It may have sought to create fear, paving the way for a French and U.S. military presence in Burkina Faso.
By , January 26, 2016.
As elsewhere, they come in, seemingly from nowhere, guns blazing, killing everyone in sight before, in turn, most of them too are mowed down by the domestic security forces that are poorly trained for this particular kind of warfare. “They” are Islamic militants, this time associated with Al Qaeda of the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).(1) Thirty people were killed and 56 more were wounded in the January 18th attack which lasted 15 hours before it ended. Three of the attackers were killed but it appears that another three escaped.
All indications to date are that this attack was not organized by elements within the country but from outside terrorist groups based further north, in S. Libya, N. Mali and S. Algeria. While there might be some militant fundamentalism in Burkina Faso, it is of a quite limited nature. There has been no campaign among Islamic elements for more political or religious space as ethnic relations in the country are not so polarized as elsewhere – that in and of itself is a national accomplishment. While some of the motives will be discussed below, the essence of this attack was to create an atmosphere of fear in Burkina Faso, which then France (and US) can use to beef up their military security presence in the country and tighten their ties with the country’s military/security force.
The Burkina Faso massacres – how else can they be described? – come amidst a series of similar attacks worldwide. On January 11, suicide bombers killed 51 people in a series of attacks in Baghdad and surrounding towns. A few days earlier, at least ten were killed and many wounded in Istanbul’s Sultanahmet Square. As recently as January 18 another suicide bombing resulted in four deaths and many injuries at a popular Jakarta, Indonesia shopping mall.
AQIM’s terrorist activities have a decade-long history throughout the Sahara and adjoining regions. Once again, it happened, this time a bit out of what has been considered AQIM’s “traditional” zone of operations as the terrorists struck in Ougadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso, a landlocked dirt-poor West African country. Indeed, in many ways Burkina Faso was an unlikely target, until recently, beyond the radar of groups like AQIM.
Why all these attacks? The motives are not entirely clear.
There is some hypothesizing that it is a part of a competition between ISIS and Al Qaeda types to win the hearts and minds of radical Muslims worldwide as to which group is the deadliest, most militant. Certainly on a more fundamental level, coming as they do after the recent November 13 terrorist attack in Paris which took the lives of 130 people and left hundreds more wounded – regardless of which group committed the crimes – the goal is to strike fear into the hearts of people everywhere, that nowhere is safe and that groups like ISIS and Al Qaeda have a global reach.
In some notable ways, the attack on Ougadougou’s Splendid Hotel and nearby Cappachino café bears resemblance to the recent terrorist attacks in Tunisia (the March 8, 2014 Tunis Bardo Museum attack, the June 27, 2015 Sousse beach attack). As with the Tunisian attacks, the main targets were “soft targets – primarily foreigners, humanitarian aid workers, journalists, tourists.
The goals of both operations are similar: to hurt already fragile economies by discouraging tourism, foreign economic and social aid projects, to strike fear into the general population, to remind the people of Burkina Faso and Tunisia of the long European – in both cases, specifically French – colonial heritage which continues through informal economic penetration until today.
Why Burkina Faso? Why now?
It’s country with a noticeable ethnic mix in which, religiously, Sunni Muslims make up some 60% of the population, Christians some 23%.(2) Although raked with extreme poverty, ethnic relations in the country have been relaxed; the kind of ethnic clashes that have characterized West Africa have been rare which makes the emergence of this kind of vicious attack all the more uncharacteristic.
There are a number of possible explanations that have surfaced, among them AQIM’s opposition to the growing French and U.S. military presence in the region in general and more and more, even specifically in Burkina Faso.
A number of reports (a BBC commentary) mention the attack was at least in part AQIM’s response to Burkina Faso’s increased participation in what is called “Operation Barkane.”
Set up in August, 2014, Operation Barkhane consists of a 3,000-strong counterterrorism deployment of French soldiers to be deployed in West Africa, along with contingents of troops from Mali, Burkina Faso, Mauritania and Chad. The French troops will be backed by six fighter jets, 20 helicopters and three drones. With a mandate to operate across borders, this new long-term force, Operation Barkhane, will be based in the Chadian capital N’Djamena. It will target Islamist extremists in Mali, Chad and Niger, which along with Burkina Faso are mineral rich, but among the world’s poorest, countries.
Add to this the fact that AFRICOM maintains a presence at Ougadougou’s airport as a part of a growing U.S. military presence throughout Africa. As reported by researcher, Nick Turse, it is one of a number of U.S. drone bases established throughout Africa that includes operations in Niger, Ethiopia, Djibouti and the Seychelles Islands off of the East African coast.
There is at least one suggestion that, in order to support the growing U.S. military interests in the country, the failed coup attempt to replace the transitional government that overthrew former Burkina strongman Blaise Compaore had an AFRICOM connection. The coup leader, who quickly ceded power, was General Gilbert Diendere, a former high-ranking military aide to Compaore. Diendere was essentially the Burkina liason to AFRICOM and influential in the establishment of the U.S. drone base at the airport, the operational code name of which is “CREEK SAND.” According to at least one source, Diendere was also key in permitting AFRICOM to set up “a classified regional intelligence fusion center” attached to the U.S. embassy in Ougadougou, code-named “AZTEC ARCHER.”
The terrorist attack in Burkina Faso follows a pattern seen elsewhere that goes something like this:
- A country, after years of dictatorship, corruption and growing social distance between rich and poor (usually following IMF/World Bank structural adjustment policies) comes together in a great democratic wave that sweeps the tyrant (and his wife – who is often more greedy than the man himself) from power.
- A great opening follows – a national dialogue on the country’s future, what went wrong, how to fix it economically and politically.
- A power struggle ensues in which those directly responsible for the hopeful moment of change are sidelined (or if they are too vocal like Tunisia’s Chokri Belaid or Mohammed Brahmi, simply eliminated). Many elements of the old ruling class remain in place albeit having been forced to adopt a new vocabulary to cover their old ways.
- Radical Islamist groups – who overwhelmingly did not participate in the political mass movement that overthrew the dictators, begin to emerge from the shadows. They are funded and trained in large measure by “outside sources” – some from the Arab World, some from European sources.
- Worms that they are, these radical groups first infiltrate or either entirely co-opt (Mali, Syria) legitimate opposition movements. In Tunisia and Burkina Faso’s cases, at the very least they spread fear and panic throughout the country forcing the new government to tighten security (which means on some level moving once again in the direction of a police state) and diverting energy and funds from development and democracy to security
- There is little or no institutional change. The economy, usually at the source of a country’s problems, remains as it was prior to the uprising.
- All this provides a pretext, an environment for a greater foreign military cooperation and presence in the countries – whose main interests is contain the movement for social change in such a way as to protect their economic and strategic interests.
And there are all kinds of shady things going on under the surface, hard to prove and difficult to tease out what they mean, but certainly not irrelevant.
Three examples in the Burkina Faso case come to mind
- The case of AQIM. Curiously enough, its leader – a man with somewhat notorious reputation, Moktar Ben Moktar – has an odd history. He began his political career as the head of the personal bodyguard to the president of Algeria. There are allegations that he is little more than a tool of Algerian intelligence, itself having long and close ties with French intelligence, very active throughout Africa.
- Recently the Cameroonian press posted a photo of a French helicopter landing in that country’s northern regions providing arms and supplies to a radical Islamic group operating in the region. Of course it is difficult to verify the photo but suggestive of how France operates under the surface.
- The extensive writings of British anthropologist Jeremy Keenan (The Dark Sahara; The Dying Sahara) whose work details the connections between Western (US, French) intelligence and different radical Islamic groups in the Sahara region.
How all of this comes together in Burkina Faso, admittedly, is not clear. Perhaps in years to come, through Wikileaks, or like sources, we’ll learn the bitter details, the outlines of which can only be discerned today?
What does seem to be shaping up is that a genuinely democratic upsurge, a nationally inclusive movement for deep political and social change that rid the country of one Africa’s most conniving, greedy dictators and French allies on the continent, Blaise Compaore, is being threatened. They (the same they as elsewhere) are trying to derail the Burkina Faso revolution and using Islamic fundamentalists as one of the tools in the political tool kit as a part of the effort.
Things are about to get very interesting in Ougadougou.
Who gains? Who loses?
- The “Maghreb” being Arabic for North Africa.
- Burkina Faso’s 17.3 million people belong to two major West African ethnic cultural groups—the Voltaic and the Mande (whose common language is Dioula). The Voltaic Mossi make up about one-half of the population. The Mossi claim descent from warriors who migrated to present-day Burkina Faso from the area of Ghana Empire about 1100. They established an empire that lasted more than 800 years. Predominantly farmers, the Mossi kingdom is led by the Mogho Naba, whose court is in Ouagadougo.
Statistics on religion in Burkina Faso are inexact because Islam and Christianity are often practiced in tandem with indigenous religious beliefs. The Government of Burkina Faso 2006 census reported that 60.5% of the population practice Islam, and that the majority of this group belong to the Sunni branch, while a small minority adheres to Shia Islam. There are also large concentrations of the Ahmadiyya Muslims.
A significant number of Sunni Muslims identify with the Tijaniyah Sufi order. The government estimated that 23.2% of the population are Christians (19% being Roman Catholics and 4.2% members of Protestant denominations); 15.3% follow traditional indigenous beliefs, 0.6% have other religions, and 0.4% have none.
Rob Prince is a retired Senior Lecturer of International Studies at the University of Denver’s Korbel School of International Studies. He frequently writes about economic and political developments in North Africa, especially Algeria and Tunisia. He blogs at View from the Left Bank.