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The Struggle with Islamic State that Turkey Hoped to Avoid
The Struggle with Islamic State that Turkey Hoped to Avoid
Workers repair the damaged parts of the terminal building at Turkey's Istanbul Ataturk airport on 29 June 2016. REUTERS/Murad Sezer

The Struggle with Islamic State that Turkey Hoped to Avoid

In this Q&A, Crisis Group tapped the views of its Project Director and Analyst in Turkey, Nigar Göksel and Berkay Mandıracı, as well as its Russia and the North Caucasus Project Director, Ekaterina Sokirianskaia.

Turkey has blamed the so-called Islamic State (IS) for the triple suicide gun and bomb assault on Istanbul airport on 28 June that killed 45 people. Some of the gunmen had family links to Russia’s troubled North Caucasus, from where many people have moved to and through Turkey. More broadly, the assault brings into the open a struggle with IS that Turkey had hoped it could avoid. In this Q&A, Crisis Group tapped the views of its Project Director and Analyst in Turkey, Nigar Göksel and Berkay Mandıracı, as well as its Russia and the North Caucasus Project Director, Ekaterina Sokirianskaia.

How much do we know about the North Caucasus jihadists who carried out the Istanbul attacks and their links to Turkey?

Turkish police declared that two of the bombers are Russian citizens, at least one of them with links to the North Caucasus. According to the Turkish media, one or more had travelled to Turkey from Raqqa, one of the main strongholds of IS in northern Syria. It is not yet clear if they previously resided in Turkey.

The raid’s organiser is thought to be Akhmed Chataev (also known as Akhmad Shishani), a highly positioned Chechen in IS. Chataev had previously fought against Russia in Chechnya, where he was injured and lost one arm (for which he is better known as “One-handed Akhmed”), and subsequently fled the country in 2002. A year later he was granted asylum in Austria.

In 2007, he became a “representative”, recruiter and fundraiser in Europe for the newly founded Caucasus Emirate, a group loosely associated with al-Qaeda which used terrorist methods during operations in the Russian North Caucasus. In 2013, Chatayev swore allegiance to IS and reportedly played an important role in the incorporation of the North Caucasus jihadist groups into IS.

Since the nineteenth century, Muslims from the North Caucasus and other areas under Russian rule have moved or were forcefully resettled to Turkey in significant numbers. In the last decade, thousands more moved to Turkey to escape pressure from the Russian government. Most are North Caucasus Salafis, believers in a purist Sunni orthodoxy. The overwhelming majority of them are non-violent.

Why would persons from the North Caucasus take part in a terrorist attack against a mainly Turkish target like Istanbul airport?

There are many signs of rising Muslim radicalisation in the former Soviet space, not just in the North Caucasus but also in Russian cities and in Central Asia. This has resulted in young people travelling to IS, prompted by a wide array of grievances and motivations. These are not just fighters, but individuals and families seeking a different way of life.

For North Caucasians, ultra-radical ideology feeds on memories of brutal wars in Chechnya over the past two decades, heavy subsequent counter-insurgency operations across the region, unresolved intra-confessional and ethnic conflicts, social inequality, corruption, failing social services and lack of democratic procedures.

Istanbul became the main transit hub for jihadists who wanted to go to Syria. A first sign that this posed dangers to Turkey came when a female Dagestani suicide bomber staged an attack in Istanbul in January 2015, killing one police officer. After the attack on Istanbul airport, neighbourhood searches and arrests are now under way targeting North Caucasus and Central Asian communities all over the country.

Do you think the IS choice of attackers with links to the North Caucasus was deliberate?

The attackers’ identity could be coincidental, that is, the Russian-speakers could be just implementing the plan of IS commanders, without additional calculations. But in many places IS appears to be deliberately aggravating and exploiting divisions between communities. In Turkey, it has been working hard to radicalise the Russian-speaking communities, and has won over some, including several leaders. North Caucasus fighters are also highly valued in IS ranks.

The tactic of staging attacks with the aim of provoking state repression, which will then be a push-factor for new recruits – a common purpose of terrorist attacks in many places – has been used by jihadist groups in the North Caucasus for years. After the wave of arrests that followed the 2015 suicide bomb attack by a Dagestani woman, there was a new wave of recruitment to jihadi groups in Iraq and Syria.

In recent months, Russia has reportedly given Turkey the names of those whom they suspect of fighting in or links with jihadist groups in Syria. Human rights organisations have received numerous complaints from the Russian Muslims in Turkey that Russia puts them on wanted lists on suspicion of involvement in the Middle East conflicts, but that they have never crossed the Syrian border. Turkish authorities have arrested a number of people from these lists, for instance when they came to extend their residence permits in Turkey. As a result many in North Caucasian communities in Turkey are afraid to extend their permits, which means they will become illegal and hence more vulnerable to recruiters. If Turkey starts to deport suspects to Russia, there could be a significant outflow from these communities to Syria.

How open is the conflict between Turkey and IS?

This is a conflict that Turkey did not want, but is becoming steadily more violent. Since July 2015, Turkey has also suffered six major bombings blamed on IS that have killed around 200 people. According to official figures, in the first five months of 2016, 989 individuals in Turkey were detained on suspicion of having links to IS, of whom 228 were arrested. The numbers were not broken down by national origin.

Also since January, apparent IS rocket attacks on Turkey’s border province of Kilis have killed more than twenty people. In response, the Turkish military has in recent months also engaged in heavily shelling of IS positions across the Syria border.

Since Turkey officially joined the coalition against IS in August 2015, it has become an explicit target of domestic IS mobilisation, IS leaders’ rhetoric and IS publications. In January, IS hardened its position toward Turkey, branding it as an “infidel” Muslim nation because of its secular democracy, calling its ruling pro-Islamic party a “hostile regime”, and using the word tağut to demonise a state that had supposedly “transgressed” the path of true faith. IS social media campaigns #tağutnedir (“what is tağut?”) and #tağut are in circulation since last September, and have recently focused on top officials like President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

Even so, Turkey remains a critical, informal logistical base for IS. One reason IS has not made claims of responsibility for its apparent attacks in Turkey may be that the group hopes to dodge or mitigate Turkish reactions, and to give more space to a small minority of Turkish Sunni Muslims who may support or sympathise with it. It needs to protect its access to the outside world as it faces mounting challenges on its southern fronts. According to Turkish intelligence reports, sermons delivered in IS controlled mosques in Syria reveal that the Turkish towns and provinces of Gaziantep, Nizip, Karkamış and Kilis are among IS’s primary targets.

IS’s official propaganda magazine in Turkish, Konstantiniyye (“Constantinople”, an Ottoman-era name for Istanbul), has targeted the Turkish security forces. January’s edition opened with a section called “The Pharaoh’s Soldiers” that called members of the security forces “blasphemous”. Posts on the Konstantiniyye Twitter account have emphasised that IS will take action against soldiers or employees at any level of the Turkish military apparatus.

In Konstantiniyye’s April edition, IS adroitly tried to find favour in Turkish public opinion, which is traumatised by the past year’s upsurge in the three-decade-old conflict with the insurgent Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). It highlighted what it said was a Turkish policy that “sacrifices soldiers to support the PKK in Syria” in the name of its Western allies while waging war against the PKK within its own borders. “There will be no rest for Turkey until the establishment of the Islamic State [in the country]”, the magazine said.

Turkey has seemed reluctant in the past to put all its resources in the fight against IS. Its main effort has been to eliminate the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a principal domestic threat. Do you think this will change?

During the early years of the Syria war, Turkey tolerated many kinds of people transiting its territory to Syria, partly because it believed volunteer fighters would speed the fall of President Bashar al-Assad. Even if there was no active assistance from Ankara, this situation made life easier for IS.

Another reason for Ankara’s lack of overt hostility was that IS was locked in combat with Syrian Kurdish groups loyal to the PKK. Ankara perceives the PKK as its main enemy, especially since a ceasefire and peace talks broke down a year ago. Since then, fighting related to the PKK insurgency has killed at least 1,600 people, according to Crisis Group’s open source casualty tally.

For sure, the Istanbul airport attack is notable for being the IS action most directly aimed at Turks or a Turkish institution so far. But if Turkey is going to turn toward an all-out focus on IS, it has not happened yet. In the days after the attack, there was still as much focus on PKK as on the IS in Turkey’s official statements. Ankara’s discourse about the two terrorist organisations being the same is unchanged, with consistent criticism of its Western allies for applying double standards in urging a negotiated resolution to the PKK conflict. Turkey has even tried to use the international sympathy generated by the IS attack as a platform to draw attention to PKK-related attacks.

Given that some of the attackers may have links to Russia, what impact will the Istanbul airport attack have on the apparent warming of relations between Ankara and Moscow?

Since 2012, Moscow and Ankara have had deep differences over Syria. Russia firmly supports President Bashar al-Assad, and Turkey resolutely opposes him. The relationship soured further in November 2015 when Turkey shot down a Russian warplane on its Syrian border, and Russia reacted by imposing bans on trade and once-popular visits to Turkey by Russian tourists.

The two sides had already begun a rapprochement before the Istanbul airport attack, and the trend is likely to improve strongly. This is evidenced by a condolence call after the outrage from Russia’s President Vladimir Putin to Erdoğan and an end to Moscow’s Russian tourism ban. Russia is Turkey’s principal supplier of natural gas and a major trading partner, so this is a gain for Ankara, but wariness toward its historic regional rival will not disappear anytime soon.

It may be that IS chose suicide bombers from these nationalities to send a message to Ankara not to join Russia’s alliance with the regime in Damascus against them. But given Turkey’s feud with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, that would be a long shot. Privately, officials are signalling that Ankara’s hard line against Assad may be changing, but this will be limited and not go so far as allying itself with Russia.

Where does the Istanbul airport attack leave Turkey?

The speed that Istanbul airport got back up and running symbolises the resilience of a country accustomed to crisis and conflict. But this comes after several years in which several pillars of Turkish prosperity have been badly damaged.

Political differences within Europe, democratic regression in Turkey and other factors have gravely undermined faith in Turkey’s European Union accession process, once a major locomotive of reform. The Syria war has tested both its longstanding alliance with the U.S. and also its formerly strong commercial partnership with Russia. Foreign investment and tourism have plummeted as turmoil has spilled over its borders with the Middle East. At the same time, Turkey has had to deploy massive resources to offer refuge and support to several million of people fleeing the conflict in Syria and beyond.

In short, Turkey will need all the hardiness it can muster to withstand the new front IS has opened against it.

Contributors

Former Project Director, Russia & North Caucasus
Project Director, Turkey
nigargoksel
Analyst, Turkey
BerkayMANDIRACI
Burkina soldiers carry the coffin of servicemen killed during an attack in Nassoumbou, in the northern province of Soum, in Ouagadougou on 20 December 2016. AFP/Ahmed Ouoba
Report 254 / Africa

The Social Roots of Jihadist Violence in Burkina Faso’s North

Jihadist violence in the West African Sahel has now spread to the north of Burkina Faso. The response of Ouagadougou and its partners must go beyond the obvious religious and security dimensions of the crisis, and any solution must take into account deep-rooted social and local factors.

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Executive Summary

Long spared by the Sahel’s armed groups, Burkina Faso now faces increasingly frequent and lethal attacks in its north. Although this insecurity in large part is an extension of the Malian conflict, the crisis has strong local dynamics. Ansarul Islam, the group behind much of the violence, which often is portrayed as tied to jihadists elsewhere in the Sahel, is first and foremost a movement challenging the prevailing social order in Soum province, in Burkina’s Sahel region. While military operations reasserted the state’s control in the spring of 2017, the crisis is far from over. Ouagadougou and its foreign partners recognise that their response requires more than military offensives and that a definitive resolution of the crisis hinges in part on the situation in Mali. However, their approach needs to better take account of the local and social roots of the crisis, which are more profound than its religious and security dimensions.

In its early stages, Ansarul Islam, founded by Malam Ibrahim Dicko, a preacher from Soum, is a manifestation of widespread discontent at the province’s social order. For years, Malam promoted equality between classes and questioned the dominance of traditional chiefs and the monopolisation of religious authority by marabout families – religious leaders – whom he accuses of enriching themselves at the population’s expense. This rhetoric earned him a wide audience, especially among young people and socially disadvantaged sectors of the population. His turn to violence lost him many followers, but his movement retains enough support to continue a low-intensity insurgency against local and national authorities. Reports of his death during the spring 2017 military operations have not been confirmed and in any case would not end the crisis.

A product of local socio-political and cultural conditions, Ansarul Islam is at least as much a social uprising as it is a religious movement.

A product of local socio-political and cultural conditions, Ansarul Islam is at least as much a social uprising as it is a religious movement. It is less a group critical of modernity than a movement that rejects traditions it believes archaic. It expresses the grievances of a silent majority that holds neither political power nor religious authority. Ansarul Islam uses Islam to frame its opposition to an ossified social order that breeds widespread frustration. Nor is the movement primarily a self-defence group for Fulani, who are in the majority in the Sahel region. Ethnic and identity-based grievances for now assume a marginal role in its discourse.

The distant relationship between state and populations in Burkina’s Sahel region also fuels the crisis. The contrast between the north’s economic potential and its lack of infrastructure feeds a sense of abandonment amongst its population. As in central Mali, local communities see state representatives and security forces as foreigners trying to enrich themselves rather than state agents responsible for providing services. As a result, Soum inhabitants are reluctant to cooperate with security forces who are often from other provinces and whose behaviour is sometimes brutal.

The northern Burkina crisis is also more than a mere reflection of the situation in central Mali. Ansarul Islam uses Mali as a support base and similarities on both sides of the border exist. But the surge of violence supposedly committed in the name of jihad distracts from conflict’s extremely local and social dimensions and the ability of armed groups to exploit social divides. Insecurity in northern Burkina is due not only to the development deficit, the central state’s failure to understand a territory in its peripheries, or the spillover from its neighbour’s war. It is above all the result of a profound social crisis in the north. Divisions between masters and subjects, rulers and ruled, ancient and modern provide the base upon which Malam Dicko’s popularity grew.

A definitive resolution of the crisis depends in part on Mali’s stabilisation as well as the implementation of effective development plans by the government and its partners. More importantly, though, it requires devising a more balanced social order and for local communities to resolve their differences. In this context, the government’s efforts to address the crisis should factor in the following points:

  • Formulate responses that take into account the social and local dimensions of the crisis. While the local order continues to provoke frustration and conflict, ending the crisis will be hard. The scope for government action in this respect is limited: it should not seek to upend a centuries-old social order. The onus should be on local actors to devise solutions adapted to local circumstances. The government and its international partners can at best encourage intercommunal and inter-generational dialogue.
     
  • Reduce the gulf between security forces and authorities and the local population. Several measures could help: improving intelligence and providing informants better protection; encouraging security forces and the civil service to recruit Fulani (without imposing quotas); boosting joint civil-military activities; prioritising the appointment of Fulani speakers as civil servants and security officials in the Sahel; and severely punishing abuses by officials.
     
  • Place greater emphasis in the Sahel region emergency program – the development component of the government’s response – on promoting herding, improving justice provision and fighting corruption. Supporting livestock breeding and addressing the dysfunction in the judicial system and the scourge of corruption in the administration would reduce negative perceptions of the state and show it can be useful to the public.
     
  • Work toward strengthening, in the long term, judicial and police cooperation between Mali and Burkina. This would facilitate investigations that have ramifications in both countries and the management and prosecution of prisoners and suspects.

Ouagadougou/Dakar, 12 October 2017

I. Introduction

In 2015, Burkina joined the group of Sahel countries under attack from armed and criminal groups that are mainly based in Mali but that also operate from several countries in the region. The area most affected by these attacks is the Sahel region, in the north of the country, on the border with Mali and Niger. However, it was only after the attack on Nassoumbou, in Soum province in December 2016, that the Burkina authorities finally understood that the crisis was caused by local dynamics as well as by the crisis in neighbouring Mali.[fn]A counter-terrorism battalion of several hundred men is based at Nassoumbou.Hide Footnote This report focuses on the province of Soum, epicentre of the conflict and birthplace of the Ansarul Islam group led by Malam Ibrahim Dicko, but also examines the situation in other provinces in the Sahel region (Oudalan, Séno and Yagha) as well as along the country’s other borders, which are also vulnerable.[fn]The northern part of Burkina is composed of two administrative regions: the North and the Sahel. The latter is divided into four provinces: Soum, Oudalan, Séno and Yagha. To avoid confusion, this report uses “Sahel region” to refer to this administrative region and “the Sahel” to refer to the area that stretches from Mauritania to Sudan. Similarly, it uses “the north” to refer to the northern part of the country and “the North region” to refer to the administrative region.Hide Footnote

Soum is mainly populated by Fulani, Burkina’s second largest ethnic group. According to the 2006 census, the figures from which need to be treated with caution, the mother tongue of 56 per cent of the Sahel region’s population is Fulfulde, the Fulani language. Several interlocutors estimate that around 70 to 75 per cent of the population in the Sahel region is Fulani.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, inhabitants of Soum, Ouagadougou, May 2017; local authorities, Djibo, May 2017. “Recensement général de la population et de l’habitation (RGPH) 2006. Analyse des résultats définitifs. Thème 2: Etat et structure de la population”, Institut national de la statistique et de la démographie, October 2009.Hide Footnote The main subdivisions of this ethnic group are the noble classes and groups descended from slaves, called Rimaibé. The Rimaibé were originally indigenous population groups who were conquered and assimilated by the Fulani. Today, Fulani and Rimaibé are included in the same Fulani ethnic group. They share the same culture, the same language and often have identical family names. Nevertheless, there is still a clear divide. In the words of one Fulani representative: “Everybody knows their place”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Fulani representative, Ouagadougou, May 2017.Hide Footnote In Soum, the indigenous inhabitants, the Kurumba, also called the Fulsé, are in a minority. Some Mossi (Burkina’s majority ethnic group) and members of other groups also live in the province.

The Sahel region’s precolonial history explains its current social and political organisation.

The Sahel region’s precolonial history explains its current social and political organisation.[fn]See the work of Professor Hamidou Diallo, “Le foyer de Wuro-Saba au Jelgooji (Burkina Faso) et la quête d’une suprématie islamique (1858-2000)”, in Muriel Gomez-Perez, Islam politique au Sud du Sahara. Identités, discours et enjeux (2009), p. 401; and “Naissance et évolution des pouvoirs peuls au Sahel burkinabè (Jelgooji, Liptaako et Yaaga) du XVIIIe à la fin du XIXe”, in Hamidou Diallo, Moussa Willy Bantenga, Le Burkina Faso passé et présent (2015), pp. 97-114. Crisis Group interviews, historian, Ouagadougou, January and May 2017.Hide Footnote Between the fifteenth and eighteenth centuries, Fulani herders from the Inner Niger Delta evicted sedentary farmers and established Fulani domination. The new social hierarchy included nobles and royal families, marabout (Muslim preacher) families, artisans, blacksmiths, weavers, griots (West African story tellers), slave descendants, etc.[fn]There are rivalries between the most important marabout families. The Cissé, considered to be the true and legitimate holders of religious authority and the Doukouré, Marka who came from Mali in the colonial period, belong to two rival branches of the Tijanyia brotherhood. Crisis Group interviews, historian, former senior civil servant, Ouagadougou, May 2017. Jean-Louis Triaud, David Robinson, La Tijâniyya: une confrérie musulmane à la conquête de l’Afrique (Paris, 2005).Hide Footnote The Fulani never managed to establish a single political entity,[fn]The region was divided into the emirates of Liptako, Yagha and Jelgooji. The latter, which corresponds to the province of Soum, was itself divided into Djibo and Baraboulé chefferies.Hide Footnote but used Islam as a route to emancipation from animist sedentary peoples. This resembles the current situation in which groups with a Fulani majority are in armed conflict with a central government dominated by the Bambara in Mali and the Mossi in Burkina. The current social revolt in Soum is not therefore trying to restore the Massina Empire, of which they were never part, or the Kingdom of Jelgooji, which never existed as a unified political entity, but rather a continuation of past struggles using other methods and a reflection of the divisions that have troubled the province down through history.

This report, which continues Crisis Group’s research into how to address the increase in violent extremism, analyses the root causes of the crisis, which has its origins in an ossified and unequal social order.[fn]For previous Crisis Group reports on jihadism, see the Crisis Group Special Report N°1, Exploiting Disorder: al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, 14 March 2016.Hide Footnote It emphasises the need to provide a long-term response that is not only military and that takes account of the social dimensions of the crisis. It also evaluates the military response initiated at the beginning of 2017. Although these military operations have reasserted government control, the authorities and their partners have no grounds to adopt a triumphalist attitude. The attacks continue and even if Malam should die, the jihadist groups know how to adapt to the new situation better than the armies that fight them. This report is based on about 50 interviews with members of the security forces, local and national authorities, the government and the opposition, civil society, researchers and the population of Soum. These interviews were mainly conducted between January and May 2017 in Ouagadougou and Djibo.

President of the Centre of Quranic Masters of Burkina Faso (right) and a colleague speak to Crisis Group's West Africa Analyst Cynthia Ohayon in Ouagadougou, on 10 October 2017. CRISIS GROUP/Julie David de Lossy

II. The Social Roots of the Crisis

A. Malam Ibrahim Dicko, from the Radio to Jihad

The main protagonist of the crisis in Soum is the founder of Ansarul Islam, Malam Ibrahim Dicko. His real name is Boureima Dicko and he was born into a marabout family in a place called Soboulé, in the province of Soum. He is (or was) about 40 years old. Malam, who is in fragile health, studied at conventional and Koranic schools in Burkina and Mali, and went on to teach in Niger.[fn]According to one of his former colleagues, Malam is frail, like a lost child and incapable of carrying out physical chores. He is also diabetic. “Malam” means “marabout” in the Hausa language. Crisis Group interviews, former elected representative, Fulani representative, security source, Ouagadougou, May 2017.Hide Footnote In 2009, he began preaching in many villages in Soum, where he appointed local representatives,[fn]Crisis Group interview, former elected representative, Ouagadougou, May 2017.Hide Footnote and on two popular radio stations, La Voix du Soum and La radio lutte contre la désertification (LRCD). He preached at a now-closed mosque in Djibo on Fridays.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, humanitarian worker, security source, Ouagadougou, May 2017.Hide Footnote

In 2012, the authorities officially recognised his association, al-Irchad.[fn]“Comment est né Ansaroul Islam, premier groupe djihadiste de l’Histoire du Burkina Faso”, Le Monde, 11 April 2017.Hide Footnote Malam’s skill as an orator and anti-establishment discourse drew a large audience throughout the province (see section II.B).[fn]Crisis Group interviews, deputy, former elected representative, humanitarian worker, Fulani representative, Ouagadougou, May 2017.Hide Footnote He found it easy to fund the almost daily radio broadcasting of his sermons, apparently with external financial aid.[fn]Crisis Group interview, former elected representative, Ouagadougou, May 2017. Some Burkina commercial radio stations sell broadcasting slots.Hide Footnote Burkina’s transition government blocked funding for the construction of several mosques, which fuelled the resentment of Malam and his followers toward the sons of marabouts and princes of Soum, whom they accused of using their influence in Ouagadougou to prevent the construction of mosques connected to al-Irchad.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Fulani representative, opposition member, Ouagadougou, May 2017.Hide Footnote

The radical nature of Malam’s speeches led the local, traditional and religious authorities to ring alarm bells, but nobody took any genuine preventative action.

The radical nature of Malam’s speeches led the local, traditional and religious authorities to ring alarm bells, but nobody took any genuine preventative action.[fn]Crisis Group interview, former official, Ouagadougou, January 2017; former elected representative, Ouagadougou, May 2017. A European Union report published in September 2016 mentions a certain “Malam Ibrahima”, a well-known radical preacher in Soum. “Facteurs et acteurs de la radicalisation dans les zones frontalières au Burkina Faso”, Regional European Union Programme for the Prevention of Violent Extremism in the Sahel and the Maghreb.Hide Footnote For a while, Malam was reportedly placed under the surveillance of security services during Blaise Compaoré’s regime, but they probably lost track of him following the destabilisation of the security apparatus caused by the fall of the regime.[fn]Crisis Group interview, official in the former regime, Ouagadougou, May 2017. Andrew McGregor, “Islamist Insurgency in Burkina Faso: A Profile of Malam Ibrahim Dicko”, Aberfoyle International Security, 30 April 2017.Hide Footnote He was arrested by the French Operation Serval in September 2013 in Tessalit, northern Mali, in possession of a large sum of euros, according to some sources.[fn]“Qui est l’imam Ibrahim Dicko, la nouvelle terreur du nord du Burkina?”, Jeune Afrique, 9 January 2017. A security source mentioned the sum of €9,000. Crisis Group interviews, security source, Fulani representative, Ouagadougou, May 2017.Hide Footnote After a spell in prison in Bamako, he was released in 2015.[fn]Several hypotheses are circulating about the reasons for his release: the Malian justice system was bribed; he was released because he was ill; influential political leaders intervened to secure his release. Crisis Group interviews, former official, Ouagadougou, January 2017; Fulani representative, security source, Ouagadougou, May 2017.Hide Footnote In Mali, he is reported to have met his mentor Hamadoun Koufa, leader of the Macina Liberation Front, an armed group active in central Mali, during 2015.[fn]Andrew McGregor, op. cit.Hide Footnote

At the beginning of 2016, the emir of Djibo and the grand imam, whose daughter Malam married, disowned him.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Fulani representative, humanitarian worker, security source, Ouagadougou, May 2017.Hide Footnote He then repudiated his wife and took to the bush, losing most of his followers in the process. Only a close circle of loyal supporters followed him to Mali for training.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, humanitarian worker, Ouagadougou, local elected representative, Djibo, May 2017. At the end of 2016, rumours circulated according to which Malam’s group proposed to pay its members CFA70,000 (€107) per week for training in Mali. The monthly minimum wage in Burkina Faso is CFA33,000 (€50). Crisis Group interview, Fulani representative, Ouagadougou, May 2017.Hide Footnote From there, he tried to eliminate his former comrades.[fn]He ordered the killing of his former right hand man, Hamadoun Tamboura, alias Hamadoun Boly. Crisis Group interviews, local elected representative, civil society representatives, Djibo, May 2017.Hide Footnote Ansarul Islam has a strong tendency toward settling accounts, which led one locally elected representatives to fear that a “cycle of vengeance” would be established in the long term.[fn]Crisis Group interview, local elected representative, Djibo, May 2017.Hide Footnote The attack on the Nassoumbou military base on 16 December 2016, reportedly led by Ansarul Islam and the Islamic State in Greater Sahara (ISGS) cost the lives of twelve Burkina soldiers and made Ansarul Islam’s existence official.[fn]Officially given its seal of approval by the Islamic State at the end of 2016, the ISGS operates mainly in the so-called three borders zone (Mali, Burkina, Niger) known as Liptako-Gourma, and is led by Adnan Abu Walid al-Sahraoui, a former dissident member of al-Mourabitoun. His links with Ansarul Islam are unclear but security sources believe that the two groups organised the attack on Nassoumbou together.Hide Footnote

In June 2017, the unauthenticated publication of a Facebook page claiming to be from Ansarul Islam said that Jafar Dicko, Malam’s younger brother, had succeeded him at the head of the movement. This information corroborated the feeling among Burkina security sources that Malam may have died of wounds sustained during the military offensives in the spring. In the absence of formal proof or the confirmation or otherwise by Ansarul Islam, doubts remain.

B. The Challenge to an Ossified and Unequal Social Order

Whether Malam is dead or alive, his ideas and dissent have swept the province and become firmly established. First, he denounces marabout families for enriching themselves by using their status of sole legitimate holders of religious authority to extort money from the population. This reflected the division between the traditional marabout families, who have historic legitimacy and within which the imamate is passed down on a hereditary basis, and a new generation of Muslim scholars who believe that religious authority should no longer be the prerogative of a minority. Malam challenges the right of the imams from these families to be the only ones authorised to lead prayers or give opinions on religious matters, especially as they do not always have the required knowledge. Mastery of Arabic lends credibility to this new generation of scholars in the eyes of the population. Malam also denounces the all-powerful nature of traditional chefferies (traditional leaders).[fn]Crisis Group interviews, historian, former minister, inhabitant of Soum, Fulani representative, former elected representative, Ouagadougou, May 2017; local authorities, political representatives, Djibo, May 2017.Hide Footnote

This challenge to the social order drives the questioning of traditional practices that, according to Malam, are not prescribed by Islam, such as gifts of money to marabouts at ceremonies, dowries or the organisation of costly parties to celebrate marriages and baptisms. A marriage can cost as much as CFA500,000 (€760), ten times the urban monthly minimum wage.[fn]Crisis Group interview, former elected representative, Ouagadougou, May 2017.Hide Footnote This rhetoric prompts support from the most disadvantaged because it removes a financial burden. Malam also contests the hierarchical relationships between descendants of masters, the Fulani, and the descendants of slaves, the Rimaibé. Although slavery was abolished in the colonial period, there is still a marked division between these two groups.

Malam justifies his anti-establishment discourse by affirming it is in line with pure Islam and not perverted by tradition. For example, he says social inequalities are contrary to Islam. He uses Islam to challenge an ossified and unequal social order and practices that are no longer in line with the aspirations of the population. In this region, the Muslim religion is more of a tradition than a religious practice per se. It is not uncommon for princes to drink alcohol and it is forbidden to greet anyone by saying “salam aleikoum” in the courts of the chiefs.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Fulani representative, former senior official, Ouagadougou, May 2017.Hide Footnote

Although Malam’s movement is mainly composed of Fulani and Rimaibé, it is not strongly ethnic in character.

Although Malam’s movement is mainly composed of Fulani and Rimaibé, it is not strongly ethnic in character. His discourse certainly calls on the Fulani to defend themselves from the many humiliations to which they are subjected, although he does not openly say this in his sermons. But when he preaches equality between the Fulani and the Rimaibé, he is trying to reduce ethnic divisions.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Fulani representative, former elected representative, Ouagadougou, May 2017.Hide Footnote Moreover, there are not only Fulani and Rimaibé in his movement.[fn]There are also reportedly Songhai, Mossi and Fulsé. A Fulani representative tells how assailants associated with Malam spoke in Mooré, a language that not many Fulani from the Sahel region can speak well. The teacher killed in March 2017, Salif Badini, a Fulsé, was a former member of Malam’s group. Crisis Group interviews, journalist, diplomats, Ouagadougou, May 2017.Hide Footnote Most of his followers are Fulani and Rimaibé because his sermons are in Fulfulde and most inhabitants of the Sahel region are from these communities, both of them Fulfulde-speaking. Malam also says “we are the Rimaibé of the whites”, revealing an unsurprising anti-Western dimension.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Fulani representative, Ouagadougou, May 2017.Hide Footnote

In 2009-2010, Malam’s sermons had a considerable impact throughout Soum. A revealing anecdote illustrates his success: an old elected representative of the province tells how a party activist one day suggested postponing their meeting, because “Malam is on the radio”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, former elected representative, Ouagadougou, May 2017.Hide Footnote Malam lost most of his followers when he resorted to violence,[fn]Crisis Group interviews, local authorities, political representatives, Djibo, former elected representative, Ouagadougou, May 2017.Hide Footnote which suggests that although his discourse was successful, not many people believe that the armed struggle can provide a solution. Some of his ideas have taken hold in Soum. For example, it is now rare for a marriage to involve a party with dancing, flutes and drums as per the Fulani tradition.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, former elected representative, marabout, Fulani representative, Ouagadougou, May 2017.Hide Footnote

His discourse has proved particularly attractive to young people and the more disadvantaged social sectors because he styles himself as a “defender of the poor” and a “liberator” who wants to lighten the weight of archaic and restrictive traditions.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, deputy, Fulani representative, former elected representative, marabout, Ouagadougou, local elected representative, Djibo, May 2017.Hide Footnote The Rimaibé, the lowest social class in Fulani society in Soum, are naturally very receptive to his calls for equality.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, local authorities, local elected representatives, Djibo, May 2017; Rimaibé marabouts, Ouagadougou, May 2017.Hide Footnote His success reflects a generational division between older people, who are inclined to preserve tradition, and young people, who are ready to challenge the status quo as they seek to find a place for themselves in society. The same former elected representative tells how, during the Tabaski festival, a young follower of Malam criticised the practice according to which imams are the first to sacrifice their sheep. Those close to the imam belittled him and said he should not talk about the imam in this way.[fn]Crisis Group interview, former elected representative, Ouagadougou, May 2017.Hide Footnote

While Malam was head of the al-Irchad association, it attracted support from government employees, especially teachers. Al-Irchad helped some of them to repay debts as contracting debt is contrary to Islam.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, local authority, local elected representative, civil servants, Djibo, May 2017.Hide Footnote Some teachers were implicated in smuggling illegal goods, which would explain Ansarul Islam’s wish to eliminate them and stop them from denouncing their former comrades.[fn]Crisis Group interview, senior civil servant, Ouagadougou, May 2017.Hide Footnote This gives credence to the impression that Ansarul Islam is targeting schools. However, although some schools have been threatened (although there have been no claims of responsibility), the attacks on teachers seem to be reprisals against former comrades (and potential informants to the security forces) rather than a wish to attack Western schools.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, senior civil servant, Ouagadougou, civil servant, Djibo, May 2017.Hide Footnote The teacher killed at the beginning of March 2017, Salif Badini, was a former al-Irchad member and he had reportedly become an informer of the security forces.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, senior civil servant, journalist, diplomat, Ouagadougou, May 2017.Hide Footnote

The Ansarul Islam phenomenon is therefore the product of socio-political and cultural realities in Soum. It expresses the grievances of the silent majority that holds neither political power nor religious authority. It is not so much an Islamist challenge to modernity as a rejection of traditions that perpetuate an ossified society that breeds frustration. This phenomenon, which has deep local roots, seems to have attracted support from groups in neighbouring Mali, which gives it regional ramifications.

C. A Distant Relationship with the Government

Local perception of the government as being distant and incapable of providing services also explains the increasing support for Malam’s movement. People feel that the government has abandoned the Sahel region and has not made the best of its economic potential. However, the Sahel region has the second lowest individual poverty rate in the country.[fn]The Sahel region has a poverty rate of 21 per cent, compared to 40 per cent in the country as a whole. “Profil de pauvreté et d’inégalités. Enquête multisectorielle continue (EMC) 2014”, Institut national de la statistique et de la démographie (INSD), November 2015, p. 30.Hide Footnote It is more the contrast between the region’s rich agricultural, pastoral and mining resources and its lack of development that causes frustration.

Poor infrastructure, especially the roads, a limited number of health centres and schools, lack of water and electricity supply make it seem that “all the indicators are in the red”.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, humanitarian worker, Ouagadougou, economic operators, Djibo, May 2017. In 2014, the Sahel region came last in Burkina for access to basic services in less than 30 minutes. The primary school attendance rate is the lowest in the country (32.7 per cent), compared to 73.9 per cent in the country as a whole. “La region du Sahel en chiffres”, Ministry of Economy and Finance, Sahel Region Department, 2015.Hide Footnote The drought and the low water tables hold back the region’s main economic activities, which are agriculture and livestock farming.[fn]Many livestock farmers feel they have to migrate, while others have lost their animals and are employed as herders. This represents a step backwards socially and causes frustration. Crisis Group interviews, security source, opposition member, Fulani representative, former minister, Ouagadougou, May 2017.Hide Footnote Djibo, the province’s administrative centre, is home to the country’s biggest cattle market, but the town’s roads have yet to be asphalted.[fn]The road is asphalted as far as Koungoussi. The bad condition of the road means it sometimes takes more than four hours to drive the 95km from Koungoussi to Djibo. Asphalting is under way and should be finished by the end of 2018. The funds for this work were reportedly misappropriated on several occasions. Crisis Group interview, local authority, Djibo, May 2017; Crisis Group email correspondence, Fulani representative, May 2017.Hide Footnote The mining boom showed how foreigners exploit the region’s extensive subsoil resources with no benefits accruing to local people.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, deputy, Ouagadougou, June 2016; traditional authority, Djibo, May 2017.Hide Footnote Reflecting the feeling of abandonment by the government, several interlocutors in Djibo called for the government to tackle Soum’s remoteness by raising its administrative status from province to region.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, economic operators, political representatives, Djibo, May 2017.Hide Footnote These problems are aggravated by the humanitarian crisis caused by the increasing insecurity.

The population of the Sahel region has a negative view of the government.

The population of the Sahel region has a negative view of the government. A former elected representative summarised it in this way: “People are really afraid of the authorities”. They think the government is more inclined to look after itself rather than look after them and that is prepared to use force to do so.[fn]Crisis Group interview, former elected representative, Ouagadougou, May 2017.Hide Footnote Historically reluctant to send their children to “French” schools, the Fulani often find it more difficult to find their way around an administrative system that is based on the French model and to understand and demand their rights. Few members of the civil service and the security forces sent to the Sahel region have a good command of Fulfulde. The language barrier increases the gap between the administration and the public. Soum’s inhabitants stress the difficulty of obtaining civil status documents and the authorities’ inability to help herders retrieve their stolen livestock.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, economic operators, Djibo, Fulani representative, Ouagadougou, May 2017.Hide Footnote Although civil servants have long perceived the appointment to posts in the Burkina Sahel as punishment, many of them have become rich on the proceeds of trafficking, corruption and racketeering.[fn]For example, a farmer who cuts down a single branch from a tree in a protected forest can incur a fine of CFA50,000 (€76). This money is usually pocketed by water and forest rangers. Crisis Group interviews, deputy, opposition member, Ouagadougou, civil society representatives, Djibo, May 2017.Hide Footnote

In the Sahel region and beyond, there is a sense of victimisation among the Fulani, who are present throughout Burkina. Some complain of under-representation among the political and administrative elite and deplore the fact that, in their eyes, state institutions (justice, administration, security forces) discriminate in favour of other communities whenever there is a dispute.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, security source, Ouagadougou, June 2016; Fulani representatives, Ouagadougou, October 2016; opposition member, Ouagadougou, May 2017.Hide Footnote

This difficult Fulani relationship with the government complicates the fight against Ansarul Islam. From the start, the security forces found it difficult to secure the cooperation of the public, whether because some of them support the movement, while others refuse to inform on their own people, or because Ansarul Islam has established a climate of terror. The arrival of military reinforcements has gone some way to reassure the population and several interlocutors said that the population was slightly more inclined to help the security forces. For example, the security forces are trying to be more discreet when they contact their informants.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, local authorities, Djibo, former elected representative, Ouagadougou, May 2017.Hide Footnote Nevertheless, distrust remains, and Ansarul Islam is still said to have supporters in the villages. The security forces still complain of a lack of public support and cooperation.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, former elected representative, security source, marabout, Ouagadougou, local elected representative, Djibo, May 2017; telephone interview, security source, June 2017.Hide Footnote

People are worried about the way the security forces will behave and these fears may increase now that military reinforcements have arrived. Our interlocutors deplored the arbitrary arrest and ill-treatment of local people, which may strengthen the feeling of injustice and alienation.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, former official, Ouagadougou, January 2017; Fulani representative, security source, humanitarian worker, diplomat, Ouagadougou, May 2017; local elected representative, religious leader, Djibo, May 2017. A Human Rights Watch report, which denounced human rights violations by the Malian and Burkina security forces in the fight against jihadism, confirmed these fears. “Mali: Unchecked Abuses in Military Operations”, Human Rights Watch, 8 September 2017.Hide Footnote The security forces say they sometimes arrest an entire group to avoid the impression that those who are allowed to go free are informants and therefore stop them becoming targets for Ansarul Islam.[fn]Crisis Group interview, local elected representative, Djibo, May 2017.Hide Footnote Whether or not that is true, it is nonetheless the case that the people of Soum feel stigmatised and this represents a real danger.

D. An Especially Vulnerable Province on the Border with Mali

In some respects, the situation in Soum resembles that in the central region of Mali, a country with which Burkina shares a border of more than 1,000km. The Islamist leader Hamadoun Kouffa and Malam Ibrahim Dicko, who know each other, have had similar careers and have a similar discourse. Both preached in villages and on the radio and criticised the social order, the local elites and the government.[fn]For more on central Mali, see Crisis Group Africa Report N°238, Central Mali: an Uprising in the Making, 6 July 2016.Hide Footnote However, the situation in Burkina is different to that in Mali. Radical groups in central Mali seem to have drawn their support more from free nomadic pastoralists than from the Rimaibé, and they seek to broaden their following by disseminating sermons in other languages as well as in Fulfulde. The crisis in Soum has so far remained at a low intensity. Although it has created a climate of terror, Ansarul Islam has not managed to plunge the entire province in violence. For the moment, the Soum population is generally not inclined to take up arms.

There have been several attempts to establish terrorist cells in Burkina. The Katiba Ansar Dine Sud tried, unsuccessfully, to create a cell in the West, in the area where the attack on Samorogouan (Hauts-Bassins region) took place in October 2015. To the East, members of al-Mourabitoun, a dissident group that split from al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and led by Mokhtar Belmokhtar, reportedly tried to establish a base in the Tapoa Forest. They failed because they are not so much at home in the forest compared to the desert and because military cooperation between Niger and Burkina works better than between Mali and Burkina (see section III.C.). The failure was also due to the fact that, contrary to in Soum, the populations of eastern and western Burkina are more stable and not ready for war.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, security sources, Ouagadougou, January 2017. Al-Mourabitoun was the product of an alliance between the Brigade des Enturbannés, a dissident al-Qaeda group in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) led by Mokhtar Belmokhtar, and part of the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa in 2013. At the end of 2015, al-Mourabitoun rejoined AQIM and in 2017, the two groups joined others to form the Group for Support of Islam and Muslims (GSIM). See Marc Mémier, “AQMI et Al-Mourabitoun, le djihad sahélien réunifié?”, Etudes de l’Institut Français des Relations Internationales (IFRI), January 2017.Hide Footnote

It would be wrong to interpret the situation in northern Burkina as an extension of the Malian conflict, even though that conflict increases the availability of weapons and provides a safe haven for Ansarul Islam’s men. The crisis in Soum is not simply a mirror image of the situation in central Mali. It is mainly the result of acute local tensions. Several factors make it vulnerable and explain why this province is by far the most affected province in Burkina Faso.

The lack of an alternative narrative and the weakening of religious and traditional leaders are allowing Malam’s rhetoric to gain ground.

The traditional and religious authorities of Soum are not particularly involved in the fight against radicalism.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, political representatives, Djibo, May 2017.Hide Footnote Unlike the neighbouring province of Séno, Soum has fewer Muslim intellectuals and scholars capable of combating the ideas that encourage violence and intolerance.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, historian, security source, Ouagadougou, May 2017.Hide Footnote The absence of a central traditional power, strong rivalries between the three chefferies of Djibo, Baraboulé and Tongomayel and their politicisation further complicate their role.[fn]The emir of Djibo’s brother is the town’s deputy mayor, Oumarou Dicko. Crisis Group interviews, former official, historian, humanitarian worker, Ouagadougou, May 2017.Hide Footnote The lack of an alternative narrative and the weakening of religious and traditional leaders are allowing Malam’s rhetoric to gain ground.

Soum suffers from a lack of development and infrastructure. In contrast, Dori, capital of Séno province, received more investment because it is the region’s administrative centre and because the 11 December national holiday was held there in 2013. Dori houses the regional hospital, while the January 2016 abduction of Ken Elliot, a prominent local Australian-Burkina doctor, reduced health-care provision in Djibo.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, local authorities, Djibo, security source, Ouagadougou, May 2017.Hide Footnote Finally, Djibo is closer to the Malian border (about 60km) than Dori (about 160km). Soum also lacks political leaders with a national profile, while Séno has long benefitted from the influence of the charismatic former mayor of Dori, the late Hama Arba Diallo.

Soum’s vulnerability is also due to historical reasons. The division between the Fulani and the Rimaibé is more marked there than in the neighbouring provinces of Séno and Yagha. It is therefore logical that the challenge to social inequalities should find greater acceptance there. The emirates of Séno and Yagha were more homogeneous than that of Jelgooji (now Soum), which was affected by divisions between families and chefferies. In Séno and Yagha, the longer-standing spread of Islam allowed it to better resist external influences.[fn]Crisis Group interview, historian, Ouagadougou, May 2017.Hide Footnote Geographical factors also play a part, since it is more difficult to find cover on the great plains of Séno and Yagha than in the forest located between Djibo and the Malian border. Finally, animism prevails in eastern and western Burkina, while 95 per cent of the population in the Sahel region follows Islam. All this helps explain why Islamic discourse has had greater traction in the Sahel region.

III. A Considerable Military Effort

At the end of 2016 and the beginning of 2017, the number of attacks in Soum increased and it looked as though the government might lose control over parts of the North. In the spring of 2017, the security forces began to reassert control, but were unable to eradicate the threat, as shown by the persistence of targeted killings and the increasing number of attacks (see chronology in Appendix C). The slow and problematic reconstruction of the security apparatus following the fall of the Compaoré regime explains the difficulties in providing an adequate response. Strengthening regional cooperation is an essential component of this response.

A. The Sahel Region under Threat

In the spring of 2017, the government’s decision to send military reinforcements to the North and undertake joint operations with Malian and French forces in Operation Barkhane allowed the Burkina army to gain the upper hand and go some way to reassuring the local population.[fn]The Groupement des forces anti-terroristes (GFAT), which became the Groupement des forces de sécurisation du Nord (GFSN), has between 500 and 1,600 men. Operations Panga (Burkina, Mali, Barkhane) and Bayard (Barkhane) destroyed major logistical bases in Foulsaré Forest and led to arrests. Crisis Group interviews, diplomats, security sources, humanitarian worker, inhabitant of Soum, Ouagadougou, May 2017; local elected representative, religious leader, Djibo, May 2017. Operation Barkhane, which involved 4,000 French soldiers, followed Operation Serval in July 2014. Based in N’Djamena, Chad, it fights armed terrorist groups in the Sahara-Sahel Belt.Hide Footnote Visits by several ministers to the region sent a strong signal that the government would not withdraw. Even the opposition recognises the “progress in the fight against terrorism”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, opposition member, Ouagadougou, May 2017.Hide Footnote However, it is not clear to the security forces how they are going to maintain the pressure and ensure their long-term presence.[fn]A security source said: “we will be in this quagmire for a long time”, while another recognised that “There is a lot to do”. Crisis Group interviews, security sources, Ouagadougou, May 2017.Hide Footnote The rainy season, which makes roads unusable and isolates the population between July and October, has not brought the lull that some observers were expecting.

The capacity of jihadist groups to reform, replace an incapacitated leader and formulate new strategies and courses of action should not be underestimated.[fn]Crisis Group interview, security source, Ouagadougou, May 2017.Hide Footnote Even if Ansarul Islam has been weakened, it might still be able to take advantage of this breeding ground for recruitment. The remaining members might be even more determined. The possible death of their founder could galvanise them and make them more violent and less inclined to compromise. In the words of one security source: “We need to pay attention to how we kill this monster”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, security source, Ouagadougou, May 2017.Hide Footnote The fear and the threat remain, as shown by the increase in the number of targeted killings and attacks that have used a weapon not seen before in Burkina: improvised explosive devices, used for the first time in August 2017.[fn]Some of the people killed in July were members of Ansarul Islam and sought by the security forces. “Meurtres dans le nord du Burkina: Ansarul Islam victime d’une guerre intestine?”, Radio France Internationale (RFI), 26 July 2017; “Burkina: Un véhicule de l’armée saute sur un engin explosif dans le Soum”, Burkina 24, 23 September 2017.Hide Footnote

In addition, sending reinforcements to Soum reduces the number of soldiers available to protect other regions. Armed groups might therefore launch attacks elsewhere. The abduction of civil servants in May 2017 in Oudalan, the attacks on two gendarmerie posts in the West (Djibasso and Toéni) in September 2017, could indicate that the threat has moved to another area, or that new groups might take advantage of the focus on Soum and attack elsewhere.[fn]The lack of troops will be eased by the return of the battalion deployed in Darfur (about 850 men). Crisis Group interviews, diplomats, security source, Ouagadougou, May 2017.Hide Footnote

Ansarul Islam is both a local movement and a group that has contacts, albeit problematic ones, with jihadists active in the Sahel.

Ansarul Islam is both a local movement and a group that has contacts, albeit problematic ones, with jihadists active in the Sahel. Although Malam is (or was) close to Hamadoun Kouffa, his links with the new coalition affiliated to al-Qaeda and led by Iyad ag Ghali, the Jamaat Nusrat al-Islam wal Muslimin, (Group for the Support of Islam and Muslims, GSIM), are unclear. Some sources say he has disowned this alliance, while others think the GSIM is not interested in the contact because Malam is not powerful enough.[fn]Crisis Group interview, security source, Ouagadougou, May 2017.Hide Footnote There are reportedly divergences between Kouffa and Malam. The former is reportedly jealous of the increasing power of his “young friend” and did not approve of the killing of Malam’s former comrades because of the prohibition of killing Muslims.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, security sources, diplomats, Ouagadougou, May 2017.Hide Footnote The publication on 12 September 2017 of a Facebook page attributed to Ansarul Islam, in which the movement denounced the death of Muslims in the mid-August 2017 terrorist attack in Ouagadougou, suggests there are strong divergences between Ansarul Islam and GSIM. However, this information should be treated with caution, as the Facebook page has not been authenticated.

At the beginning of 2017, Malam seemed to be getting closer to the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) and they reportedly carried out a joint attack on Nassoumbou.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, security sources, Ouagadougou, January and May 2017.Hide Footnote Ansarul Islam uses central Mali as a support base and must therefore have contact with groups that operate there.[fn]Crisis Group interview, security source, Ouagadougou, May 2017.Hide Footnote Ansarul Islam may be plotting a middle course between two tendencies represented by the GSIM and the ISGS.

Ansarul Islam rarely claims responsibility for its actions and has no official channel of communication. It is difficult to blame the group for all the security incidents in the Sahel region. It does not have a monopoly of violence. Banditry and other criminal activities affect the region. Insecurity is exacerbated by the trafficking of light arms from Algeria, Libya and Mali, where Boulikessi, close to the border, is a staging post.[fn]Crisis Group interview, former civil servant, Ouagadougou, May 2017.Hide Footnote A Kalashnikov costs CFA300,000 or two heifers.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, local elected representatives, Djibo, May 2017.Hide Footnote

Another cause for concern is the presence of Koglweogo, civilian self-defence groups, in many places in the country. They defend their communities from criminals, insecurity and cattle theft. When they are composed of local villagers, their presence does not seem to pose a problem.[fn]For example, the localities of Pobe Mengao, Aribinda and Tongomayel. Crisis Group interview, traditional authority, Djibo, May 2017. Created in the 1990s to protect the environment, the Koglweogo are now self-defence groups that combat insecurity, crime and banditry. Since 2015, they have become more numerous and spread particularly to the centre, the North region and southern and eastern Burkina.Hide Footnote However, Koglweogo from other regions of Burkina were chased out of Kerboulé (a gold panning site 60km from Djibo) by armed men (possibly connected to Ansarul Islam).[fn]Crisis Group interviews, local authorities, local elected representative, Djibo, security source, Ouagadougou, May 2017.Hide Footnote Clashes between Koglweogo and other armed groups cannot be ruled out. The presence of Ruga, groups of Fulani herders armed with hunting guns and responsible for recovering lost or stolen herds, could further complicate the security equation, even though there is currently no evidence that they pose any kind of a risk.[fn]According to one security source, members of the Ruga were arrested during the operations conducted in spring 2017. Crisis Group telephone interview, security source, June 2017.Hide Footnote

B. A Security Apparatus under Reconstruction

The political unrest in Burkina since Blaise Compaoré’s fall from power in October 2014 disrupted the security apparatus. Compaoré’s diplomacy allowed him to keep many armed groups away from Burkina territory by displaying a benevolent attitude toward some of them. The intelligence service depended more on men and their networks than on institutions. Created in October 2015, the National Intelligence Agency (ANR) is a “big machine [that] has not really got off the ground yet”, even though it had begun to centralise intelligence.[fn]Crisis Group interview, security source, Ouagadougou, May 2017.Hide Footnote The dismantling of the Presidential Security Regiment (RSP), an elite army unit under Compaoré, also disrupted the security apparatus.[fn]The arms held by the RSP have not always been appropriately redistributed. One security source says that at the time of the terrorist attack on Ouagadougou in January 2016, one of the reasons the Burkina security forces were not able to launch an attack on the Hotel Splendid was because they did not have night vision spectacles. Those held by the RSP were put into storage instead of being distributed to units that would need them. Crisis Group interview, security source, Ouagadougou, January 2016.Hide Footnote

In the long term, the main challenge facing the Burkina security forces is adapting to new threats. The asymmetric war against non-state armed groups requires resources and strategies that are very different to those required in conventional warfare. The security forces have become accustomed to life in their barracks rather than going out to fight, as Burkina has never gone to war against another country (except for two brief armed conflicts with Mali in 1974 and 1985) and has not suffered a civil war. Promoting a culture of combat and sacrifice, the exact opposite of “a ceremonial army”, is bound to take time.[fn]Crisis Group interview, diplomat, Ouagadougou, May 2017.Hide Footnote However, Burkina soldiers have had experience of combat during deployments in external operations in sometimes difficult terrain (Darfur, northern Mali).

As long as the armed forces are not able to work among the local population like the jihadist groups do, the latter will have an advantage.

Two elements that are lacking but are indispensable in the fight against armed groups are air power and intelligence. Unarmed Burkina reconnaissance planes are only able to signal a threat: in a remote area, it would need several hours to drive to a given place. Combat helicopters are also necessary. But in addition to equipment, it is training that is really needed. The armed forces deployed in the North also lack the motorbikes they need to move around the bush as easily as their enemies. There is still no intelligence system. As long as the armed forces are not able to work among the local population like the jihadist groups do, the latter will have an advantage.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, humanitarian worker, security sources, Ouagadougou, May 2017.Hide Footnote

In addition, the security forces suffer from more deep-seated problems. The generation gap undermines cohesion. Ordinary soldiers, young and dissatisfied with their material conditions, believe the hierarchy still supports the old regime, does not have the motivation to leave their air-conditioned offices and is incapable of tackling the new threats. Young non-commissioned officers deplore the weakness of the general staff’s communications and its limited use of new technologies, in a context in which communication is key to defeating terrorism.[fn]Crisis Group interview, security source, Ouagadougou, May 2017.Hide Footnote

Human resources management is another weakness: there are not enough administration officers, they do not have the necessary skills and this causes frustration especially with regard to promotion.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, security source, Ouagadougou, January and May 2017.Hide Footnote The army hierarchy is top-heavy with too many high-ranking colonels and not enough junior officers.[fn]Crisis Group interview, diplomat, Ouagadougou, May 2017.Hide Footnote Finally, the historic rivalry between the police force and the gendarmerie undermines their effectiveness. These two corps are deployed in both urban and rural areas and their duties overlap.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, security sources, Ouagadougou, January 2016, January and May 2017. The tension between police officers and gendarmes within the Republican Security and Protection Group, responsible for presidential security, illustrates this distrust. “Burkina Faso: tensions entre policiers et gendarmes de la garde présidentielle”, Africa News, 7 August 2017.Hide Footnote All these weaknesses, which should be dealt with as part of security sector reform, partly explain why the security forces are finding it difficult to counter the threat posed by Ansarul Islam.

C. Regional and International Cooperation

Adapting to cross-border threats involves strengthening regional and international cooperation. While the Burkina military recognise that France’s assistance is indispensable, they want “to sort things out themselves”, because “nobody is going to die in [their] place”.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, security sources, Ouagadougou, January and May 2017.Hide Footnote One sector of public opinion does not trust France. Some people accuse it of playing a double game vis-à-vis armed groups, particularly with regard to the Tuareg of northern Mali. The result is a desire to diversify partnerships and get help from the United States, Germany, Russia and Eastern Europe.

Burkina has strengthened regional cooperation with Mali and Niger. They have finally formalised the right of hot pursuit but this can pose problems because of sometimes inefficient communications and the risk of clashes between armies.[fn]The unwritten rule states that a neighbouring army should not go more than 40km beyond the border. Crisis Group interviews, security sources, Ouagadougou, May 2017.Hide Footnote The region’s countries, encouraged by France, are trying to strengthen regional cooperation through a G5 Sahel (Burkina, Mali, Niger, Chad, Mauritania) joint force project. However, Burkina officers are not very enthusiastic about it. They view it as “an endless round of meetings”, according to one security source.[fn]Crisis Group interview, security source, Ouagadougou, May 2017. The plan for a G5 Sahel joint force was officially announced at the Bamako summit at the start of February 2017. The aim would be to combat insecurity and terrorist armed groups in the Sahel. The five G5 countries were to each provide 1,000 men, deployed along three border zones: Mali-Mauritania, Mali-Burkina-Niger and Chad-Niger. The G5, which was formed in 2014, aims to provide a regional response to a regional problem and to “africanise” security.Hide Footnote The Burkina leadership believes that Chad and Mauritania are too far away to be worried about the same threats.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, security sources, Ouagadougou, May 2017.Hide Footnote Besides, funding of the G5 force has not yet been secured.[fn]Crisis Group interview, diplomat, Ouagadougou, May 2017. The budget proposed for the joint force is €423 million, but this figure could be revised downwards. Crisis Group interview, diplomat, Paris, July 2017. The European Union has promised €50 million and G5 members have agreed to contribute €10 million each. In addition to operational and technical assistance, France has promised €8 million.Hide Footnote

The tripartite dynamic between Burkina, Mali and Niger that is emerging with the plan to deploy one of the three components of the G5 force in the three borders zone, known as Liptako-Gourma, provokes greater optimism. The Burkina believe it is more effective to work in three rather than five. The force will be deployed in Liptako-Gourma but will not include Soum, which remains a Burkina-Mali problem.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, security sources, Ouagadougou, May 2017.Hide Footnote

The creation of the G5 joint force raises the question of coordination with MINUSMA.

The Burkina military are also sceptical about the effectiveness of the UN mission in Mali, MINUSMA. They feel its mandate is inadequate.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, security sources, Ouagadougou, September 2016, January and May 2017. United Nations Security Council Resolution 2359 (21 June 2017) supported the creation of a joint G5 force to improve security and enable MINUSMA to fulfil its mandate. Resolution 2364 (29 June 2017) prolonged MINUSMA’s mandate and provided for cooperation, coordination and information sharing between the G5 force and the UN mission.Hide Footnote The creation of the G5 joint force raises the question of coordination with MINUSMA, which already has more than 15,000 soldiers and police officers and costs close to $1 billion per year. Moreover, complex overlapping of remits runs the risk of undermining the force’s effectiveness. Besides, the vagueness of the joint force’s mandate, targeting “terrorist groups” and “other organised criminal groups”, further complicates the task.

Cooperation is not going as well with Mali as it is with Niger. Some sectors of the Burkina security apparatus are irritated with their Malian neighbour, whom they accuse of not being effective enough in the fight against the armed groups on their territory, leading to the conflict there spilling over into Burkina.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote One security source deplored the presence of certain armed groups either close to or supported by Bamako along the border with Burkina.[fn]Crisis Group interview, security source, Ouagadougou, May 2017.Hide Footnote The difficult relations between Burkina and Mali date from the Compaoré era, when members of Malian armed groups, starting with the leader of Ansar Dine, the Tuareg Iyad ag Ghali, were allowed to move freely in Ouagadougou. The Burkina military believe their Malian counterparts are “lazy” and joined the army to get an income and not to defend the country.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, security sources, Ouagadougou, January and May 2017.Hide Footnote Conversely, they are well disposed toward Niger, because it deploys the resources necessary to prevent armed groups from proliferating on its territory. The Burkina military praise their Nigerien counterparts for their proactive approach and effectiveness.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, security sources, Ouagadougou, May 2017. The good understanding between Burkina and Niger is also based on the special relationship between the Nigerien president, Mahamadou Issoufou, and the president of the Burkina National Assembly, Salif Diallo, who died at the end of August 2017.Hide Footnote

IV. Formulate a Global and Enduring Response

At the start of 2017, after months of denial, the Burkina authorities finally understood the need to go beyond military action and formulate a global response to the crisis. They launched an emergency development program for the Sahel region aimed at building infrastructure and reducing poverty. However, these development efforts will not be enough to resolve the crisis, the causes of which are local and deeply rooted in the structure of Fulani society in Soum. An understanding of the importance of the following measures could help to provide a more effective response.

Formulate responses that take into account the social and local dimensions of the crisis. Ansarul Islam’s ideology is based on its challenge to a social order that breeds frustration and conflict. The government should not seek to disturb socio-cultural dynamics or to upend a centuries-old social order. It is perhaps better to focus on encouraging local actors to find solutions adapted to a crisis that is deeply rooted in local circumstances. The government and its international partners will not find solutions to questions that pertain to the private life of northern Burkina Faso’s society. They can at best encourage intercommunal and inter-generational dialogue that may help them identify solutions to their own crisis.

Reduce the gulf between security forces and authorities and the local population. Strengthening the military presence will not be truly effective for as long as local people refuse to collaborate with the security forces. In the short term, the latter should prioritise the development of an intelligence system and gain access to the community, for example, by distributing mobile phones more generously to enable individuals and units to communicate more easily and by making a special effort to protect them.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, security sources, Ouagadougou, January and May 2017.Hide Footnote Deploying Fulfulde-speaking troops and civil servants would also help to reduce the language barrier.

In the long term, distrust could be eased if more Fulani were recruited into the security forces and the civil service. It is not necessary to impose quotas or to adopt a policy of positive discrimination, which would give unwanted ethnic overtones to the initiative. However, for example, the government could encourage recruitment by making the entrance examinations more accessible, while remembering that the Fulani have not traditionally had a vocation for joining the security forces or the civil service.[fn]Crisis Group interview, security source, Ouagadougou, May 2017. A resident of Soum who wants to enter the entrance examinations for the army or the gendarmerie must go to Dori or Kaya respectively, both of which are located about 200km from Djibo.Hide Footnote

Boosting the military’s civic activities would help to show that the security forces can make a useful contribution and go some way to reducing public distrust in them.

Boosting the military’s civic activities would help to show that the security forces can make a useful contribution and go some way to reducing public distrust in them.[fn]Crisis Group interview, security source, Ouagadougou, May 2017.Hide Footnote Finally, arrests should be carried out according to due procedure and should respect human rights. Abusive behaviour by the security forces and civil servants – racketeering, intimidation, arbitrary arrests, physical abuse – must be punished more severely.

Regulate religious discourse to combat intolerant and hateful statements, an area where religious and traditional authorities could play a key role. There is a need to improve understanding of the religious landscape in order to fight against intolerant and hateful statements, give more support to Islamic education and invest in the training of imams and Muslim scholars in order to provide them with tools to combat ideas that encourage violence and intolerance. The legitimacy of religious and traditional leaders is sometimes challenged so this is also about ensuring they are sufficiently representative, avoiding any impression that they support the government or are in its pay and ensuring that young people feel they defend their interests. The authorities could prioritise the establishment in Djibo of a section of the Union Fraternelle des Croyants, an association based in Dori that promotes religious tolerance and dialogue.

Place greater emphasis in the emergency program for the Sahel region on promoting livestock breeding, improving justice provision and fighting corruption.[fn]“Programme d’urgence pour le Sahel au Burkina Faso (PUS-BF), 2017-2020”, final document, June 2017, copy supplied to Crisis Group.Hide Footnote The perception that the government is doing nothing to support livestock breeding, the region’s main economic activity, increases alienation.[fn]There is a widespread feeling in Burkina (and in neighbouring countries) that herding is the poor relation of development policies even though it contributes a lot to GDP. Crisis Group interviews, Fulani representatives, Ouagadougou, October 2016.Hide Footnote As herders are mostly Fulani, this feeling could take on an ethnic connotation. For example, it should increase the size of grazing areas and the number of wells and improve cattle tracks.[fn]Crisis Group interview, religious leader, Djibo, May 2017.Hide Footnote Infrastructure should also be at the heart of development policies. For example, the construction of a regional hospital in Djibo, on the model of the one in Dori, would improve health care in the provincial capital. The failings of the judiciary and the corruption in the public administration are grievances often expressed by the public. Doing more to address these two issues would send a message that the government can have a useful and positive impact on the daily life of the inhabitants of the Sahel region.

Strengthen judicial and police cooperation between Mali and Burkina, so that the authorities of these countries can be informed when one of their nationals is arrested in another country.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, security sources, Ouagadougou, January and May 2017.Hide Footnote It is not enough to arrest members of jihadist groups. It is also necessary to open investigations across several countries and then bring perpetrators to justice. This will prevent them exploiting the lack of coordination between countries and slipping through the net. Although police cooperation has improved, a lot remains to be done with regard to the judiciary.[fn]Crisis Group interview, security source, Ouagadougou, May 2017.Hide Footnote

Moreover, the security forces deployed in the North urgently need more motorbikes in order to move around the bush more easily and better means of communication to improve the circulation of information. The Burkina armed forces could also do more to improve their reporting to national public opinion about the progress they are making.

V. Conclusion

It is still too early to assess the long-term effectiveness of the government’s response. But, already, the lull expected in the wake of the rainy season (July to October), which should have impeded movement and reduced attacks by Ansarul Islam, has not materialised. Several lethal attacks took place in northern Burkina in July, August and September. The weakening of this armed group or the death of its founder will not be enough to resolve the security and social crisis in northern Burkina. The crisis will last for as long as the deep roots that permitted its growth remain and could indeed spread to other provinces if nothing is done.

Ougadougou/Dakar, 12 October 2017

Appendix A: Map of Burkina Faso

Attacks by extremist groups in Burkina Faso (January-September 2017) UN OCHA

Appendix B: Map of the Mali-Burkina Faso Border Zone

Map of the Mali-Burkina Faso Border Zone. CRISIS GROUP

Appendix C: Chronology of Security Incidents in Burkina Faso since 2015

A timeline of security incidents in Burkina Faso since 2015 is available in the PDF version of this report.