An attack by gunmen in the centre of Burkina Faso’s capital, Ouagadougou, killed 18 and wounded several others outside a Turkish restaurant on Sunday night. The two assailants were then killed by security forces. While there has not been an immediate claim for the assault, there are several groups in the Sahel region who could have been behind it.
Burkina Faso is part of the Sahel region and is one of the poorest countries in the world. It neighbours Mali, where Islamist extremist groups have been active since 2012. It is also close to Niger and Mauratinia, which have also seen jihadi assaults. Since 2015, Islamist militant groups have increasingly targeted Burkina Faso. The most notable attack was in January 2016 when al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and al-Murabitoun gunmen opened fire in the Splendid Hotel and the Cappuccino restaurant, only 200 meters further along Kwame Nkrumah Avenue – the scene of Sunday’s incident. More than 170 people were taken hostage and 30 were killed, making it Burkina Faso’s most deadly attack.
In March this year, other smaller scale attacks occurred. A police post was assaulted and a school was torched. In addition to perpetrating attacks, Islamist militants have also been threatening teachers to replace their curriculum with a Quranic education system that follows a strict interpretation of Sharia law. From January 2017 onwards, dozens of teachers abandoned their positions. This assault on the national curriculum is reflected in other jihadi groups, including Boko Haram in Nigeria.
The January 2016 assault was conducted by a small group of isolated fighters who sought to wreak maximum damage. Although it was relatively well organised, it did not point to an established domestic jihadi presence, or a sophisticated support base. The ‘hit-and-run’ approach to attacks, as opposed to the seizing and holding of territory, is common in Burkina Faso and is most likely caused by a spill over of jihadi-related activity from Mali.
The two groups that carried out the January 2016 attack, AQIM and al-Mourabitoun, formed a coalition along with Ansar Dine and Macina Liberation Front in March 2017. The new alliance, based in Mali, is called Jamaat Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimeen (loosely translated as the ‘Defence Group of Islam and Muslims’). It claimed an attack in Burkina Faso last month. Although the alliance was announced earlier this year, these al-Qaeda-linked groups have sporadically coordinated over specific attacks. In March 2016, AQIM and al-Murabitoun demonstrated their ability to conduct assaults further afield as seen in the coordinated attack in Ivory Coast on the Grand-Bassam, killing nineteen people. Despite being based in Mali, evidently the alliance is capable of carrying out activity across the border.
Ansarul Islam is also active in Burkino Faso and is another likely suspect for the incident in Ouagadougou. The group is Burkina Faso’s first home-grown Islamist group and is led by a radical imam called Ibrahim Malam Dicko from Burkina Faso’s city of Djibo. Ansarul Islam is active in the north of the country and has emerged as the umbrella group for most Islamist operations in that region, including targeted killings, assassination attempts, and attacks against the army. These have significantly increased over the last year.
ISIS-linked Islamic State in Greater Sahara could also have been behind the assault on the restaurant. The group operates in the border region between Mali and Burkina Faso, with one attack claimed in Niger in October 2016. This group is less likely to have been responsible because it is largely inactive and has maintained a low-level of exposure. However, Adnan Abu Walid al-Sahrawi, the group’s leader, is reportedly still capable of coordinating incidents like that of yesterday, and has the intent to do so.
This multifaceted threat from jihadi groups in the Sahel region has caused the impacted countries to unite in response. A multinational force run by African nations, including Burkina Faso, was set up to target Islamist extremists in the region. The force backed by the French military will be in operation later this year. French President Emmanuel Macron, who visited the region earlier this year, has pledged to help address the countries facing this challenge in the Sahel.
Whoever perpetrated the attack, it seems Burkina Faso is under an increased and complex threat from Islamist extremism in the region. Although the jihadi groups vary in size, location, and capacity, they all demonstrate the capacity to carry out an attack like that of Sunday night. This is aided more so by the alliances that have been witnessed in recent years between the al-Qaeda-linked groups. As jihadi groups unite to cause as much damage as possible through pooled resources, and as countries unite in opposition, the battle may become even more intense. It is unclear if the recent incident was related to Burkina Faso’s involvement in regional counter-terrorism efforts, but its engagement, which might now increase, could further its appeal as a target for jihadis.