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Burkina Faso’s Alarming Escalation of Jihadist Violence
Burkina Faso’s Alarming Escalation of Jihadist Violence
Tombs in a Muslim cemetery are silhouetted during sunset in the village of Karateren near the Aral Sea, in southwestern Kazakhstan, April 2005. REUTERS/Shamil Zhumatov
Briefing 72 / Europe & Central Asia

Syria Calling: Radicalisation in Central Asia

The Islamic State (IS) is attracting Central Asians to Syria and fostering new links among radicals within the region. Unless the five Central Asian governments develop a credible, coordinated counter-action plan, including improved security measures but also social, political and economic reforms, growing radicalism will eventually pose a serious threat to their stability.

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I. Overview

Growing numbers of Central Asian citizens, male and female, are travelling to the Middle East to fight or otherwise support the Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIL orISIS). Prompted in part by political marginalisation and bleak economic prospects that characterise their post-Soviet region, 2,000-4,000 have in the past three years turned their back on their secular states to seek a radical alternative. IS beckons not only to those who seek combat experience, but also to those who envision a more devout, purposeful, fundamentalist religious life. This presents a complex problem to the governments of Central Asia. They are tempted to exploit the phenomenon to crack down on dissent. The more promising solution, however, requires addressing multiple political and administrative failures, revising discriminatory laws and policies, implementing outreach programs for both men and women and creating jobs at home for disadvantaged youths, as well as ensuring better coordination between security services.

Should a significant portion of these radicalised migrants return, they risk challenging security and stability throughout Central Asia. Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan form a brittle region, sandwiched between Russia and Afghanistan, Iran and China. Each suffers from poor governance, corruption and crime. Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan resemble authoritarian police states. Kazakhstan has some wealth, but its regions are in disrepair, and its political system is autocratic. All five fail to deliver quality social services, particularly in rural areas. Their security services – underfunded, poorly trained and inclined to resort to harsh methods to compensate for a lack of resources and skills – are unable to deal with a challenge as intricate as radical Islam. Rather than promoting religious freedom while safeguarding secular constitutions and attempting to learn from European or Asian experiences in rehabilitating jihadis, the five fuel further radicalisation by using laws to curb religious growth and the police to conduct crackdowns.

Recruitment to the extremist cause is happening in mosques and namazkhana(prayer rooms) across the region. The internet and social media play a critical but not definitive role. The radicalisation of women is often a response to the lack of social, religious, economic and political opportunities afforded to them in Central Asia. Economic reward is not a motivation for those drawn to IS-controlled territory. For some, it is a personal adventure; for others it is a call to arms. Many find themselves providing support services to more experienced fighters from the Caucasus or Arab states.

Ethnic Uzbeks, including citizens of Uzbekistan, are most numerous among the Central Asians with the Islamic State, but Kyrgyz, Kazakhs, Turkmen and Tajiks are also well represented. Some are recruited at home; others are radicalised abroad, often as migrant workers. The problem is acute in southern Kyrgyzstan, where the risks are amplified by the alienation of the Uzbek community since the violence in Osh in 2010.

The appeal of jihadism in the region is also rooted in an unfulfilled desire for political and social change. Rich or poor, educated or not, young or mature, male or female, there is no single profile of an IS supporter, but fatigue with social and political circumstances is an important linking thread. Uzbekistan is particularly exposed. Frustrated and excluded, people who would not have considered fighting with the longer-established Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) or the Taliban in Afghanistan perceive the Islamic State as the creator of a novel and ordained political order.

The number of Central Asians receiving combat training and progressing through IS command structures is increasing, as are the jihadi networks of which they are a part. Although most Central Asians find themselves in jamaats (factions) organised loosely along ethnic and linguistic lines, these form larger regional battalions of cooperating fighters from across the former Soviet Union, Afghanistan, Pakistan and China’s Xinjiang region. The risk is rising that these connections will gather pace and purpose in Central Asia, blindsiding governments ill-prepared to respond to a security threat of this type.

Russia and China are already concerned and have urged the Central Asian states to address the problem of radicalisation in light of the rise of IS. The region’s other international partners, including, the EU and the U.S., should recognise that Central Asia is a growing source of foreign fighters and consider prioritising policing reform, as well as a more tolerant attitude to religion, in their recommendations for combating the problem. Without a concerted effort on the part of the Central Asians, including their security services with respect to intelligence sharing, however, the response outside powers seek will likely flounder.

Bishkek/Brussels, 20 January 2015

Burkinabé soldiers patrol the army's headquarters in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, on 3 March 2018, a day after dozens of people were killed in twin attacks on the French embassy and the country's military. AFP/Ahmed Ouoba
Commentary / Africa

Burkina Faso’s Alarming Escalation of Jihadist Violence

Attacks on the Burkina Faso army headquarters and the French Embassy on 2 March 2018 were better organised, involved heavier weapons and were more sustained than anything seen so far in Burkina Faso. In this Q&A, our West Africa Project Director Rinaldo Depagne says the jihadist assault further exposes worrying weakness in the Burkinabé security forces.

What do we know about the 2 March attacks in Ouagadougou?

The attacks represent an alarming escalation for Burkina Faso in terms of organisation, lethality of armaments and length of engagement. The attacks were claimed on 3 March by the Group to Support Muslims and Islam, known by its Arabic acronym JNIM, which is part of a wider coalition in the Sahel linked to al-Qaeda.

Operations were carried out by two groups of at least four to five assailants each. While the incidents were confined to the city center, they hit two symbolic targets at the heart of power in the country: the army headquarters and the French Embassy. The official death toll is sixteen, including nine assailants. Reliable sources indicated more than 30 dead. The number of wounded is around 85.

At the army headquarters, it seems up to five men in a vehicle either used a grenade or rocket-propelled grenade to blast their way through the entrance gate, where they then shot at soldiers in the courtyard and detonated a vehicle full of explosives by the main building. This version is confirmed by two different French and Burkinabé security sources.

Long spared by the Sahel’s armed groups, Burkina is now part of the wars of the [region].

At the French Embassy, a group of at least four men tried to force their way into the embassy. Unable to enter, they took up positions nearby and exchanged heavy fire with Burkinabé security forces. French soldiers, who have played a leading role in Burkina Faso’s security for decades, quickly reinforced the building with men lowered from helicopters. Shooting continued for several hours.

Burkinabé forces relied heavily on French support to respond to the attacks. A French military source told Crisis Group: “Burkinabé forces were crushed at the beginning. We helped them”. Even so, compared to the previous two attacks in Ouagadougou in 2016 and 2017, the response time and organisation of the reaction seem slightly improved.

Violence in the Sahel long seemed to spare Burkina Faso. How has Ouagadougou become a target?

It is not only Ouagadougou that has become a target; so has the north of the country. Long spared by the Sahel’s armed groups, Burkina is now part of the wars of the Sahel.

Since January 2016, the country has experienced several deadly attacks from regional and international terrorist networks. Nineteen people were killed and 25 others injured when suspected jihadists opened fire on a Turkish restaurant in central Ouagadougou on 13 August 2017. Thirty people were killed in similar circumstances in January 2016, not far from the Turkish restaurant, in an attack claimed by Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).

Since 2015, northern Burkina Faso, which borders troubled Mali, has also experienced 80 attacks that are increasingly frequent and lethal. These attacks are mostly done by Ansarul Islam, a group founded in December 2016 that is locally rooted, albeit with ties to other groups in Mali.

One reason why Burkina Faso has become an easier target may be the weakness of the country’s security apparatus. Since the departure of former President Blaise Compaoré in October 2014, the army is significantly less organised. The special forces unit known as Presidential Security Regiment (RSP) under Compaoré was dismantled after his departure, and no equivalent has replaced it. Intelligence gathering appears to be weak, judging by the failure to detect or disrupt the major attacks that happened on Friday. Two teams totaling at least eight men were able to cross the city center carrying heavy weapons and driving a car full of explosives without being spotted.

Burkinabé authorities declared that they suspect some army members of helping Friday’s attackers, leaking key information.

Under Compaoré, intelligence capacities were based on strong individuals. Spymaster Gilbert Diendéré, Compaoré’s personal chief of staff, headed an impressive regional and international intelligence network. Those individuals have left. It is taking time to rebuild efficient institutions in their wake.

Is the attack in Ouagadougou a purely domestic affair, or linked to broader violence in the Sahel region?

The relationship between the Burkinabé government and the various armed groups of the Sahel has changed. From the mid-2000s to 2012, Compaoré’s regime cut deals with armed groups, allegedly providing them with logistical support in exchange for their neutrality. This evolved with the 2012-2013 Malian crisis. Thousands of Malian refugees fled from their homes to the Burkinabé border, raising fears in Ouagadougou that war would spill over. New armed groups appeared, with which Compaoré’s regime had less established relations.

Compaoré therefore revised his strategy, slowly switching from arrangements with armed groups to more direct military intervention. Burkina Faso deployed 1,000 troops along the Malian border after January 2013, and 650 troops in Mali as part of the African-led International Support Mission to Mali (AFISMA) under the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). This may have put Burkina Faso in some jihadists’ firing line. In February 2013, a spokesperson for the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), one of the groups that controlled northern Mali for almost a year in 2012, said: “Bamako, Ouagadougou and Niamey are targets for our suicide bombers”.

Where do the Ouagadougou attacks fit into the context of jihadist violence in the Sahel, and the regional response to it?

This attack happened at a moment when the level of violence in the Sahel is very high. On 3 March, the Group to Support Muslims and Islam (JNIM) claimed responsibility for the Ouagadougou attacks. Part of a wider coalition linked to al-Qaeda, JNIM comprises several jihadist factions, including groups formerly known as Ansar Eddine, al-Mourabitoun, and the Macina Liberation Front. It is headed by Iyad ag Ghali, a Malian Tuareg. JNIM said the attack was in retaliation for a French airstrike on 14 February, which killed several leaders, including al-Mourabitoun deputy leader al-Hassan al-Ansari, and Malick ag Wanasnat, a close associate to Ghali.

This French airstrike was part of a surge in military operations in neighbouring Mali, conducted by either the Malian armed forces (FAMA), the French counter-terrorism force known as Barkhane, or a combination of both together with the support of the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA). The Malian and French operations aim to reverse a rising tide of jihadist attacks and jihadists establishing control of swathes of territory. They also aim to pave the way for presidential elections in Mali in July 2018. The main jihadist groups on their target list include: the JNIM itself; a faction of the JNIM previously known as the Macina Liberation Front, which operates in central Mali under the leadership of Hamadoun Kouffa; and a local affiliate of the Islamic State (ISIS) that operates in Menaka along the border with Niger, led by Adnane Abou Walid al-Sahraoui.

At the same time, progress is being made toward the operationalisation of the G5 Sahel joint force, formed between Burkina Faso, four of its neighbours, and backed by France. Launched in February 2017 and analysed in a 12 December 2017 Crisis Group report, the G5 has secured funding, begun formal planning for its relationship with MINUSMA, and has now conducted two operations in the border areas between Mali, Niger and Burkina. According to the Burkinabé minister of security, a meeting on the G5 may have been in progress at the army headquarters when the attack happened. In its statement, JNIM wrote that it wants to discourage the “Burkinabé regime and others that raced to join the G5 and fight on behalf of the French”.

With targets attacked including the army headquarters, is there a possibility that the attackers may have been helped by some Burkinabé army members?

Burkinabé authorities declared that they suspect some army members of helping Friday’s attackers, leaking key information. Attackers at the army headquarters wore Burkinabé military uniforms and most of them were Burkinabé nationals. As a retired colonel of the Burkinabé army put it on Friday in a local TV interview: “Terrorism is a multi-facetted issue and we shouldn’t rule out any hypothesis”.

[T]he less the government spends on development, the less it is able to answer strong social demands for better public services and governance that emerged after Compaoré’s departure.

The retired colonel noted that 566 members of the army and air force were summarily dismissed in 2011. Some of these men, who have been barred from rejoining the army for the rest of their lives, became bandits or joined Islamist groups in Mali, including Malian al-Qaeda offshoots, as discussed in Crisis Group’s 22 July 2013 report Burkina Faso: With or Without Compaoré, Times of Uncertainty. Also, other members of the former Presidential Security Regiment have been sacked or dispersed to other units, and they are very frustrated.          

Many Burkinabés, including some senior members of the current government, privately suspect that former collaborators of Compaoré could be behind these terrorist attacks due to the links those individuals built with armed groups. There is, however, no direct evidence to support those suspicions. In its statement, JNIM referred to those past good relations. It said the previous Burkinabé government’s position of non-interference meant it avoided “falling into a swamp of blood".

Some former Compaoré allies, who allegedly built and maintained those relations, are now living abroad. Others, accused of supporting a short-lived 2015 coup against the current post-Compaoré order, should have been on trial in Ouagadougou last week. The trial was suspended after their lawyers protested it would not have been impartial. No direct evidence supports accusations of their involvement in Friday’s attack.

How does Friday’s attack affect Burkina Faso’s stability?

If information of possible help from security forces to the attackers is confirmed, it will further divide and disrupt an already fragile army. This will also harm popular confidence in the government and military. Relations between current authorities and the former Compaoré-era political elite will become tenser and increase the climate of suspicion in the country.

The attacks could, in any event, have significant economic and social consequences. The more Burkina Faso is under attack, the more the government will be tempted to spend on the military. As Crisis Group pointed out in its 12 October 2017 report on The Social Roots of Jihadist Violence in Burkina Faso’s North, the less the government spends on development, the less it is able to answer strong social demands for better public services and governance that emerged after Compaoré’s departure. Its continued failure to meet those demands risks provoking street protests and perhaps even riots.