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02 November 2018

The emerging terror threats in Burkina Faso

Since early 2018, Burkina Faso has faced a growing destabilisation in the Est region, an area generally safe from terrorism, as a consequence of increased counter-terrorism operations in northeastern Mali. The opening of a new front in the Est region supposes a likely rise of terror-related violence in the area in the short and medium terms, but remains unlikely to spread nationwide.

Since January 2018, the Est region of Burkina Faso has witnessed the emergence of a new battlefront. Long considered the bastion of local banditry, militancy and the rise of terror-linked attacks constitute a new phenomenon for the area. Until recently, terror-related violence was mostly limited to the northern regions, along Burkina Faso’s borders with Mali and Niger, with parallel attacks in the capital Ouagadougou. Yet, over the past several months, the Est region saw a rapid and rising destabilisation caused by militant operations and the opening of a new front by a combination of Ansaroul Islam and Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) affiliates. While the number of attacks remains relatively low compared to other conflicts in the Sahel, the militants’ presence in Burkina Faso’s Est follows a pattern showing potential for a growing insurgency and a steady rise in the number of terror-related attacks in the area in the short and medium terms, although these are unlikely to spread nationwide.

At least 34 people were killed in 32 militant attacks since the beginning of the year. The growing militant presence can be attributed to three factors: the renewed pressure by pro-Bamako armed groups and French Operation Barkhane forces on ISGS along the Mali and Niger borders, driving the militants southward; the spread of Ansaroul Islam operations from pivotal areas in Burkina Faso’s Central-North region; and the emergence of local militant leaders closely tied to local tribes who became radicalised in Mali and returned with further battlefield skills and knowledge of the area. So far, the militants have demonstrated significant capabilities, particularly in the manufacture and use of effective improvised explosive devices (IED), the execution of complex ambushes and the rate of attacks – in a fashion similar to Ansaroul Islam. The Est could develop as a point of convergence for elements of multiple Islamist militancy groups, with militants dangerously fighting over the territory’s control.

Burkinabe security forces remain unable to contain the rise of terror attacks in the east, leaving local authorities to rely on the help of armed local vigilante militias, the Koglweogo, who represent an important support for security forces. Originally created to fight banditry and petty crimes, they were gradually used as local shields to contain the rise of terrorism. Nevertheless, as a community-run parallel force, they seldom show coherent structures and lack legitimacy. Besides, relying on the Koglweogo would prove ill-advised as their dynamics and positioning vis-à-vis non-state actors connected with local chieftaincies, to whom militiamen owe a degree of loyalty, remain unclear. And without proper forces to counter a rising insurgency, insecurity would likely settle across the Est region in the long-term.

Thus, militant groups continue to spread along the Mali and Niger borderlands, with established bases in Komondjari province and in forest areas including the Kabonga forest in Pama department and the transborder W-Arly-Pendjari complex. In these areas, militants are presented with undeniable tactical benefits, sheltered by isolated and inaccessible terrain and with a pool of substantial financial resources should they gain control of the main trading routes. With an array of traffic corridors at reach, including commerce of ivory, weapons or drugs, militants could take advantage of the region’s historical links with banditry.

The situation demands rapid and strengthened cross-border cooperation between the governments and security forces of Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger, as porous borders continuously facilitate unrestricted movements. However, the Burkinabe army is overwhelmed and severely lacks material and manpower resources in a country threatened by militants on multiple fronts. In the near-term, militant groups are unlikely to move west towards Ouagadougou, rather looking to consolidate their position in the east. Benefiting from vast forest terrains where police presence is limited and airstrikes unlikely to have significant impact, the Est region offers the opportunity for the nascent militancy to grow unperturbed. While both national and local authorities inadequately attempt to clampdown on Islamist violence, further attacks are likely to occur in the northern and eastern regions of Burkina Faso in the short and long terms.

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