Burkina Faso: Front-line against Jihadism in West Africa

Burkina Faso: Front-line against Jihadism in West Africa

Burkina Faso’s strategic geographical position makes it crucial in the fight against extremism in West Africa, but the country is failing to contain the threat. Despite coordinated efforts, national and regional forces have been unable to counter the expansion of jihadist groups towards the Ivory Coast, Ghana, Benin, and Togo.

The First Line of Defense  

Since the 2011 Libyan crisis, extremist organisations have crossed the Sahara desert and propelled the insurgency in Northern Mali. In the vacuum of state authority, jihadist groups have spread across the whole Sahel region, impacting Niger, Chad, Nigeria and the Central African Republic, and are now moving further south. This has had immense repercussions on the entire West Africa security architecture. Burkina Faso is on the front-line against this jihadist expansion. Lying between two of the most unstable areas of the Sahel region – namely Central Mali and Western Niger – Burkina Faso is plagued with ethnic and religious conflict.

Internal Grievances, External Implications  

Burkina Faso has seen a dramatic spike in jihadist attacks since the beginning of 2019. Schools, police stations, hotels, public buildings and, more recently, churches have been the main targets of extremists. “Jihadist groups are gaining ground bit by bit, forcing state officials and state sovereignty out of several rural areas and increasingly some cities”, says Louis Audet-Gosselin of the Canadian Network for Research on Terrorism. Moreover, the regional security initiative, namely the G5 Sahel, has proved ineffective in tackling terrorist organisations.

As a consequence, extremist groups have taken advantage of the porous borders between Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso to consolidate their power on the ground. Insecurity in northern Burkina Faso is disrupting economic and social stability, as shops have been consistently looted and more than 1,000 schools have been closed. Moreover, terrorist attacks have caused around 500 casualties across the country since 2015. Relief organisations indicate that 1.2 million people are in urgent need of humanitarian assistance as of May 2019.

There are three leading organisations operating in Burkina Faso. One is Ansar Al-Islam, Salafi-jihadist group founded by the radical preacher Malam Ibrahim Dicko, which claimed responsibility for several attacks against military targets and foreigners. There are then Jama’t Nusrat al-Islam wa al-Muslimin (GSIM), the branch of Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb headed by Iyad Ag Ghali, which operates mainly in Mali, and the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara, a group led by Al-Sahrawi who pledged its allegiance to the Islamic State in 2016. These two groups are behind the high-level attacks against the French Embassy and the headquarters of the Army General Staff in 2018. Public authorities have shown minimal capability in the fight against these jihadist groups. Instead of seeking external support, President Roch Kaboré replaced the Army Chief of Staff in 2017 and numerous local governors in the areas affected by terrorist organisations without meaningful results. 

The crisis in northern Burkina Faso is in part a result of spillover from the grave and long-standing crisis in Mali; however, it also has local roots. The Province lacks any substantial infrastructure and public services and is inhabited by a marginalised Fulani minority. Furthermore, mining activities have not brought any benefits to the local communities, which exacerbates sentiments of disenfranchisement. Against this backdrop, Dicko could quickly spread his discourse among the disgruntled population of Soum. Ansar al-Islam skilfully adopted a mix of coercion, appeal to Fulani’s grievances, and provision of services – such as justice – and to harness popular support.

Jihadists’ appeals to local grievances became even more active after the state’s violent counter-terrorism campaigns.  Burkinabe public officers have been responsible for numerous abuses against Fulanis in the past, and the population was further alienated by the recent wave of repression. The community is also deeply frustrated with corrupt traditional chiefs, linked to central power through patron-client relations. By eliminating traditional and religious leaders, Ansar al-Islam has liberated the more impoverished strata of the population from some practices, including requiring payments to allow marriage ceremonies.

The Broader Threat

Burkina Faso’s southern border touches Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Benin and Togo. Several attacks have occurred along Burkina Faso’s southern border in 2018 and, in May 2019, two French tourists have been kidnapped in Benin. These countries have remained relatively calm so far, with the notable exception of the 2016 Grand Bassam attack in Côte d’Ivoire, which caused 16 casualties. Nevertheless, Muslim minorities live in the northern regions of these countries and enjoy ties with the Hausa ethnolinguistic group located in Northern Nigeria. The marginal role these minorities in their respective societies could play into the hands of jihadist preachers. The Muslim-Christian divide reflects a socio-economic imbalance which sees the former weaker than the latter. In addition to that, climate changes are already impacting local livelihoods through persisting droughts.

Undoubtedly, the jihadist wave that has swept West Africa since 2012 is moving south. Terrorist organisations operating across the Sahel are consolidating their power in northern and eastern Burkina Faso. The main risk centres around the countries of the Gulf of Guinea. If Burkina Faso fails to contain jihadist groups, there is the real possibility that the country becomes a haven to launch operations in the countries like Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Benin and Togo. The destabilisation of the states looking out on the Gulf of Guinea would pose a severe threat to regional and global security as terrorist organisations could reach strategic ports on the Atlantic Ocean, with severe repercussions on local and global security.


Categories: Africa, Security

About Author

Corrado Cok

Corrado Čok is an MA graduate in conflict resolution from King's College London with a background in international relations. He recently worked for Independent Diplomat - diplomatic advisory group - in Brussels, where he supported the Malian and Yemeni peace processes at the EU level. Before King's, he conducted economic research at the Italian Embassy in Paris and volunteered with two human rights NGOs in Morocco. Corrado has expertise in Sub-Saharan Africa and the MENA region; he speaks English, French, Italian and is studying Arabic.