In the landlocked West African nation of Burkina Faso, militant groups pose an increasing threat to peace and stability. In January of 2016, a widely publicized attack on a hotel in the capital city of Ouagadougou killed 30, including a number of Burkinabe security forces and Western diplomats and aid workers. Subsequent attacks have included a brutal assault on a security base near the country’s northern border, which left 12 soldiers dead, and a number of attacks on rural schools that have forced their closing, and resulted in the taking of hostages and the terrorizing of local populations. On March 10, a crowd of around 1000 teachers and students marched in Ouagadougou to protest the Government’s failure to protect its citizens. This protest is but one example of a growing sense of anger among Burkinabes at the failure of the government to protect its citizens.
In the past, these attacks are known to have been perpetrated by Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), a group that formed around the ideals of Al Qaeda in West Africa. The group was founded as an affiliation of radical Islamists who banded together during the Algerian Civil War of the 1990s and subsequently took to sowing instability in the region, expanding to parts of Mauritania, Morocco, Niger, and Senegal. Radical groups have historically been prominent in this region as a consequence of its poverty and political instability. The sparsely inhabited region of Central West Africa in which Burkina Faso is found has provided a number of opportunities for radical groups to sustain themselves through the trafficking of weapons and other contraband, as well as the taking of hostages. Just as these activities have provided groups like AQIM with a healthy source of income, the brutality and corruption of leaders like Burkina Faso’s recently deposed Dictator, Blaise Compaore have provided it with a steady stream of angry, poor, and therefore, easily corruptible recruits.
In December of 2016, a new group calling itself Ansar ul Islam emerged in the Nation’s North, taking credit for a series of attacks on schools and police stations. Burkinabe intelligence officials have reported that former members of Compaore’s notoriously brutal RSP Secret Police have likely collaborated with Ansar ul Islam operatives. The group is Burkina Faso’s first domestically based terrorist organization, and if their ties with former BSP soldiers provide anything to go by, they may continue showing themselves to be highly dangerous.
In March, the government announced plans to withdraw soldiers from Mali and Sudan and deploy them against groups like Ansar ul Islam in Burkina Faso’s North. Such efforts are may be a step in the right direction, but also point to the importance of building a greater front against radical groups. The removal of Burkinabe forces from Mali and Sudan will only worsen the stability of those nations, and may not be sufficient to attack the diffuse, dynamic threat posed by Ansar ul Islam and other militant groups.
This fight ought to be of greater interest to the West. Terrorist operations in Burkina Faso have already scared off a great deal of economic activity and destabilized parts of the Country’s North. These problems are particularly significant given the precarious situation of Burkina Faso’s new democracy, and success or failure in addressing them may determine whether the government continues to be perceived as legitimate. Gaining a strategic foothold in Burkina Faso would also bring militant groups considerably closer to the coastal nations of The Ivory Coast and Togo, allowing them greater ability to expand their arms and drug trafficking operations through the use of Ports not currently accessible.
A great degree of uncertainty exists as to whether militant groups will continue to increase their influence, or will be effectively suppressed by the government of Burkina Faso. However, the importance of defeating terrorism for the stability of Burkina Faso and the Sahel region more broadly cannot be understated.
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