Fighting Terrorism in Burkina Faso
The West African nation seeks to create a comprehensive counterterror strategy
Maj. Didier Bamouni
Terrorism and violent extremism surged in West Africa after the Malian crisis in 2012. Among Sahelian countries such as Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger, Burkina Faso remained relatively safe from terrorism until recently, which may be attributed to its perceived role as a mediator in Mali.
Maj. Didier Bamouni is a Burkina Faso Army officer. He has held command and training positions, including chief of operations of a counterterrorism task force. He has a postgraduate degree in defense and conflict studies and is pursuing a master’s degree in the science and economy of climate change. He graduated from the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies’ Program on Terrorism and Security Studies.
Since 2015, terrorist groups such as al-Mourabitoun and the Macina Liberation Front in northern Mali have started targeting Burkina Faso. The worst attack was in the capital, Ouagadougou, on January 15, 2016, when gunmen linked to al-Qaida stormed the Splendid Hotel and a nearby restaurant, killing 30 people. Experts believe there will be more terrorist attacks. Consequently, Burkina Faso must urgently implement a comprehensive strategy for countering terrorism and violent extremism, to be enforced by a joint counterterrorism agency.
Burkina Faso already uses a variety of kinetic and nonkinetic approaches when dealing with terrorism and violent extremism, employing instruments of national power and social tools. But these approaches are not yet part of a comprehensive strategy.
Violent extremism in Burkina Faso
Terrorism and violent extremism are recent security challenges for Burkina Faso. In November 2014, the country went through a popular uprising that removed President Blaise Compaoré from office. At the time, he also was the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) mediator in the Mali crisis. Burkina Faso was then ruled by a transitional government that did not play as significant a role in the political resolution of the Malian crisis.
Manifestations of terrorism in Burkina Faso have been threefold. First, the number of violent terrorist acts has increased in northern Mali, a development that is now affecting the security of Burkina Faso. In April 2015, terrorists abducted a Romanian mining company worker in the northern part of the country and killed a security officer who tried to intervene. In August and October 2015, extremists attacked security outposts in Oursi, in northern Burkina Faso, and Samorogouan, in the west. In January 2016, terrorists stormed a restaurant and a hotel in Ouagadougou. In May 2016, terrorists attacked security outposts in Koutougou and Intangom in the north. The al-Mourabitoun group of Moktar Belmoktar and the Macina Liberation Front of Amadoun Kouffa — both affiliated with al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) — are suspected in the attacks.
Second, radicalization hot spots have emerged in Ouagadougou, Bobo Dioulasso and in the northern part of the country. Researchers, security practitioners and civil society groups all acknowledge the structural problems and enabling factors that prevail in Burkina Faso. This radicalization is Islamic and emerges in urban mosques and in the countryside. There are also reports of the preaching of extremist views in rural areas in the southern and eastern parts of the country. This threat should be taken seriously, considering that 60.5 percent of Burkina Faso’s population is Muslim.
Third, although there is no evidence that Burkinabe are joining extremist groups in large numbers, the threat exists. Mainly, these are young Burkinabe who have studied in Arab countries such as Egypt, Sudan and Syria. They return to Burkina Faso after completing their studies but find few job opportunities, in part because the public administration is not prepared to employ Arab speakers since the official language is French. Recently, some of these foreign fighters were arrested by the Burkinabe security services while preparing an attack in Côte d’Ivoire. In May 2016, Mali security officials arrested Boubacar Sawadogo, an Ansar al-Dine South leader and a native of Burkina Faso.
Burkina Faso does not yet have a longstanding and comprehensive strategy for countering violent extremism and fighting terrorism. However, it uses a variety of tools and instruments — kinetic and nonkinetic — to protect the country. When confronted by the recent attack in Ouagadougou, these tools enabled a stronger security response.
At the diplomatic level, the country is part of the African Union and ECOWAS. Burkina Faso Armed Forces are part of the ECOWAS Standby Force, and multilateral exercises have been conducted under that heading. Additionally, security and military cooperation with neighboring countries is paramount and is specified in Burkina Faso’s defense policy. The country, therefore, has excellent security and military cooperation relationships with neighboring countries at strategic and local levels.
This strong security cooperation was demonstrated in the investigation of the terrorist attacks in Ouagadougou; Bamako, Mali; and Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire; through efficient information sharing that led to the arrest of suspects in all three countries. The creation of the G5 Sahel Group, a political grouping of Sahelian countries that includes Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger, will only strengthen this cooperation. This has allowed for improved information sharing and the creation of joint border operations. Moreover, Burkina Faso has increased security and military cooperation with strategic partners such as France, Taiwan and the United States. This cooperation includes new foreign bases, training, equipment programs and joint operations.
The country has made huge strides in military and security measures against terrorism since the start of the Mali crisis. The Burkina Faso Army was part of the African-led International Support Mission in Mali, which aimed to stop armed terrorist, criminal and insurgent groups, and prevent the spread of these groups to southern countries. Currently, Burkina Faso is the largest troop contributor in Mali, with 1,742 troops deployed, excluding the 140 new Formed Police Unit personnel deployed in June 2016 in Gao. In addition, Burkina Faso deployed a counterterror task force in the northern region of the country, successfully deterring offensive action against the country and helping to manage a huge number of refugees — 33,000 have poured in from Mali. With the support of strategic partners, Burkina Faso has developed a number of special units within the Army, the gendarmerie and the police. They have improved their hostage rescue, neutralization of explosives and investigation skills. Police controls have also been increased in cities and on roads. As part of community policing, local security initiatives have emerged, including the development of local vigilance groups. These groups, composed of people of mixed ages, have helped provide early warning to the security forces.
Intelligence networks have effectively protected the country. This working information network has helped allied countries rescue hostages and prevent terrorist actions. The liberation of Canadian diplomat Robert Fowler in 2008 and Swiss missionary Beatrice Stockly in 2012 are examples. The intelligence network proved its effectiveness again in 2014 at the crash site of an Algerian airliner in northern Mali. The national intelligence structure consists of intelligence services within the Army, the gendarmerie and the police. In addition, Burkina Faso created a Homeland Intelligence Coordination Center in 2011 with the objective of merging internal intelligence, allowing the Ministry of Security to be more effective. The office of the head of state directed external intelligence. The entire intelligence structure was closely overseen by the office of the president. However, the political instability in Burkina Faso that led to the departure of President Compaoré negatively impacted this structure. To fill the gap and centralize intelligence cells, a National Intelligence Agency was recently created.
At the legislative and judiciary levels, officials updated the 2009 anti-terrorism law in December 2015 to reflect increasing threats. The new law broadened the definition of terrorist acts to include some crimes that intend to influence the government and create fear in the population, acts committed in preparation for a terror attack, and activities that support terrorism. Other changes included the lengthening of detention periods, the use of special investigative techniques such as surveillance, and the elimination of time restrictions for search operations in cases involving terrorism. Officials created a special anti-terrorism court in Ouagadougou, but it needs to be operationalized. As part of this process, representatives of the judiciary met in May 2016 to develop special anti-terrorism jurisdictions.
The economy plays a vital role in countering violent extremism. The country’s political leadership announced it would like to distribute wealth more equally through development programs. One noteworthy initiative is the annual development and infrastructure program that coincides with the annual celebration of Independence Day on December 11. Started in 2008, it consists of the government acknowledging the needs of local communities. For example, the government will consult with the local population and implement a new development project to realize the community’s goals. This initiative has allowed the government to develop remote cities and thereby diminish local grievances. As of 2016, six cities have benefited from this initiative. Other development projects include youth employment, farm production and empowering women.
The social background of the country plays the most important role in countering violent extremism — this needs to be recognized and strengthened. Burkina Faso enjoys a peaceful social environment driven by social cohesion and dialogue. Burkinabe don’t identify themselves through religion, race or color, but rather through ethnicity. Fortunately, many conflict resolution tools exist among ethnic groups. Two, among others, are joking relationships and the predominance of notables. This culture of joking allows two individuals or groups to engage in unusually free verbal or physical interactions. This joking helps defuse ethnic tensions. Notables are respected, wise people who traditionally wield large influence in society. Both of these tools can be used to reinforce national cohesion. Education needs to be updated to strengthen the national identity of “upright people” and return to the meaning it had during the revolutionary period of the 1980s. Burkina Faso actually means “country of upright people.”
Burkina Faso shares borders with six nations, making cooperation key for its survival and for fighting terrorism. Military and security cooperation already exist, but they need to be strengthened. In fact, the G5 Sahel initiative can be extended to other neighboring countries, including Senegal and Nigeria — the whole entity being the first line of defense against the spread of terrorism from north to south. Officials have made significant military and security improvements since the beginning of this initiative. Burkina Faso is more likely to plan and conduct joint operations in areas of interest and share information with other G5 countries. In this regard, the country has developed or resumed previous communications networks at strategic and tactical levels. Quarterly coordination meetings and chiefs of defense staff meetings are each held in rotating capital cities. And most important, G5 militaries now train with counterparts in other countries, building interoperability and trust. The contribution of strategic partners cannot be overlooked and needs to be reinforced.
Education programs should include violent extremism awareness programs and should build a sense of human and Burkinabe values, such as uprightness, fighting corruption, hard work and tolerance. They should also promote Burkinabe history and culture. In that spirit, the Speaker of Parliament, Dr. Salifou Diallo, inaugurated the international conference on the prevention of violent extremism held by the West African Organization for Muslim Youth in Ouagadougou from August 16-18, 2016. He noted that education is a key solution to violent extremism. Working with families, especially mothers, has proven to be effective in many places and should be adopted in Burkina Faso. It strengthens family relationships and develops a sense of common responsibility. In short, mothers need to be aware of their roles in creating a better society where extremism cannot take root. The department of women’s promotion is ideal to run such a project. Development projects need to be reinforced. The already-existing initiative of celebrating Independence Day with development programs should be extended to remote localities after being completed in the 13 regional capitals.
Fighting terrorism and countering violent extremism in Burkina Faso requires more than cooperation and strong social cohesion. It requires a unified purpose and a comprehensive action plan. Taking advantage of ongoing security and defense sector reforms, a comprehensive approach to fighting terrorism and countering violent extremism can be strengthened. This strategy should include a joint counterterrorism agency with stakeholders ranging from security practitioners to lawyers, civil society organizations, and religious and traditional leaders. This institution will help get government agencies and the population on board in the fight against terrorism and extremism. It will signal to the population the importance of this fight and reassure citizens that the government is taking action. This strategy needs to be publicized so that everyone is included.
Although Burkina Faso does not yet have a well-established and comprehensive strategy to fight terrorism and counter violent extremism, it does use a variety of instruments that have proven to be effective. However, certain areas need attention. The importance of cooperation is paramount, since terrorism recognizes no borders. Development programs should be widened, with more emphasis on the country’s youth, which constitute more than half of the population. To achieve long-term security, resilience should be built through strengthening Burkinabe social cohesion and national identity. This goal is difficult or impossible without a comprehensive strategy run by a joint counterterrorism agency.