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Burkina Faso attack puts West Africa on edge over jihadist threat

The attack over the weekend, which left at least 29 dead, appears to fulfill warnings that Islamist terrorists are moving into previously untouched parts of Africa.

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    A soldier stands guard outside the Splendid Hotel in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, on Monday.
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As residents of Burkina Faso’s capital, Ouagadougou, ended three days of national mourning yesterday after its first-ever terrorist attack this weekend, questions remain on whether such violence would become the city's new normal.

Gunmen seized and opened fire on two hotels and a restaurant frequented by foreigners in Ouagadougou Friday Night, killing at least 29, and injuring up to 50 people. The number of gunmen is in dispute, but Security Minister Simon Compaore said Tuesday that several people have been detained and questioned.

The attack shook the relatively peaceful Francophone country, which has had little experience with terror groups despite sharing borders with Mali to the north and Niger to the east. Both countries have dealt with their fair share of jihadi extremists.

But with Al Qaeda's North African affiliate (AQIM) claiming responsibility of the Burkinabe assault, it fulfills a prophecy that Islamist extremism would grow outward in Africa and reach new frontiers that have previously avoided its impact. Indeed, AQIM’s move into Burkina Faso indicates a strategy to find new targets, forcing other West African nations like Ghana, Senegal, and Ivory Coast to increase their security. France has warned Ivory Coast and Senegal that Islamist militants are planning to attack on their capitals. 

"There's no reason to think Burkina Faso should be the last country hit," said Cynthia Ohayon, a West Africa analyst at the International Crisis Group in Ouagadougu, told South Africa's Times Live. "If you strike the capital, you are seen to be striking harder and the threat is there for other cities like [Senegal's] Dakar and [Ivory Coast's] Abidjan."

The threat of Islamist terrorism continues to be a top priority in Africa as the battle for ideological dominance between Al Qaeda and the so-called Islamic State (IS) plays out in the continent. And though countries like Senegal have taken steps to try counter growing extremism, it is not clear whether Burkina Faso is ready to confront the new threat on their doorstep. The largely Muslim country has stumbled through a tumultuous political year that included the overthrow of former President Blaise Compaore in 2014, a failed coup in September, and the election of President President Roch Marc Christian Kabore in November.

"… The recent siege in Ouagadougou has proved that Burkina Faso is now affected by radical Islam, while spill-over of Malian Jihadists into the country’s northern regions seems like an already materialized scenario,” writes Olga Bogorad, an Africa intelligence analyst at Max Security Solutions, in South Africa's Daily Maverick. “Should this expansion not face an effective response by Burkinabe security forces in the immediate term, additional attacks against targets, especially foreigners, may become a new Burkina Faso’s painful reality.”

French targets

President Kabore has already taken steps to work with neighboring Mali to coordinate counterintelligence. The prime ministers of the two countries met on Sunday, though exact details of their of their collaboration is not clear. The Burkinabe attack echoed a similar raid on the Radisson Blu hotel in Mali’s capital last November – an attack carried out by the Islamist group Al Mourabitoun whose leader recently re-pledged allegiance to Al Qaeda. 

The same group posted a statement online saying the hotel attack in Burkina Faso was aimed at punishing France and the “disbelieving West," the Washington Post reports. France and other Western nations have been working with the Malian government to prevent the Islamist militants from regaining a foothold in the north after the French army took control in 2013.

Burkina Faso, a former French colony, still has strong ties to France, even turning to French forces for assistance soon after the attack began. The French also have a large military base in Ouagadougou, where they carry out "Operation Barkhane" missions to counter the terror movement in north Africa. This relationship with France is enough for Burkina Faso to become a target, Ms. Bogorad writes:  

"The spill-over was likely the result of the ongoing French Operation Barkhane, which inflicted a heavy blow on Jihadists’ ability to operate in Mali’s northern regions and forced them to look for additional sources of funding instead of those lost, including along Mali’s porous southern borders."

For now, Kabore and his cabinet have taken to the airwaves to reassure the public that the government can face down the threat facing Burkina Faso.

"All security measures have been taken to make Burkina Faso peaceful," Foreign Minister Alpha Barry told ambassadors on Tuesday at a specially convened meeting.

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