The terrorist attacks in Ouagadougou on Friday were by no means the first in Burkina Faso, where people were gunned down in the Aziz Istanbul restaurant while dining in August or died at the Splendid Hotel, a site popular among Westerners that was targeted by car bomb attacks in January 2016.
The latest attacks, however, signal a bold shift for regional extremists and the al Qaeda-affiliated militant group JNIM (Group for the Support of Islam and Muslims), which claimed responsibility for the attacks in a message to Mauritanian news outlet Al Akhbar. The targets in the coordinated and simultaneous attacks – a headquarters of Burkinabè security forces, and the French embassy in Ouagadougou – represent the centers of diplomatic and military power aligned in the fight against terror across the Sahel region.
Prime Minister Paul Kaba Thiéba described as apocalyptic the scenes of the attacks in which 17 people died in gunfire and explosions, while another 80 were injured, more than a dozen of them critically. Among them were nine attackers, and eight military members whose identities have been released.
President Roch Marc Kaboré promised to defeat a violence he called barbaric and inhuman. “Once again, the forces of evil, the enemies of freedom, democracy, justice and prosperity have tried to sow desolation in our country,” he said in a statement expressing his condolences to the victims and families.
Yet it was Minister of Security Clément Sawadogo who noted that the car bomb attack at the military headquarters obliterated a meeting room that top G5 Sahel leaders – the internationally funded regional joint force created to combat terrorism – planned to use. The meeting location was changed before the attack occurred. It’s part of the reason why some are questioning if the terrorists had inside help.
The Associated Press reported Sunday that a former Burkinabè soldier killed in the attacks may have participated as one of the assailants. Some of the attackers at military headquarters were from Burkina Faso and wearing military uniforms, an official source said; two people from Burkina Faso were arrested. Additionally, another incident was reported early Sunday after three armed men attempted to break through a security checkpoint at the presidential palace; one was killed, while two others escaped.
Shifting sands of the Sahel
Authorities are looking for answers, but there’s likely no one reason to explain Friday’s attack – or to explain the complexities of armed actors in the Sahel. It is home to ever-shifting alliances and allegiances among Islamic extremists, the influences of ethnic and communal tensions, and in Burkina, the still-simmering tensions following the 2014 uprising that removed former president Blaise Compaoré from office after nearly three decades.
Compaoré’s name came up quickly in the aftermath of the attacks. “If he has anything to do with the attack of March 2, it would be better not to boast of it,” said RFI journalist Jean-Baptiste Placca in an interview about Compaoré – and Placca was not alone in speculation about the relationship to terror groups. The former president remains in exile in Abidjan, but intelligence analysts have reported links between long-feared members of his former security detail and the Ansarul Islam terrorists. Last week, the trial of a former commander of Compaoré’s elite detail, along with the former foreign minister, opened in Ouagadougou on charges related to a September 2015 coup attempt against the transitional government.
Ansarul Islam is distinctly Burkinabè, with a history – notably in December 2016 – of attacks on military and police units. Yet it’s just one of various jihadist groups aligned with Islamic State or Al Qaeda, including JNIM. It was formed in March 2017 under former Ansar Dine and Tuareg leader Iyad Ag Ghaly, alongside elements of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and al-Mourabitoun, and there’s recent indication that at least some of their members are aligned with Islamic State elements whose leaders released on Sunday a graphic video of the October deaths of four United States soldiers in Niger.
In their media statement, JNIM claimed that Friday’s attacks were in retaliation for the deaths of Mohamed Ould Nouini (Abou Hassan al-Ansari) – a former al-Mourabitoun commander – and other JNIM leaders in a French-led raid in Mali last month. And clearly, France was a target of Friday’s attack.
France’s footprints and the G5 Sahel force
France’s footprints in the sands of the Sahel leave clear tracks, including a military presence since 2014, the roughly 4,000 troops assigned to the Operation Barkhane mission, and its cooperation with Burkina Faso and others in the region including the United States in Niger. President Emmanuel Macron and Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian – who immediately condemned the attacks and assembled a crisis response team for embassy staff – have led the international support for the G5 Sahel force, which according to all appearances (and Sawadogo’s account) was the intentional second target of the orchestrated attack.
Just hours before the Ouagadougou terrorist attacks, JNIM in Mali released a propaganda video showing ailing French aid worker Sophie Petronin, a hostage held since 2016. The video mocks Macron, looping a snippet of his voice repeating over and over that “I will protect you.” It was yet another reminder of the West African jihadist focus on France as a target and the hostility toward their regional intervention.
It’s that regional nature of the conflict that’s most important to note. While this attack in Ouagadougou may have elements rooted in local tensions – as do the jihadist groups themselves, often flowing from and between and within ethnic and communal conflict – the Sahelian crisis has long since broadened beyond borders. There’s rarely an either-or answer anymore. The coordinated effort among the G5 Sahel nations, working to secure the region alongside international partners and strengthen governments, isn’t just the best hope for an enduring solution to extremist activity. It may be the only one.