Jihadist-Fueled Instability in Burkina Faso
The situation in the Sahel is growing increasingly dire. Despite the introduction and presence of the Russian private military contractor (PMC) Wagner Group, there has not been any discernible improvement to the internal security climate in Mali. One can contrast this situation with that in Niger, where there has been no substantial increase in reported attacks by militants, though this cannot be said for neighboring Burkina Faso, with whom Mali also shares a large border.
In recent months, several high-profile incidents have taken place. Two of them involved attacks against the Burkinabe military. The first attack occurred on March 21st in the town of Natiboani resulting in the deaths of 12 soldiers. A military base in the center-northern province of Sanmatenga also came under assault on April 8th. At least 16 soldiers and paramilitary members perished during this attack.
On April 24th two separate attacks in the Soum Province killed at least 15 people. The situation has led the US State Department to update its travel advisory to the country to Level 4 (“Do Not Travel”).
It is not just the military that is in the sights of insurgent groups. The mining industry has been a frequent target as well. On March 11th, an artisanal mine in the Seytenga was attacked resulting in the death of 14 people. Another attack occurred on April 3rd targeting a separate gold mine. This attack on the small-scale Kougdiguin mine resulted in the deaths of 20 people.
It also appears that militants in the area are looking to kidnap for ransom, as earlier this month a foreign national was captured. Suellen Tennyson, a nun from the United States, was taken from a convent in Yalgo on the evening of April 4th. There are no further updates regarding who captured her, where she is currently being held, or if there is a ransom demand.
So, who then is behind this surge in militant violence in Burkina Faso? Are these the actions of an emergent organization, or the renewed efforts of an existing militant group? We can confirm the Islamic State’s interest in the Sahel, and, likewise, al-Qaeda-linked elements are present in the region. As an example, in April 2019, the Islamic State released a video statement by its leader at that time, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, which renewed the call for jihadis operating in West Africa to multiply attacks against “Crusader France and its allies.” Some groups in the region would indeed continue answering with violence.
The Islamic State West African Province (ISWAP), in March 2019, incorporated IS-GS (Islamic State Greater Sahara) under its umbrella. There is also some possibility that ISWAP fighters were sent to Burkina Faso in 2019, as ISWAP released imagery apparently showing its fighters in the country.
It should also be noted that in recent weeks, ISGS, or perhaps some part of it, seems to now be operating as the “Islamic State Sahel Province”.
According to a report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) released last July, the IS-GS area of operations includes the Sahel and eastern regions of Burkina Faso.
Why should we be concerned about the situation specifically in Burkina Faso? One answer has to do with the current situation within neighboring Mali. Reports of a massacre in the central Malian town of Moula in late March, in which over 300 people were killed by the Malian government troops and “associated foreign soldiers,” may further increase instability in the region. It was reported that among those massacred were suspected Islamist militants as well as civilians. A report by SIPRI (Stockholm International Peace Research Institute) in 2020 found that the porous border between Mali and Burkina Faso was a major factor in the violence spilling back and forth across political boundaries. Another factor is the current uncertainty during the period of transition that began after the ouster of then President Blaise Compaore and the installation of a new government.
An additional aspect of the regional security situation that should be monitored is the response of the current military junta in Burkina Faso to the ongoing insurgency in the country. A report by the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism (ICCT) found that the ouster of former President Roch Marc Christian Kabore was linked to the inability of his administration to address the security threats facing Burkina Faso to the satisfaction of the security forces. This revealed some tensions between the civilian leadership and the military leadership regarding which threat was to be dealt with first. The options of course were to either first secure the foreign mining concerns or provide security for the population. This impasse over where to apply the military strength of government security forces eventually led to the transition from civilian to the current military government in Burkina Faso.
Though there are observers that are closely monitoring events in Mali as the security environment continues to deteriorate, the current situation within Burkina Faso should not be taken lightly. The links between active groups in both countries cannot be ignored as violence in the region continues to escalate and forces longer delays in the restoration of democracy.