While the international community cheers the rapid contraction of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, jihad movements continue to make inroads in the oft-forgotten West African region. Burkina Faso, one of the poorest and least developed countries in the world, has, remarkably, been largely spared from terrorism in past years. However, recently, a string of attacks in Burkina Faso’s northern provinces have rocked this fragile security. In August of 2017 two assailants opened fire on a crowded plaza in the capital city of Ouagadougou leaving 18 dead and 22 wounded. The incident gained international attention due to the number of foreign victims, including two Kuwaitis and two Canadians, and one person each from France, Senegal, Nigeria, Lebanon, and Turkey. The attack is only the most recent in a string of terrorism-related incidents in the past year, which have included kidnappings, as well as multiple mass shootings of civilians and security forces.
Before 2016, Burkina Faso had been surprisingly resistant to the growth of militant groups within the country, despite the instability emanating from Mali, its northern neighbour. Since 2012, the Malian Civil War has burned at various levels of intensity, characterized first by full-blown political and religious rebellions of the government, and then—following French military intervention—by periodic attacks by jihadist groups, including al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). The comparably porous border between Burkina Faso and Mali enabled AQIM and other foreign militant groups to attempt to establish local cells; however, these were largely unsuccessful. Security cooperation between Burkina Faso and Niger, along with the unfriendly forest environment (compared to the Sahel desert which characterizes Mali), prevented these groups from laying roots within the country.
However, the recent uptick in militant attacks reflects the broader deterioration of the security situation in northern Burkina Faso. ‘Ansarul Islam’ (Defenders of Islam), the first home-grown Islamist group in to take root in the country, has been particularly effective in its attacks, as well as in its ability to enunciate a message that resonates with the discontent experienced by all levels of Burkinabe society. Despite the Islamist façade, the group is best understood as a social, rather than a religious, uprising. The government’s inability to meet even the basic needs of its northern constituents has bred widespread disaffection, which Ansarul Islam has capitalized upon. To many civilians, the government, police, and military representatives are nothing more than predatory forces, seeking to enrich themselves at the expense of the impoverished and defenseless northern provinces.
The gulf that separates civilians and the governing authorities has hardly been addressed by the latter since the rise in militant attacks began last year. The response, as of yet, has been predominantly military in nature. The military announced that it would recall Burkinabe peacekeeping contingents from abroad to combat jihadists in the Sahel. The government has also restructured the Defense and Security Ministries, but critics argue that the move is insufficient to combat the violence. More than likely, these moves will prove to be little more than bandages. So long as underdevelopment, regional inequity, and predatory government practices are not addressed, jihad violence is unlikely to ameliorate. Even if security forces can quell the current batch of militants, Burkina Faso will not see tranquility again until it can tackle the root causes of disenchantment and unrest.
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