Posted on: 19th January 2016
When news broke on the evening of 15 January of an attack on a hotel in Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso, many people's first response was to scramble for a map to locate the country. Burkina Faso, which usually gets little media attention, occupies a strategic, landlocked area of West Africa's Sahel region. It separates the often-lush Gulf of Guinea nations of Cote D'Ivoire, Ghana, Togo, and Benin from the arid Saharan ones of Mali and Niger. Outside of political upheaval in October 2014 that culminated in the removal of long-time president Blaise Compaoré, Burkina rarely makes it into the headlines.
The country plays several important regional roles, however, which the weekend's attack upset. Four militants besieged a café and the Splendid Hotel in Ouagadougou, killing patrons indiscriminately, including the Ukrainian and Italian proprietors. After storming the Splendid Hotel, the attackers took 216 guests hostage. Burkinabe and French special forces broke the siege on Saturday morning. Twenty-eight people of 18 different nationalities were killed along with all four of the attackers. A further two victims later died of their injuries and French sources claimed several days after the attack that the total number of attackers had in fact been six, three of whom remained on the run. Survivors told the media how the attackers specifically targeted white and Western people. Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) claimed responsibility for the attack, stating it was revenge against "France and the disbelieving West," intended to "punish the cross-worshippers for their crimes against our people in Central Africa, Mali and other lands of the Muslims."
While Burkina has not been involved in ongoing regional struggles against religious extremists in the Lake Chad Basin and Mali, the country is host to two international military bases, one American, one French, and a not insignificant Western military presence. An attack like this should not, therefore, have been wholly unexpected. As with November's attack on the Radisson Blu Hotel in Bamako, Mali, the café, run by foreigners, and the Burkina hotel, frequented by international visitors, were prime targets.
AQIM's attack targeted the foreign presence in Burkina.
The style of attack – a small group of isolated fighters seeking to wreak maximum damage on civilian and international targets – indicates organisation and coordination. However, it does not necessarily point to an established domestic presence or support base. This attack was spillover from the ongoing insecurity in Mali; it targeted the international presence in Burkina rather than the manifestation of a new front. That said, we can't rule out the possibility that such an attack – or the kidnapping of an Australian couple that occurred along the northern border with Mali while the hotel siege was ongoing - will not reoccur.
France, Mali, and the UN mission in Mali have concentrated their efforts on disrupting militant activities in northern Mali, which was occupied in 2012 by Tuareg separatists and then by Islamist extremists. Many of the extremist militants have passed behind the back of local and international forces concentrating on those separatists, to regroup in the centre of the country around Mopti and push further south. This has brought them close to the eastern border with Burkina, and (road quality permitting) within driving distance of the capital. This also leaves Burkinabe criminal networks open to potential infiltration by Mali-based militant groups, which often act as criminal and smuggling networks themselves. This would provide domestic logistical and material support for such attacks. Further, the international forces based in Burkina rely on the relative stability of the country to launch their activities on its less than stable neighbours. Undermining that stability would undermine the regional effort against extremism and terrorism.
Changing objectives and alliegances make predicting attacks difficult.
The group claiming responsibility for the hotel attack gives another indication of the complexity of relationships between militants active in the region. AQIM released a statement saying it was behind the attack. A formerly independent al-Qaeda affiliate and AQIM offshoot, al-Mourabitoun, also claimed responsibility for the hotel siege. Al-Mourabitoun is itself a combination of the Malian jihadi group MUJAO and militants loyal to the smuggler-turned-jihadi Mokhtar Belmokhtar, who became famous for smuggling cigarettes across the Sahara (and was possibly killed in 2015). These are the same groups that claimed responsibility for November's Radisson Blu Hotel attack in Bamako. Another Malian extremist group with ties to AQIM, Ansar Dine, has claimed that the Australian couple was kidnapped by 'The Emirate of the Sahara,' which is understood to be a northern Mali AQIM branch. The changing relationships between groups, as well as focus of their activities shifting between smuggling, jihad, and criminality makes differentiating the groups and their objectives, and anticipating their movements, extremely difficult.
As much of the world remains focused on ISIS activity in the Middle East, al-Qaeda-affiliated or inspired groups continue to wage jihad through different tactics – focused more on 'hit-and-run' attacks rather than attempting to seize and hold territory. The Burkina attack is an indication that al-Qaeda retains the capacity to carry out attacks despite the presence of local and international troops. It is also a reminder of the potential support criminal and smuggling networks present to militant groups.