Conspiracy Theories Multiply After Terrorist Assault in Burkina Faso
Attack which killed 30 has this quiet nation on edge
The bloodiest terror attack West Africa has experienced in recent times was a shock, but not surprising. Three years ago, I lived in Burkina Faso’s peaceful and relaxed capital, Ouagadougou, where it wasn’t rare to hear talk about the possibility of a large-scale atrocity as Islamist groups rampaged through neighboring Mali.
On Jan. 15, three assailants detonated two car bombs along the city’s central Avenue Kwame Nkrumah, before spraying the Café Cappuchino — a stylish hangout popular with wealthy Westerners and Burkinabé — with bullets. The attackers then moved on to the upscale Splendid Hotel across the street and took hostages.
Burkinabé soldiers cordoned off the area, while French special forces and U.S. advisers arrived. Two attackers were killed in the Splendid, and the third fled to the adjacent Yibi Hotel before dying in a final standoff.
At least 30 people from seven countries, including five Burkinabé were killed and more than 50 injured in the attack. Almost at the same time, 20 gunmen stormed a village along the border with Mali in the extreme north of Burkina Faso and killed two Gendarmes. In a third attack, gunmen abducted an Australian couple near the Malian border.
Al Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb has claimed responsibility.
The attacks, especially the raid in Ougadougou, have shocked the local population. While there have been smaller incidents related to the presence of AQIM and other Islamist groups in Mali on Burkinabé territory before, the country has never experienced a terrorist attack on the scale committed in Ouagadougou.
In contrast to many other countries in the region, Burkina Faso enjoys a friendly relationship between Christians and Muslims. Both religions exist alongside some remaining animist traditions, with Christians presenting a small majority over Muslims. Families with mixed religious affiliation are not rare, same with joint celebrations of religious holidays.
While the political and economic elite is mainly Christian, political conflicts such as the 2014 insurrection against longtime authoritarian ruler Blaise Compaoré — and a 2015 attempted coup by his supporters against the interim government following C0mpaoré’s departure — never took on religious overtones.
Above — a multi-national force of soldiers including Burkinabe troops train in 2012. U.S. Marine Corps photo At top — the Splendid Hotel in Ougadougou. Zenman/Wikimedia photo
There is no shortage of possible motives behind the AQIM assault. Burkina Faso is closely aligned with French foreign policy. The country’s elite orients itself culturally, politically and economically to developments emanating from the former colonial power.
France has a military base north of the capital, which houses some of its special forces and a detachment of Gazelle scout and light attack helicopters. France deployed these forces during its initial intervention against AQIM and other groups in Mali — and continue to be involved in Operation Barkhane, France’s all-out effort to destroy terrorist structures in the Sahel. And of course Burkina Faso’s quite harmonious co-existence of religions is in itself anathema to AQIM.
The playbook followed by the attackers in Ouagadougou is not a huge innovation. In an official statement AQIM said that its Al Murabitoun brigade planned and carried out the assault. Al Murabitoun, which is led by Mokthar Belmokthar, one of West Africa’s most notorious terrorist masterminds, has a long history of complex and deadly attacks. Most infamously, these include the taking of the natural gas facilities at In Amenas in Algeria in January 2013 and the Radisson Blu attack in Mali’s capital Bamako, only a month ago, which followed almost exactly the same script.
Despite AQIM’s boasting and the familiar pattern, the timing of the attack still offers some fodder for conspiracy theorists. As mentioned, speculations over an attack against French interests in the country has been debated for years.
Burkina Faso’s security services certainly were not an obstacle to a group of determined attackers. The protection of the French embassy, located in a decidedly unhardened compound in central Ouagadougou, has consisted for years of two or three sleepy Burkinabé soldiers manning a ramshackle roadblock. According to a security analyst interviewed by War Is Boring last August, Burkina Faso’s several intelligence services until recently did not report to a central official in the government.
With neighboring Mali experiencing terrorist attacks almost on a weekly basis for over a year now and an extremely porous border between the countries, there hasn’t been any real organizational obstacles to an attack in Burkina Faso.
Instead, many observers believe that an unofficial understanding existed between the most important jihadists based out of Mali and Algeria and the former regime of Blaise Compaoré. He and his long-time military right-hand man Gen. Gilbert Diendéré were known to have excellent contacts in the Islamist scene of the Sahel region.
Both have acted as mediators in the past, negotiating ransoms for European hostages held in Mali.
Compaoré was ousted in late 2014 but was able to continue his political machinations from his exile in Côte d’Ivoire. Diendéré in turn was the leader of the 2015 coup against the interim government tasked with organizing elections. This coup, which presented the best hope of the old elite to return to power, was finally put down by a combination of domestic protest and limited support for Diendéré within the armed forces. Diendéré is now in prison awaiting trial.
Democratic elections held in November 2015 brought Roch Marc Christian Kaboré to power, a former prime minister and ruling party leader who turned on Compaoré two years ago. For the clique surrounding Compaoré, his election and inauguration ended any hope of returning to power soon. With Compaoré out of the picture, the theory goes, groups like AQIM didn’t feel bound to their mutual understanding anymore.
No matter if there is truth to these speculations or not, Burkina Faso’s grace period is over.
Like most of its neighbors, it has to come to terms with the constant threat of similar attacks. And it will be interesting to see how Kaboré’s young administration will react. As a veteran of the former regime — even though he burned his bridges on a personal level — he was still socialized to use repression and violence in extreme cases to react to political threats. And one shouldn’t underestimate the effect of an oversized ego, which virtually all politicians in this region possess.
Both France and the United States, Burkina Faso’s main military allies and donors, will also favor a heavy handed approach to any terrorism challenge, if history is any indication.
Of course the situation Burkina Faso finds itself in is quite special. There are no significant domestic Islamist groups or sympathizers. The attackers who committed the Jan. 15 attack were likely of Malian nationality, just like every other terrorist attack in recent times which has originated outside Burkina Faso. Trying to identify and suppress local support networks will therefore likely be fruitless and carries the risk of alienating the Muslim community by putting it under general suspicion.
But there are obvious, direct security problems that Burkina Faso must confront. The northern part of the country is only superficially policed, with the Malian border being little more than a line on a map with little relevance to the local population. Military, paramilitary and local police forces are widely regarded as incompetent and thoroughly corrupt, with insufficient equipment to boot.
The Paris attacks last year made abundantly clear that even an industrialized country with significant policing and intelligence resources has limited defenses against the style of mass murder. To expect Burkina Faso, one of the poorest countries in the world, to somehow do better than France in this regard is unrealistic. But there is certainly room for improving the professionalism, transparency and effectiveness of the Burkinabé security services.
This will of course involve dismantling ingrained attitudes of authoritarianism and cronyism. The jury is still out on whether that is a more realistic expectation.