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Burkina Faso’s Alarming Escalation of Jihadist Violence
Burkina Faso’s Alarming Escalation of Jihadist Violence

The Perils of a Post-ISIS Iraq

Originally published in Foreign Policy

In Kirkuk, the extremist group's defeat risks rekindling old ethnic and religious conflicts — unless cooler heads prevail.

The Islamic State fighters who occupied Sheikh Burhan Mizher al-Assi’s village in northern Iraq did not content themselves with simply blowing up his home. They also destroyed the tombstones erected above his parents’ buried remains in the local cemetery.

Assi, a respected Arab member of the elected Kirkuk Provincial Council, is now an internally displaced person (IDP) in Kirkuk after the Islamic State overran a good part of the governorate in June 2014. To add insult to injury, the man who led the destruction of the sheikh’s property was a member of his own tribe, the Obeid.

Such traumas have been all too common during the war against the Islamic State. They also highlight a discomfiting fact: In Iraq, the Islamic State is mainly a local problem. The extremist group’s Iraqi contingent has very few foreign fighters and instead reflects the radical turn taken by some in the Sunni Arab community against the existing political order.

The damage that results from incidents such as the one that befell Assi isn’t just on the surface — they are reshaping identities and loyalties in one of Iraq’s most multicultural areas. Many of the same Iraqi Sunni Arabs who once opposed the U.S. occupation and resisted attempts at demographic engineering by Kurdish parties now find themselves as “guests” of those same parties. As newly minted IDPs, they have become more accommodating to Kurdish ambitions and plead for U.S. help in liberating their homes from Islamic State control.

Yet many Kurds remain suspicious of their erstwhile Sunni Arab adversaries, conflating them with the Islamic State and trying to exploit their current misfortune to press for an advantage in long-running ethnic disputes. They thus risk setting the stage for the next round of conflict.

This dynamic is especially visible in Kirkuk, where both city and governorate have been claimed and fought over by Iraq’s central governments and Kurdish political parties for decades. The Iraqi constitution drafted after the U.S. occupation in 2003 specified a set of procedures for settling Kirkuk’s future status — whether it would become an independent region or arrive at some other political arrangement — but its terms have yet to be carried out. Frustrated by this lack of progress, the Kurdish parties have pressed forward, gradually seizing control of Kirkuk’s administration and security. As the Islamic State seized the predominantly Sunni Arab areas to the south and west in June 2014, Kurds entrenched their power in the city and the majority-Kurd areas to its north and east.

The approximately 60 percent of Kirkuk governorate not under Islamic State control plays host to more than 700,000 IDPs. Some originally hail from inside the governorate, but most come from the nearby provinces of Diyala, Nineveh, Salahaddin, and Anbar. The vast majority of these IDPs are Sunni Arabs, displaced from their homes and villages when the Islamic State seized them or in subsequent violent attempts by government forces and associated militias to recapture them. Sometimes a lack of general security prevents these people from returning home; sometimes political actors — Shiite militias or Kurdish Peshmerga — would simply prefer they never return.

Hawija, a mainly Sunni Arab town in the governorate’s agricultural heartland, became a focal point of Iraq’s intersecting Sunni-Shiite and Arab-Kurd conflicts in 2013. Back then, the local population rose up against what it perceived as arbitrary detentions and institutional neglect perpetrated by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government. The protests were met with repression — more than 40 civilians were killed in several days of violent confrontations with security forces — turning the town into a poster child for all the ills that would facilitate the Islamic State takeover one year later.

Today, the Islamic State’s territorial gains are being reversed. A campaign to liberate Mosul and its surrounding towns and villages in Nineveh governorate is heating up. But Hawija remains in the extremist group’s grip — even as the area in Kirkuk under its control has been cut off from the group’s strongholds further north and in Syria. As a result, residents are now being starved because they have lost their lifeline to other Islamic State-held areas and the limited trade that came with them.

Liberation, therefore, cannot come a moment too soon for the citizens of Hawija. The big question is: At whose hand? The Iraqi Army is disinclined to get its fingers burned once more in the town and is terribly overstretched as it gears up to retake Mosul. And so the local population and its exiled political representatives are left with an unpalatable choice of militias: either the Iran-backed Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), which have been known to “cleanse” reconquered Sunni areas wherever Shiites also reside, or the Kurdish Peshmerga, who have been engaged in similar practices involving Arabs.

If it were up to the people of Hawija, it would be neither. They’d rather have a force comprising their own folk — Sunni Arabs from these areas. But the more powerful militias have prevented them from establishing an armed force, so they indulge in desperate calculations. If it’s the Kurds who come in, they are likely to seek revenge for the brutal execution by the Islamic State of captured Peshmerga and to wreak enough destruction that local Arab populations are deterred from ever again attempting to block Kurdish ambitions in Kirkuk governorate. Sunni Arabs also fear the Kurds would seek to detach Arab areas from Kirkuk and bequeath them to the adjacent Salahaddin governorate, which falls under the control of the central government. Kirkuk’s Sunni Arabs vigorously oppose such a step, as it would deprive them of access to their long-established market for agricultural produce and Kirkuk’s oil wealth.

Some Hawijans hope they might get lucky if liberation comes at the hands of the Shiite PMF, because those militias are not interested in permanently replacing Sunnis in an area that has no Shiite population. Moreover, they speculate, their town is not located along the route that Iran’s proxies are accused of seeking to clear between the Iranian and Syrian borders. Yet any military action involving the PMF will not draw U.S. air support, and so the battle with the Islamic State could be protracted and result in severe damage to the town.Destruction, the town’s residents fear, is coming either way.

Of course, the people of Hawija and other Islamic State-controlled areas don’t get to decide who reconquers their towns. The choice will be made for them. And even if the Peshmerga and PMF — mindful of potential international criticism and future war crimes trials (and contrary to past practice) — exercise extreme restraint, Kirkuk’s Sunni Arabs have reason to fear what fate will befall them the day after.

“We were not part of the former regime, nor do we belong to this terrorist network,” Assi told me. “Yet before June 10 [the day in 2014 when Mosul fell to the Islamic State, also known as ISIS] we were accused of being Saddamists and after that of being ISIS.”

The fact is that he and most of his compatriots are neither. But the accusation sticks, and it enjoys a certain logic — many in the Islamic State’s leadership and cadres are officers of the former regime’s security forces.

How a victor treats the losers shapes the battles to come. Since no overarching military strategy in Iraq guides how Islamic State-held areas should be retaken, or by whom, each party in the anti-Islamic State fight pursues its own aims. That these aims often consist in imposing collective punishment on Sunni Arabs, sometimes with brutal means, is an alarming prospect: To cast an entire community as sharing the intolerant and murderous ideology of a few among them is to ensure that the few extremists will become many. The future of groups such as the Islamic State and al Qaeda looks bright as a result, despite any territorial losses they may soon suffer — or even because of it, as their obligation to govern when they hold territory has proved to be a burden they are ill-equipped to meet.

If the defeat of the Islamic State is going to lead to real progress, instead of merely introducing the next stage of the conflict, Iraq needs to establish locally recruited stabilization forces in newly liberated Arab areas. The argument that such a force’s members could turn around and join the Islamic State themselves doesn’t wash; after all, there is a real threat that the entire population could join such radical groups while chafing under the rule of the PMF or Peshmerga. In 2014, that’s precisely what happened when the Shiite-dominated Iraqi Army — deemed by locals to be an inimical force spearheading a “foreign” occupation — tried to control, rather than protect, Mosul’s population.

Given the diversity of Kirkuk, keeping the peace was always going to be harder than winning the war. The governorate’s many communities are already desperately straining to keep the fabric of their shared society from unraveling at the hands of outside actors with chauvinist mindsets and predatory goals.

Najmaldin Karim, a retired neurosurgeon from Maryland who was elected as the area’s governor by the Kirkuk Provincial Council in 2011, has emerged as the unlikely champion of maintaining Kirkuk’s multicultural society. Karim is a longtime member of the very Kurdish movement that has traditionally sought to secure Kirkuk for the Kurds — preferably with as few Arabs in it as possible. But his experience governing this complex area over the past five years, he told me recently, has taught him that the Kurds simply cannot impose their will on others. Karim believes there is a better way to settle whether or not Kirkuk should officially be Kurdish than forcing the governorate into the Kurdish region via a controversial referendum, which would leave a deeply polarized society in its wake. Kirkuk “should be an independent region within Iraq for an interim period of five or 10 years,” he told me.

At the end of that period, Karim hopes Kirkuk’s people will have achieved a measure of mutual trust. They would then be allowed to freely choose where they want their home to be: under Baghdad, under the Kurdish capital of Erbil, or as a stand-alone region with special status and powers. Moreover, he said, Hawija “should become a governorate inside the Kirkuk region, with its own local government and budget” — in other words, maintaining its important administrative and economic links to a Kurdish-dominated Kirkuk.

The governor is floating this option with the full knowledge that, as an independent region, Kirkuk could finally benefit from the wealth of its oil resources. As it stands now, Baghdad and Erbil have deprived the governorate of oil revenues by making profitable deals over Kirkukis’ heads. Somewhat incongruously, the prime minister of the Kurdish region, Nechirvan Barzani, supports the Kirkuk governor in his quest. But both he and Karim insist that Kirkuk would need to be considered at least symbolically as “Kurdistani land,” the way Kurds consider Kurdish areas outside Iraq also “Kurdistani.” Moreover, the governor insists that any future special arrangement for Kirkuk would have to be approved by the Kurdish region’s parliament, which could turn out to be a significant obstacle.

Karim’s position has put him at sharp odds with his own party, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), whose enraged members have threatened him with expulsion. But the PUK is weak, having lost its leader, Jalal Talabani, to illness, and convulsed by internal power struggles. The Kirkuk governor, on the other hand, rightly senses that he has the support of the local population — including its Kurds, who eye the Kurdish parties’ inept and corrupt rule in the region next door with great wariness.

The moment, therefore, is now. As hopeless as the Middle East may sometimes seem, leaders with a pragmatic vision still stand a chance of charting a more peaceful, inclusive way forward. These leaders deserve the international community’s support, as they hold the key to making sure that the Islamic State’s defeat does not simply mark the beginning of a new set of ethnic and religious wars.

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.