Burkina Faso's war against militant Islamists

A close-up shot of an Islamist militant wearing a black veil which only shows his eyes Image copyright AFP
Image caption Islamist militants have long operated in the Sahel - but not in Burkina Faso until recently

The Sahel region already has its fair share of armed Islamist groups, with the likes of Boko Haram and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb turning, at one time or another, parts of Niger, Mali, Algeria and Nigeria into theatres of conflict. Could Burkina Faso be a new base for the jihadists?

Despite intense military operations throughout the region to curb the activities of the radical groups, Islamist militancy continues to grow in the Sahel.

The militants have established a front in northern Burkina Faso, disrupting normal life by repeatedly carrying out attacks in the region and far beyond.

1. Who are the Islamists behind the attacks?

Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) claimed it carried out the attacks of January 2016 which killed 30 people in Burkina Faso's capital, Ouagadougou.

Although AQIM did not say it was behind the killing of the 12 soldiers in December last year, officials believe the group was.

There are fears that the latest attack in the capital, in which at least 18 people have been killed, is the also work of one of the affiliates of al-Qaeda that are active in the Sahel region.

However, another movement, Ansarul Islam or Defenders of Islam, has emerged as the umbrella for all Islamist operations in northern Burkina Faso.

It is led by a radical imam named by officials as Ibrahim Malam Dicko.

Ansarul Islam claimed responsibility for attacks on two police stations in the northern Soum province on 27 February.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Local and foreign forces have taken the fight to Islamists in the Sahel but this has not stopped radical movements spreading

Dicko is a radical preacher originally from Burkina Faso's northern city of Djibo.

He is said to have fought in Mali in the ranks of the Mujao Islamist movement before he founded his group.

After a short spell in a Malian jail following his arrest by foreign forces in 2013, Dicko returned home and started Ansarul Islam.

Fighters who joined his new group came from the audience admiring his fiery preaching.

Dicko is now considered a public enemy and part of the state's official strategy to stem his influence is to kill him.

2. How big is the threat of Islamist groups to Burkina Faso?

This poor land-locked country in West Africa has long had its share of problems, but attacks carried out by Islamist militants against people and property are relatively new.

Image copyright EPA
Image caption The siege at the Splendid Hotel was declared over after a joint operation by local and French forces

Over the last two years, it has been rocked by a series of attacks by jihadists, with a bleak picture for the prospects of security in the country.

Recent attacks include:

  • January 2016: Islamist militants attack Ouagadougou hotel popular with foreigners. Western nationals among 30 people killed in country's deadliest attack so far.
  • December 2016: 12 soldiers killed after attack by Islamist militants in the north, near Mali border.
  • March 2017: As the capital geared up for Fespaco film festival, two police posts in the north were attacked. Three people killed.
  • March 2017: Two people kidnapped and a school torched after jihadists threaten educational establishments. In another incident a military base was locked down after being targeted by unidentified gunmen.
  • August 2017: At least 18 people killed and about 20 wounded when gunmen open fire on customers seated outside a restaurant in Ouagadougou.

There is a growing concern that Islamist militants can strike anywhere, and at any time.

3. How have Islamist militants disrupted life in Burkina Faso?

Image copyright AFP
Image caption The attacks have become a focus of the media

The repeated attacks have created a wave of panic across the country.

Many are concerned that the north is just a starting point for Ansarul Islam. They fear it will spread its tentacles further if it is not stopped.

"Many homes have been deserted. In Djibo's district 5, many homes are empty," a local told the BBC, asking not to be named for his safety.

"Economic activity has ground to a halt. We no longer have any night life. Westerners who are high-value targets have left."

Gunmen sporadically go on the rampage, looting shops and mugging people.

"When they come shooting in the air, people run away from their homes and only return when they have left," a resident of Inata village told the BBC.

"They don't always kill. They often loot. We are in panic. My local school has closed. All schools, including madrassas have closed in Soum province."

Locals say there are more soldiers operating in the area. However, they say Islamists have an advantage over them because they know the lay of the land.

4. What's most troubling for officials in Burkina Faso?

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Members of the disbanded presidential elite unit are thought to be fighting alongside the militants

Ansarul Islam movement is the first home-grown Islamist group in Burkina Faso.

That alone is troubling enough for President Rock Marc Christian Kabore's government but it is not the scariest thing about the threat posed by this radical group.

Intelligence officials believe some ex-soldiers of the presidential elite regiment, the RSP, are lending them a hand.

Officials were recently quoted by a Malian newspaper as saying that they intercepted a communication between an RSP fugitive, Boubacar Sawadogo, and Ansarul Islam's leader.

The intercept confirmed what the government had long suspected - that former RSP members are taking part in attacks by jihadists both in Mali and Burkina Faso.

For more than 27 years, the RSP had been a nightmare for democrats in Burkina Faso. It was set up by former President Blaise Compaore for his personal security.

The regiment was notorious for operating outside official boundaries.

However, after the uprising which ousted Mr Compaore in 2014, it suddenly found itself without a clear purpose and felt its existence threatened.

In a bid for survival, members staged a short-lived coup against the transitional government before being forced to hand over power by neighbouring countries.

Fleeing justice afterwards, many RSP members including Boubacar Sawadogo took to a clandestine life.

Given the reported bizarre alliance with Islamist militants in the north, the RSP nightmare has now taken on a new form.

5. What is being done about the Islamist threat?

Image copyright AFP
Image caption The government has appointed a new army chief (pictured), but its response to Ansarul Islam has been seen as indecisive

Most Burkinabes would tend to say that what the government is doing to combat Ansarul Islam is far from enough.

There is a sense of frustration on the streets of Ouagadougou and social media forums that the state's response has not been decisive.

Officials have repeatedly condemned the attacks but barely did more than saying they are taking steps. Restructuring the Defence and Security Ministries is the only concrete measure that has been taken, and critics say it is insignificant.

The government's hands are, however, tied by a lack of resources, both human and financial.

Following the attacks during Fespaco in March, officials appeared to have come up with a much clearer plan.

Burkina Faso is to withdraw its contingents currently deployed abroad as part of peacekeeping missions, such as in Sudan and Mali.

It will then reassign the returning soldiers to the fight against Ansarul Islam in the north.

Burkina Faso will also benefit from the introduction of a multinational force run by African nations to target jihadist forces in the Sahel region, but the new force will not be operational until later this year.

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