It was Sunday morning, May 12, when about 20 attackers reportedly surrounded a church and shot a priest and five members of the congregation. “Towards 9 a.m. during mass, armed individuals burst into the Catholic church,” the mayor of the northern Burkinabe town of Dablo, Ousmane Zongo said. “They started firing as the congregation tried to flee.”
The attack came two days after French troops rescued four foreigners who had been taken as hostages in neighboring Benin, and two weeks after a similar attackon a church in the nearby town of Silgadji, which killed six people.
“In terms of the frequency and the geographical scope of Islamist militant violence in Burkina Faso, it is increasing and expanding at an alarming rate,” Ryan Cummings, a security analyst and director of Signal Risk,said.
While the targets are generally small, the extremist groups are reported to have targeted churches, Muslim clerics who the groups view as not radical enough, schools, checkpoints, and mining operations. In 2018, the UN’s office for the coordination of humanitarian affairs (OCHA) recorded at least 193 separate security incidents, with 180 people killed and over 54,000 displaced. What’s more, the UN reported that in late December 2018 that nearly 800 schools had closed because of the insecurity in the region.
The more significant attacks on military targets, the French embassy in 2018 or the Splendid Hotel in 2016 in the capital Ouagadougou, which involved foreigners, caught international attention. But the attacks in the country’s northern Sahel region have mostly gone unnoticed, argues Cummings. “The acts of violence have been simmering for quite a long time,” says Cummings.
What makes the growing violence so challenging to grasp, however, says Cummings, is that the organization and affiliations of various terrorist groups in the region is so opaque. “Some of the groups operating within the region are aligned to al-Qaida. Others are aligned to the Islamic State. And then there’s also a local group called Ansar al Islam which at this point we don’t quite know what the affiliation is with transnational Islamist extremist groups,” explains Cummings.
In most cases, the attacks are not claimed by any particular group. The “jihadization of banditry” is what a report by the security analyst group, Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED) described it as – militants working hand in hand with criminal networks.
Wedged between Mali, Niger, and Benin, the region’s porous borders have provided the militant groups with opportunities to connect, retreat and make use of the lack of state control. “The borders are porous, and the Sahel states don’t have the means to control the entire stretch;” explains Paul Melly, an analyst with the London-based think tank, Chatham House. “They have the resources for checkpoints on the major routes, but they don’t have the resources for more.” What’s more, he says, the militants know the arid terrain very well and can easily move around on motorbikes or off-road vehicles.
Cummings, however, also sees a strong local element in the attacks. “In Burkina Faso, there is enough evidence to suggest that the threat is very much home-grown,” says Cummings. “There is extreme difficulty by the country’s security establishment in countering the threat.”
Another key issue, he says, is the lack of discipline within the regional military. “[There] are suggestions that the government and the military for example have been involved in targeted violence against specific ethnic and religious communities in areas which have been impacted by the Islamist extremist insurgency,” says Cummings. “There are also suggestions that is quite commonplace in Mali, for example, the creation of self-defense militias who are aligning their activities with the military and committing acts of violence and other human rights abuses.”
While Cummings thinks that the Sahel countries need more support in securing their volatile regions, he also believes that they need assistance in non-security sectors like state building.
The regional counter-terrorist operation by the G5 (a group composed of the five Sahel countries, Burkina Faso, Mali, Chad, Niger, and Mauritania), has huge support from France, which has 4,500 troops operating in the region.
In early May, German Chancellor Angela Merkel also visited Burkina Faso, highlighting the growing security problem. “We talked about the deteriorating security situation and we want to be on the side of Burkina Faso, especially in terms of cooperation on security,” Merkel told reporters.
Merkel pledged €20 million to Burkina Faso and over €35 million to Niger ($22.4 million and $39 million, respectively) to support development projects and the outfitting and training of police officers.