Periscoping Burkina Faso: a jihadist domino in the Sahel?

Periscoping Burkina Faso: a jihadist domino in the Sahel?

The southward expansion of Islamist groups threatening to destabilise the entire West African region.

WHAT’S HAPPENING?

Militant jihadist groups have been seeking a foothold in and destabilising Burkina Faso since 2015, threatening neighbouring countries like Ghana, Ivory Coast, Benin and Togo in the process.

KEY INSIGHTS

– Jihadist metastasis augurs invigorated terrorist organisations in West Africa following ISIS’ territorial defeat in Syria and Iraq
– Foreign nationals and interests, mainly mining and NGO workers, are at risk of increasing jihadists attacks and may be targeted for strategic reasons and for ideological legitimation
– Jihadism in Burkina Faso could lead to the further southward travel of militancy
– The expansion of jihadism signals a sub-regional jihadist conglomerate in the making and the failure of orthodox counterterrorism

The rise of militant jihadism in Burkina Faso has its roots in the country’s post-independence political history. Blaise Compaoré began ruling Burkina Faso in 1987 after leading a coup d’état. From 1991, Compaoré ran as a civilian candidate in many presidential elections that were largely boycotted by opposition parties. In 2014, Compaoré resigned following widespread protests, sparked by proposed changes to the constitution that would have allowed him a third term as president. There have since been many political changes, including a failed coup d’état in September 2015 and the November 2015 election of current President Roch Marc Christian Kaboré.

In 2016, amid the chaos, Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) carried out attacks in Ouagadougou and Abidjan. Three years later, many militant groups have an operational presence in Burkina Faso, such as Jamā’at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimeen (JNIM), Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) and Ansarul Islam. JNIM is the result of a merger of three pre-existing al-Qaeda affiliated groups, Ansar al-Din, al-Mourabitoon and AQIM, and other groups such as Macina Liberation Front, which is mainly concerned with local grievances.

In 2018, Foreign Brief predicted the expansion of jihadist militancy following the territorial defeat of ISIS. Since then, the Sahel-Sahara region has increasingly become a haven for militants, facilitated by the proliferation of arms and the dislocation of border security across the Sahel following the removal of the Gaddafi regime in Libya.

A REGIONAL SECURITY COMPLEX

Burkina Faso is the newest victim of regional security complex (RSC) in West Africa. RSC theory suggests that security in one country cannot be independent of security in neighbouring countries.

Burkina Faso shares socio-economic, demographic and geographical indices with other Sahelian countries such as Mali, Niger, Nigeria and Chad, where jihadists groups have existed for close to a decade. Burkina Faso is thus a prime candidate for jihadist contagion, even though the country was spared for many years.

Like Burkina Faso, the other Sahelian countries have borders that are technically ‘absent’, allowing militants to travel across the stateless scrublands without restriction. After the capitulation of many countries across the Sahel, Burkina Faso is the latest country, but perhaps not the last, to become victim to the jihadist domino effect.

CO-OPTING LOCAL PRESSURE POINTS

Photo: Master Sgt. Sarah Colwell/U.S. Air Force

In Burkina Faso, as in Mali, the contagion of jihadist groups across borders is facilitated by pre-existing local conflicts and other pressures points. The expansion of the Sahel-Sahara — mainly due to climate change — is threatening livestock and crop farming, the main occupation of Burkinabes. There are also pre-existing communal resource conflicts, which have aided jihadists’ acceptance by local communities across western Africa, and the brutal use of state force and human rights abuses by security agencies, mostly against the minority Fulani ethnic group. The actions have also fueled dissent, aiding jihadist recruitment.

SECURITY, ECONOMY AND GOVERNANCE

Due to jihadist attacks, close to a thousand schools have closed and states of emergency declared in 14 provinces across the six regions bordering Mali and Niger, namely Boucle du Mouhoun, Centre-Est, Est, Hauts-Bassins, Nord and Sahel. Attacks have also targeted security agencies, the Gendarmerie, and Christians, mainly the country’s Catholic community.

Geoeconomically, the jihadist threat poses a challenge to the country’s economic growth. Burkina Faso’s revenue is heavily dependent on minerals, especially gold, drawing in foreign mining companies and foreign nationals. Attacks and kidnappings have increasingly targeted these interests, recently evidenced by the death of Canadian mineworker Kirk Woodman. Foreign nationals will remain prime targets, mainly as a funding strategy but also for ideological legitimation. With the country’s heavy reliance on the mineral sector, this dynamic threatens economic development, feeding into the cycle of violence.

This could have major political consequences for President Kaboré’s government. Dire economic adversity could weaken the central government’s legitimacy among ordinary citizens and the aristocracy. Given the country’s history of coups, the military may seize on economic adversity, the ongoing chaos and a failure to fend of jihadists as a pretext to take government — as occurred in Mali in 2012.

A LOOMING JIHADIST CONGLOMERATE?

Photo: Sgt. 1st Class Mary S. Katzenberger/U.S. Army

Burkina Faso is also the last domino standing between jihadist militancy in the Sahel-Sahara and the coastal states to the south; the country shares southern boundaries with the Ivory Coast, Ghana, Togo and Benin. Until 2015-2016, the country stood as a bulwark between these countries and the heightened jihadist presence in Mali and the broader Sahel to the north. But with Burkina Faso faltering, coastal countries are on high alert. A recent conference on security in West Africa heard that there were around 185 border crossings along the Ghana-Burkina Faso border. Concerningly, only eight have approved border posts.

With violent criminal activities in Burkina Faso’s Arli National Park and Benin’s Pendjari National Parks, jihadist activities could conflate with other local interests to pose serious threats to neighboring states. Mining site security is also threatened and some mining actors in the region are worried about the potential for illegal miners to co-opt jihadists into taking over sites.

There are conflicting assessments about the possibility of jihadism spreading into northern Ghana. Jihadists in the broader Sahel have so far targeted Francophone countries — potentially good news for Ghana, and bad news for Burkina Faso’s other neighbours. Ghana’s northernmost regions are not so religiously homogeneous as to easily allow infiltration of jihadist militants, and the northern regions of Ivory Coast are more penetrable than Ghana’s.

However, a history of deep-seated and pre-existing communal conflicts in Ghana’s northern regions may provide fertile grounds that jihadists from the Sahel regions could exploit. Foreign development and mining workers are always lucrative targets for militants. While home to few foreign mining companies, the area acts as the NGO capital of Ghana; the region could see a spike in terrorist attacks and kidnapping for ransom, which would worsen the already poor socio-economic conditions.

Burkina Faso portends a bleak future for national and regional security, as well as foreign geostrategic and commercial interests. With Niger as a key global producer of uranium and with Boko Haram’s presence in the Lake Chad Basin area being not too far away, the falling jihadist dominos across West Africa could be a foretaste of much worse crises.