PGI INSIGHT: Islamist militants secure foothold in eastern Burkina Faso
- Counter-terrorism operations in Northeastern Mali and in the Liptako-Gourma border area appear to have driven militants to eastern Burkina Faso where IED and ground attacks have killed tens of security forces in recent months.
- Modes of operation and regional Islamist group activity suggest Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) and Ansaroul Islam are responsible for the attacks.
- Burkinabe authorities have so far been unable to contain the spread of militancy in Est region where insecurity is likely to persist in the coming months.
Since January 2018, suspected Islamist militant attacks have escalated in eastern Burkina Faso, an area which had previously only seen occasional jihadist incidents. The uptick in violence in the east has coincided with increased counter-terrorism operations by French Barkhane forces and pro-Bamako armed groups in Northeastern Mali targeting ISGS militants.
The operations have reportedly killed tens of militants and are likely to have driven ISGS fighters south towards the Niger-Burkina Faso border. It is likely that Burkinabe Islamist militant group Ansaroul Islam which operates out of the Northeast Sahel region of Burkina Faso is collaborating with ISGS to expand its operations south in Burkina’s Est region.
Mode of operation and targets
Suspected Islamist militants have predominantly targeted government forces in eastern Burkina Faso, although some have targeted local traditional leaders. Most incidents have seen two or three gunmen on motorcycles open fire on police stations, patrols or government officials before returning to forest hideouts. However, assailants have increasingly used IEDs and conducted more sophisticated attacks since mid-August. IEDs have killed more than ten soldiers and injured tens of other government forces near Burkina’s Southeast border in Kompienga province.
Attacks have rarely targeted civilians although these could increase in the coming months as militants attempt to consolidate their influence in the east. Islamist groups in Mali and Burkina Faso are known to kidnap and kill local community leaders and other civilians who refuse to cooperate with them. On the 17th of September, suspected militants attacked a local religious leader in Kompienga province and such incidents are regularly reported in the Northeast Sahel region. However, armed groups have also attracted the support of local leaders, some of whom have allowed young men to train along the Malian-Burkinabe border. This suggests at least some militants are locals with knowledge of the eastern region.
The attacks have also raised concerns among mining companies operating in eastern Burkina Faso. In August, suspected militants used a roadside IED followed by small-arms fire to attack a convoy carrying employees of Canadian mining company Semafo, killing six people, including a Semafo driver. Although government forces were likely the primary target, the attack illustrates that the deteriorating security environment increases the risk to commercial operations in the area, particularly those using government escorts.
Islamic State in the Greater Sahara, Ansaroul Islam suspected
While no group has yet claimed any of the attacks in the east, they were most likely carried out by Islamist militant groups Ansaroul Islam or ISGS, which use similar tactics. ISGS is active in Northeast Mali, along the Northeast Burkinabe border and in Niger. The proximity of ISGS’ area of operation and the increased pressure that Barkhane operations have placed on the group since January, strongly suggests its militants are conducting some of the attacks in the east.
Burkinabe group Ansaroul Islam may have expanded its operations from its traditional bases in nern Burkina Faso towards Est region. The shift in Ansaroul Islam activity could be motivated by pressure from Burkinabe security forces in the northeast of the country, where the group’s operations are centred, as well as by the opportunity to expand operations southeast offered by ISGS’ own southern expansion. Ansaroul Islam has previously attempted to launch attacks south of Soum region but failed to consolidate its presence further south. The arrival of well-armed and experienced ISGS fighters has likely encouraged the Burkinabe group to move into the Eastern region.
ISGS and Ansaroul Islam are likely cooperating in Burkina’s Est region. ISGS has launched several attacks in the northeast of the Sahel region in recent years, near Ansaroul Islam’s stronghold in Soum region, further suggesting links between the two groups. Moreover, a UN monitoring group found that an Ansaroul Islam faction has operational links to ISGS. Cooperation between the two could lead to coordinated attacks and the possible formation of a militant front stretching from Soum province to Kompienga province, further complicating counter-terrorism efforts in the region.
A weak security response
Burkinabe security forces have been unable to contain the spread of Islamist militancy in the east, despite launching military operations since March. The vast wooded areas and the limited number of security forces in the east have allowed militant groups to quickly gain a foothold in the region, allowing violence to escalate rapidly. In early September, the head of police of Est region called for immediate reinforcements, warning that security forces in the area, especially in Kompienga province, were overwhelmed and underequipped.
In mid-September, Burkinabe authorities launched air strikes and search operations in Komondjari province, Est region, following the escalation in attacks since mid-August. The Burkinabe army rarely uses air strikes and has not used the air force in operations in the north of the country where Islamist militant activity has persisted for several years. The strikes are likely indicative of the perceived urgency of the threat from militants in the east.
The spread of militant attacks across Est region and their growing sophistication suggest militants already possess considerable operational capability in the area which will make it harder for Burkinabe forces to drive them out. Militants are likely to avoid direct confrontation with security forces as counter-terrorism operation intensify and use guerrilla-style tactics such as roadside IEDs and ambushes. Security forces will remain the primary target but business operations in the area are vulnerable, as demonstrated by the attack on a mining convoy in August.
Militant groups are unlikely to move west towards Ouagadougou and will instead attempt to consolidate their position possibly seeking to widen their area of operations. As in the north, militants in the east benefit from vast forests where police presence is limited. Air strikes are therefore unlikely to have a significant impact on the presence or capabilities of militants, though they could reduce the frequency of attacks in the coming weeks.
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