- An escalation in militancy in 2019 has left large rural northern and eastern areas of Burkina Faso largely outside of central government control.
- Islamist militant groups have eroded government authority in the north and are likely to expand their operations southwards in the near term.
- Groups will continue to consolidate control over artisanal gold mining in the east, providing them with an important revenue stream.
- With security forces ill-placed to curb the escalating violence, militant groups are likely to expand their activities in 2020.
Militant groups have expanded attacks across northern and eastern Burkina Faso in 2019. Alongside attacks on security forces, militant groups are increasingly attacking civilians belonging to rival religious and ethnic groups. This strategy appears to be an effort to fuel sectarian divisions in the country. To date, the violence has displaced at least 500,000 people, with this figure likely to increase in 2020.
Islamist militants have successfully expanded their influence in northern Burkina Faso by targeting local authorities and infrastructure. Al-Qaeda-linked Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (JNIM) and local group Ansaroul Islam have destroyed around 10 bridges in recent months in an effort to cut off towns and hinder counter-terrorism operations.
Militants are increasingly assassinating local government officials and community leaders in the north in a further effort to weaken state authority. In early November 2019, assailants killed the deputy mayor of Djibo, one of a number of carefully targeted political assassinations in recent months aimed at furthering militants’ control over Soum province.
Expansion of influence in Burkina Faso
Militants will continue to consolidate their position in northern Burkina Faso and will attempt to expand their operations southwards in 2020. Islamist groups have thus far relied on remaining in rural areas and avoided holding larger towns. From a consolidated position, JNIM and Ansaroul Islam could attempt to capture isolated towns to use as a foothold to carry out attacks in more southern parts of Centre-Nord and Nord region.
Militants are likely to step up operations in the east in the coming months due to a weakened security forces presence in the region. In 2019, militants expanded their influence over the Est region’s illegal gold mining sector. Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS), or local militias linked to the group, have occupied around 15 gold mines in the east, giving them direct control over production and sales.
To date, militants’ efforts to exert control over artisanal gold mining have remained relatively limited, with revenues from illegal mining presently a secondary source of funding for militant groups. However, a sophisticated attack targeting Canadian mining company Semafo in early November, in which 39 employees and contractors were killed, suggests that ISGS-linked militants are now aiming to undermine investor confidence in the gold mining sector in a bid to damage the state’s primary revenue stream and drive foreign companies from the region in order to gain control over their mining sites.
Militants’ exploitation of the country’s illegal gold mining sector is likely to grow in the near term as the value of artisanal mining becomes fully apparent to terrorist organisations. The sector presents a significant financial opportunity. A 2018 government survey of 24 illegal gold mines in areas where Islamist militants are active estimated that the sites were capable of producing around 725 kg of gold per year, an amount equal to USD 34 mn based on current market prices.
Security operations to regain control over geographically isolated artisanal gold mines in Est region have proved largely unsuccessful, leaving ISGS-linked militants poised to expand their control over a potentially hugely valuable sector in 2020. Increased revenues from illegal gold mining would enable ISGS to recruit additional fighters and expand its operations westwards over the short-to-medium term.
An uptick in attacks in central-south and southern areas of Burkina Faso since mid-2019 indicates that militant groups are stepping up efforts to isolate and encircle central areas of the country, including the capital Ouagadougou. Attacks are likely to increase further in southern and south-central regions in 2020. An attack targeting foreign interests in the capital in the near term cannot be ruled out, given the impact it would have on government morale and the perceived strength of militant groups.
Limited domestic counter-terrorism capabilities
The armed forces are highly unlikely to regain control over the north and east in the short-to-medium term. Morale within the military is at an all-time low and Burkinabe forces remain poorly trained and ill-equipped. In May, a major security operation launched in Nord, Centre-Nord, and Sahel regions proved largely unsuccessful, with militants regrouping across the border in Mali before re-establishing operations. At present, containment remains the only realistic strategy available to the armed forces.
Amid weak – or altogether absent – state authority, pro-government self-defence militias (Koglweogo) are increasingly taking on responsibility for security provision in conflict zones. The Koglweogos’ growing role may inadvertently lead to a further deterioration in the security environment. These semi-regulated groups, which enjoy the broad backing of the government, have been accused of perpetrating human rights abuses against rival ethnic groups, a factor which militant groups are likely to seek to exploit through a polarising narrative.
International engagement is unlikely to significantly bolster counter-terrorism capabilities. France deployed ground forces to border areas in Burkina Faso in early November, with Paris calling for the deployment of special forces from other European countries in 2020. However, there has been very little appetite among France’s allies for such an operation. France’s involvement in Burkina Faso is also likely to remain limited given the scale of its commitment in Mali and a recent uptick in violence there.
Moreover, as France’s intervention in Mali has demonstrated, foreign involvement may be sufficient to counter militant activity in the short-term, but it is highly unlikely to provide a lasting solution to Burkina Faso’s security crisis. Militants will step up activities away from border areas where French troops are deployed, and a possible full-scale French deployment to Burkina Faso risks drawing France into an additional country in the region.
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