Terror Unleashed: The Threat of JNIM in the Sahel Region of Burkina Faso

On April 6, two attacks in northern Burkina Faso resulted in the deaths of 44 people. The Sahel region’s Kourakou and Tondobi villages, which are close to the Niger border, were attacked simultaneously. Although no group has taken responsibility for the attacks, armed terrorist groups operating in the region are being held accountable because of the region’s high level of jihadist violence. The Sahel region’s Lieutenant-Governor, Rodolphe Sorgho, referred to the attacks as “despicable and barbaric” and said that efforts are being made to calm the region down. According to a resident of one of the villages, a large number of terrorists burst into the village, and he heard shooting all night long. Only when several dozen bodies were discovered on Friday morning did the extent of the carnage become clear.

Burkina Faso has been hit hard by terrorism, with the country currently being the deadliest globally after Afghanistan, according to the recently released Global Terrorism Index report. In 2022, the country reported the largest number of fatalities attributed to terrorist incidents worldwide, with 1,135 deaths, an increase of 50% from 2021. This alarming trend highlights the need for urgent action to address the growing threat of terrorism in the country.

The Sahel region of sub-Saharan Africa has indeed become a hotspot for terrorism, with Burkina Faso and Mali together accounting for 73% of all terrorism-related fatalities in the region. The report attributes the surge in terrorist activities to factors such as unstable political environments, racial tensions, strong population growth, and the spread of Salafist-Islamic ideology. The inability of Sahel governments to maintain security has allowed terrorist groups to intensify their operations in the region.  Al Jazeera noted that Burkina Faso saw two coups in only one year in September 2022 as a result of political unrest and high tension. The Islamist insurgency is drawing almost all of the security forces’ attention because of increased internal strife, which has undermined efforts to uphold law and order.

The situation in Burkina Faso is dire, with civilians being the most frequently targeted group, amounting to more than half of all fatalities. The most well-known and pervasive terrorist organisation in the country is Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal Muslimeen (JNIM), with its calling card being brutal armed conflict. JNIM is a jihadi group that mostly operates in Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger in the Sahel area of West Africa. Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, Ansar Dine, and Al-Mourabitoun were among  jihadist organisations that joined forces to form the new group in March 2017.

Establishing an Islamic state in the Sahel, replete with strict Sharia law, is JNIM’s avowed objective. The group has carried out several attacks, including bombings, ambushes, killings, and kidnappings against both military and civilian targets. Significant losses have been sustained among security personnel, citizens, and UN peacekeepers. Security forces from the region and abroad have been working to thwart JNIM, including the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilisation Mission in Mali, Operation Barkhane, led by France, and the G5 Sahel Joint Force, made up of soldiers from Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger. While Burkina Faso continues to collaborate with other Sahel nations in the fight against terrorism, the threat has not yet been contained and is instead pervasive. It is imperative that the government takes decisive action to address the root causes of terrorism, including political instability, poverty, and social inequality.

The international community also has a role to play in supporting Burkina Faso in its efforts to combat terrorism, by providing technical assistance and training security forces, as well as humanitarian aid to those affected. Moreover, international pressure could be applied to address the geopolitical and economic factors that contribute to instability in the region. Failure to address this growing threat risks further destabilisation of the region and a rise in terrorism-related fatalities. It is incumbent upon all actors, both domestic and international, to work together to address this urgent challenge.