiple attacks including the 2018 attack on the French Embassy in Ouagadougou and the headquarters of Burkina Faso’s military.

Another group most active in the East is the Islamic State-Greater Sahara (ISGS), an independent offshoot of the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP). ISGS, wanting to establish a caliphate in the Sahel, has carried out multiple attacks on security forces in Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger.

The number of militant attacks has increased drastically since 2016. Al Jazeera quoted data by the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED), showing that there were 1,315 incidents of organised political violence, including against civilians and security forces in Burkina Faso last year, double the figure in 2020. As per the ACLED data, from 81 reported casualties in 2016, deaths increased to 2,354 in 2021, more than the militant violence-related toll in the neighbouring Mali, where the conflict has its roots. Just this year, 530 violent incidents occurred in the country between February and May.

In the worst attack to hit the country last year, mass graves of 160 people were found in the northern Burkina Faso village of Solhan after militants had raided it in June.

What led to the growth of the militancy?

Attacks in Burkina Faso started when extremist militancy from neighbouring Mali spilt over its borders. The crisis in Mali began in 2012 when the marginalised Tuareg population rebelled against the government; the rebels were backed by extremist groups such as AQIM and Ansar Dine. The Tuaregs later broke their alliance with the militant groups due to their Islamist push. Despite foreign interventions, militant outfits took control of large parts of Mali and extended their operations to other countries in the Sahel region like Burkina Faso.

After Mr. Campaore was ousted in 2014, the political class and military were left divided, leaving Burkina Faso’s borders susceptible to infiltration by Malian militant groups.

Ansar ul Islam and JNIM also have members belonging to the Fulani minority, who are Muslim and often engage in cattle herding. Burkinabe security forces have reportedly targeted the Fulani population in particular on multiple occasions. Experts indicate that the self-defence groups that have formed as a result of the extremist violence have also committed abuses against Fulanis.

According to a 2022 report by the United States Congressional Research Service (CRS), groups like Ansar ul Islam and JNIM in the north of the country have exploited “ethnic tensions and perceptions of state neglect, as well as grievances over corruption, patronage politics, social stratification, and land disputes.”.

Analysts also point out that the extremist groups have spurred tensions between the previously co-existing Muslim and Christian communities. According to the CRS, the dominance of civil service and administrative positions by minority Christians have also contributed to the tensions.

The humanitarian crisis in Burkina Faso

The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), a 15-member regional grouping of which Burkina Faso is a member , suspended Burkina Faso post the coup. Reutersreported on July 4 that economic sanctions imposed by ECOWAS had now been lifted.

Per ECOWAS estimates, the Burkinabe administration controls just 60 per cent of the country’s territory, with the rest being out of state control. The economic integration body has given the country’s military two years to transition to democracy.

As per UN data, the violence between extremist groups and security forces, as well as attacks on civilians have left 1.9 million Burkinabe internally displaced.

The UN noted that just last month, the violent attack in Seytenga that left 79 people dead, resulted in huge internal displacement. Almost 16,000 people, mostly women and children, fled the attackers and took refuge in the town of Dori which already hosts a large displaced population. The UN said the situation could lead to competition for resources such as water and pasture land.

According to Human Rights Watch and Refugees International, armed non-state actors, state-backed militias, and security forces have been accused of several cases of human rights abuse against civilians. Security forces have been accused of extrajudicial killings and violent persecution based on ethnic lines, especially against the Fulanis. Armed militants have allegedly committed sexual violence, widespread pillaging, summary executions, and several killings.

The Associated Press, citing aid groups in the country, reported that the extremists have changed their strategy in the recent past, now carrying out the destruction of water resources, endangering clean water supply and sanitation. The destruction of 32 facilities this year has decreased water access for almost 300,000 people.

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