Terrorism Threatens a Former Oasis of Stability in West Africa

Burkina Faso managed to avoid the violence that plagued its neighbors, but a combination of poverty, unstable neighbors, and weak security forces has opened the door for extremists.

Soldiers carry the coffin of one of the victims during the funeral ceremony of the seven members of the security forces killed after their vehicle struck a roadside bomb in eastern Burkina Faso, on Aug. 31, 2018 in Ouagadougou. (Stringer/AFP/Getty Images)
Soldiers carry the coffin of one of the victims during the funeral ceremony of the seven members of the security forces killed after their vehicle struck a roadside bomb in eastern Burkina Faso, on Aug. 31, 2018 in Ouagadougou. (Stringer/AFP/Getty Images)

Burkina Faso’s government resigned on Jan. 18, following a series of terrorist attacks. President Roch Marc Christian Kaboré, who has led the country since 2015, announced a new prime minister, Christophe Joseph Marie Dabiré, three days later. But the attacks have continued: On Jan. 28, terrorists killed four soldiers and injured five others on the border with Mali, the day after terrorists killed 10 civilians.

Since December, several high-profile terrorist incidents have taken place in Burkina Faso, including the kidnapping and killing of a Canadian mining worker and the kidnapping of two humanitarian staff. This terrorist activity is taking place at the same time as a growing humanitarian emergency in the country, with the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs estimating that 1.2 million people require humanitarian assistance. If the international community and aid agencies do not act now, terrorism could spread to other countries across West Africa, destabilizing the region.

The combination of poverty, ineffective efforts to combat domestic terrorism, and a lack of basic government services has been conducive to the spread of terrorism. While many of the attacks have historically taken place in the north of the country, on the border with Mali, over the last year a growing insurgency has taken root in the country’s east. As the violence increases, there is an urgent need for a more comprehensive international effort to combat terrorism in Burkina Faso and to stop it from spreading into neighboring states such as Benin, Ghana, and Togo.

Since January 2016, there have been over 200 attacks in the country. According to the International Crisis Group, the rise is partly attributable to the gradual deterioration in security since the popular revolution that overthrew longtime President Blaise Compaoré  in 2014, after 27 years in power, in part because the Compaoré regime had made deals with various militant and armed groups to stop them from conducting attacks in Burkina Faso; many believe when his reign ended any such truces ended, too.

Details of the groups with which the former leader allegedly made deals are not available for public consumption, but al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb has been active in Burkina Faso for several years and has perpetrated some of the most lethal attacks, including the attack against the Splendid Hotel in the capital, Ouagadougou, in January 2016.

External factors are also driving the surge in terrorism. Terrorist groups that were previously involved in the insurgency in Mali have moved across the border into Burkina Faso. This includes Ansarul Islam, which is responsible for many of the incidents taking place in Soum province in north of the country.

The Group for the Support of Islam and Muslims (known as JNIM), which is affiliated with al Qaeda, has also become increasingly active in the country and claimed to be responsible for the March 2018 attack against the French Embassy in Ouagadougou and the General Staff of Burkina Faso’s armed forces.

Meanwhile, the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) has a growing footprint across Burkina Faso and is capitalizing on support from the local population, many of whom live in poverty and lack health care and education. Attacks from such groups are beginning to drive internal displacement of the population.

These groups are flourishing because of the underlying conditions in Burkina Faso, with insufficient military capabilities—particularly from the air—and a lack of trained defense and law enforcement officials, high levels of poverty, and poor services, particularly health care. The country remains one of the poorest in the world, with just under half of the population living below the World Bank international poverty line of $1.90 a day.

While efforts are being made to improve the situation, the country’s security apparatus relies heavily on local vigilante groups such as the Koglweogo, who have effectively served as local law enforcement in the center and east of the country since they emerged in 2015. The Koglweogo operate in areas where the state’s writ does not reach, and they do not answer to the government.

While in many cases they are appreciated by the local population for enforcing security, there have been incidents in which they have fueled unrest or tensions, in part because they have no accountability to the state. The availability of fundamental services such as health care—particularly in rural areas­­—is minimal, with high mortality rates for children and comparatively high rates of malaria. Burkina Faso is the world’s 13th-largest contributor of troops to U.N. peacekeeping missions—because it generates revenue—but urgently needs these soldiers back home to concentrate on improving domestic security.

As a result, the terrorism threat has expanded from the border with Mali to other parts of the country. The Est region, one of the 13 administrative regions in the country, is experiencing a sudden increase in terrorist attacks in one of West Africa’s best-known nature reserves. In what appears to be the beginning of an insurgency, attacks have occurred against local government officials, schools and teachers. ISGS has established a foothold in the east and is reportedly seeking to embed itself in the local population as part of its efforts to increase its recruitment. JNIM also exists in the east of the country and is carrying out attacks.

This spread of terrorism and the opening of a new front in the east of the country have raised the risk of attacks spilling over the border into Ghana, Benin, and Togo, which so far have largely avoided the scourge of terrorism. In recent years, government officials in these countries have warned periodically about intelligence suggesting that attacks might occur, but they have not materialized. Yet now, with groups such as ISGS and JNIM operating along their borders from the east of Burkina Faso, the risk seems far greater.

In November and December 2018, ICGS reportedly attacked a school and a bar that are close to the border with Benin. As Jacob Zenn, a terrorism expert, points out, the populations of the northern regions of all three countries are predominantly Muslim, which puts these populations at greater risk of radicalization if extremist Islamist ideologies take root.

To help combat the rising tide of terrorism in Burkina Faso and prevent it spreading further, both France and G-5 Sahel—a partnership of five states in the Sahel region that are affected by terrorism—have provided troops to the region, but more of these efforts need to focus on Burkina Faso rather than the current concentration on Mali and Niger.

There must also be a renewed effort to strengthen Burkina Faso’s security apparatus and its capability to responsibly combat terrorist groups. In addition, more tactical support from neighboring countries and international powers is required for intelligence gathering and sharing across the region to prevent attacks before they take place.

Efforts to combat terrorism need to be comprehensive: Northeastern Nigeria and Boko Haram is a case study of a region where terrorism has taken root in the country because of poor socioeconomic conditions and a heavy-handed security response.

There is an urgent need to respond to the growing humanitarian needs of affected populations in Burkina Faso and ensure counterterrorism operations are targeted and humane, while also supporting programs that counter violent extremism.

But security assistance is not enough. Burkina Faso desperately needs both humanitarian and development efforts, particularly to address the growing health crisis. For both Burkina Faso and its neighbors, these will provide the best hope of reducing the risk of terrorism spreading across the border.

James Blake is an expert on intelligence, terrorism, and risk management. He has worked on behalf of many multinational companies and advised the International Monetary Fund and International Rescue Committee on international security matters.