by Rinaldo Depagne
Attacks on the Burkina Faso army headquarters and the French Embassy on 2 March 2018 were better organized, involved heavier weapons and were more sustained than anything seen so far in Burkina Faso. In this Q&A, our West Africa Program Director Rinaldo Depagne says the jihadist assault further exposes worrying weakness in the Burkinabé security forces.
What do we know about the 2 March attacks in Ouagadougou?
The attacks represent an alarming escalation for Burkina Faso in terms of organiszation, lethality of armaments and length of engagement. The attacks were claimed on 3 March by the Group to Support Muslims and Islam, known by its Arabic acronym JNIM, which is part of a wider coalition in the Sahel linked to al-Qaeda.
Operations were carried out by two groups of at least four to five assailants each. While the incidents were confined to the city center, they hit two symbolic targets at the heart of power in the country: the army headquarters and the French Embassy. The official death toll is sixteen, including nine assailants. Reliable sources indicated more than 30 dead. The number of wounded is around 85.
At the army headquarters, it seems up to five men in a vehicle either used a grenade or rocket-propelled grenade to blast their way through the entrance gate, where they then shot at soldiers in the courtyard and detonated a vehicle full of explosives by the main building. This version is confirmed by two different French and Burkinabé security sources.
At the French Embassy, a group of at least four men tried to force their way into the embassy. Unable to enter, they took up positions nearby and exchanged heavy fire with Burkinabé security forces. French soldiers, who have played a leading role in Burkina Faso’s security for decades, quickly reinforced the building with men lowered from helicopters. Shooting continued for several hours.
Burkinabé forces relied heavily on French support to respond to the attacks. A French military source told Crisis Group: “Burkinabé forces were crushed at the beginning. We helped them”. Even so, compared to the previous two attacks in Ouagadougou in 2016 and 2017, the response time and organisation of the reaction seem slightly improved.
Violence in the Sahel long seemed to spare Burkina Faso. How has Ouagadougou become a target?
It is not only Ouagadougou that has become a target; so has the north of the country. Long spared by the Sahel’s armed groups, Burkina is now part of the wars of the Sahel.
Since January 2016, the country has experienced several deadly attacks from regional and international terrorist networks. Nineteen people were killed and 25 others injured when suspected jihadists opened fire on a Turkish restaurant in central Ouagadougou on 13 August 2017. Thirty people were killed in similar circumstances in January 2016, not far from the Turkish restaurant, in an attack claimed by Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
Since 2015, northern Burkina Faso, which borders troubled Mali, has also experienced 80 attacks that are increasingly frequent and lethal. These attacks are mostly done by Ansarul Islam, a group founded in December 2016 that is locally rooted, albeit with ties to other groups in Mali.
One reason why Burkina Faso has become an easier target may be the weakness of the country’s security apparatus. Since the departure of former President Blaise Compaoré in October 2014, the army is significantly less organized. The special forces unit known as Presidential Security Regiment (RSP) under Compaoré was dismantled after his departure, and no equivalent has replaced it. Intelligence gathering appears to be weak, judging by the failure to detect or disrupt the major attacks that happened on Friday. Two teams totaling at least eight men were able to cross the city center carrying heavy weapons and driving a car full of explosives without being spotted.
Under Compaoré, intelligence capacities were based on strong individuals. Spymaster Gilbert Diendéré, Compaoré’s personal chief of staff, headed an impressive regional and international intelligence network. Those individuals have left. It is taking time to rebuild efficient institutions in their wake.
Is the attack in Ouagadougou a purely domestic affair, or linked to broader violence in the Sahel region?
The relationship between the Burkinabé government and the various armed groups of the Sahel has changed. From the mid-2000s to 2012, Compaoré’s regime cut deals with armed groups, allegedly providing them with logistical support in exchange for their neutrality. This evolved with the 2012-2013 Malian crisis. Thousands of Malian refugees fled from their homes to the Burkinabé border, raising fears in Ouagadougou that war would spill over. New armed groups appeared, with which Compaoré’s regime had less established relations.
Compaoré therefore revised his strategy, slowly switching from arrangements with armed groups to more direct military intervention. Burkina Faso deployed 1,000 troops along the Malian border after January 2013, and 650 troops in Mali as part of the African-led International Support Mission to Mali (AFISMA) under the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). This may have put Burkina Faso in some jihadists’ firing line. In February 2013, a spokesperson for the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), one of the groups that controlled northern Mali for almost a year in 2012, said: “Bamako, Ouagadougou and Niamey are targets for our suicide bombers”.
Where do the Ouagadougou attacks fit into the context of jihadist violence in the Sahel, and the regional response to it?
This attack happened at a moment when the level of violence in the Sahel is very high. On 3 March, the Group to Support Muslims and Islam (JNIM) claimed responsibility for the Ouagadougou attacks. Part of a wider coalition linked to al-Qaeda, JNIM comprises several jihadist factions, including groups formerly known as Ansar Eddine, al-Mourabitoun, and the Macina Liberation Front. It is headed by Iyad ag Ghali, a Malian Tuareg. JNIM said the attack was in retaliation for a French airstrike on 14 February, which killed several leaders, including Mourabitoun, deputy al-Hassan al-Ansari, and Malick ag Wanasnat, a close associate to Ghali.
This French airstrike was part of a surge in military operations in neighbouring Mali, conducted by either the Malian armed forces (FAMA), the French counter-terrorism force known as Barkhane, or a combination of both together with the support of the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA). The Malian and French operations aim to reverse a rising tide of jihadist attacks and jihadists establishing control of swathes of territory. They also aim to pave the way for presidential elections in Mali in July 2018. The main jihadist groups on their target list include: the JNIM itself; a faction of the JNIM previously known as the Macina Liberation Front, which operates in central Mali under the leadership of Hamadoun Kouffa; and a local affiliate of the Islamic State (ISIS) that operates in Menaka along the border with Niger, led by Adnane Abou Walid al-Sahraoui.
At the same time, progress is being made toward the operationalisation of the G5 Sahel joint force, formed between Burkina Faso, four of its neighbours, and backed by France. Launched in February 2017 and analysed in a 12 December 2017 Crisis Group report, the G5 has secured funding, begun formal planning for its relationship with MINUSMA, and has now conducted two operations in the border areas between Mali, Niger and Burkina. According to the Burkinabé minister of security, a meeting on the G5 may have been in progress at the army headquarters when the attack happened. In its statement, JNIM wrote that it wants to discourage the “Burkinabé regime and others that raced to join the G5 and fight on behalf of the French”.
With targets attacked including the army headquarters, is there a possibility that the attackers may have been helped by some Burkinabé army members?
Burkinabé authorities declared that they suspect some army members of helping Friday’s attackers, leaking key information. Attackers at the army headquarters wore Burkinabé military uniforms and most of them were Burkinabé nationals. As a retired colonel of the Burkinabé army put it on Friday in a local TV interview: “Terrorism is a multi-facetted issue and we shouldn’t rule out any hypothesis”.
The retired colonel noted that 566 members of the army and air force were summarily dismissed in 2011. Some of these men, who have been barred from rejoining the army for the rest of their lives, became bandits or joined Islamist groups in Mali, including Malian al-Qaeda offshoots, as discussed in Crisis Group’s 22 July 2013 report Burkina Faso: With or Without Compaoré, Times of Uncertainty. Also, other members of the former Presidential Security Regiment have been sacked or dispersed to other units, and they are very frustrated.
Many Burkinabés, including some senior members of the current government, privately suspect that former collaborators of Compaoré could be behind these terrorist attacks due to the links those individuals built with armed groups. There is, however, no direct evidence to support those suspicions. In its statement, JNIM referred to those past good relations. It said the previous Burkinabé government’s position of non-interference meant it avoided “falling into a swamp of blood”.
Some former Compaoré allies, who allegedly built and maintained those relations, are now living abroad. Others, accused of supporting a short-lived 2015 coup against the current post-Compaoré order, should have been on trial in Ouagadougou last week. The trial was suspended after their lawyers protested it would not have been impartial. No direct evidence supports accusations of their involvement in Friday’s attack.
How does Friday’s attack affect Burkina Faso’s stability?
If information of possible help from security forces to the attackers is confirmed, it will further divide and disrupt an already fragile army. This will also harm popular confidence in the government and military. Relations between current authorities and the former Compaoré-era political elite will become tenser and increase the climate of suspicion in the country.
The attacks could, in any event, have significant economic and social consequences. The more Burkina Faso is under attack, the more the government will be tempted to spend on the military. As Crisis Group pointed out in its 12 October 2017 report on The Social Roots of Jihadist Violence in Burkina Faso’s North, the less the government spends on development, the less it is able to answer strong social demands for better public services and governance that emerged after Compaoré’s departure. Its continued failure to meet those demands risks provoking street protests and perhaps even riots.
Rinaldo Depagne is the project director for West Africa for the International Crisis Group, where this commentary first appeared. Photo: Blaise Compaoré (Wikimedia Commons).