According to the Africa Center for Strategic Studies based in Washington DC, Islamic extremist attacks have quadrupled in the African nation of Burkina Faso since 2017. After facing 136 attacks in 2018 a state of emergency has been declared in six of the nation’s 13 provinces.
This follows a trend in West Africa where deaths from terrorism spiked in 2015 and have continued since. About 70,000 people in West Africa have fled their homes since January due to growing extremist violence.
There are multiple factors contributing to the growing violence in Burkina Faso. It must be understood as a regional struggle, not one related solely to Burkina Faso.
In many instances, these fights are the same and borders are becoming more and more porous for the extremist groups moving and fighting across these West African nations.
The violence in Burkina Faso intensified at the expense of French gains against extremists in neighboring Mali in earlier years. The French have a force of 4,500 security personnel in these lands of their former colonies. In 2013 the French pushed the extremists south from Mali which ultimately allowed them to set up new bases and strongholds in Burkina Faso. As the violence intensified there, Niger also became a target for the extremists.
In 2017 the regional neighbors launched a joint regional counter-terror force known as the G5 Sahel. Its members include Burkina Faso, Chad, Niger, Mauritania, and Mali. In the opening months of 2019, the security forces noted great success in the tracking, targeting and killing of extremists within the country. After an attack on a village by extremists that killed fourteen people in the northwest part of the country near Mali in February, Burkina Faso’s security forces responded by killing 146 extremists.
But as Burkina Faso’s security forces, working in tandem with the G5 Sahel, have become more assertive toward extremist groups within their borders, extremist violence has intensified since 2017, not improved. This leads some outside observers to suggest the tactics of the security forces themselves might be contributing to the rising extremism and terrorist violence in the country.
This is the point made by a recent report from Human Rights Watch. The report follows a timeline from mid 2018 to February 2019 in which 49 civilians were killed by Islamic extremists in Burkina Faso and another 116 killed by the nation’s security forces in extra judicial killings for harboring the extremists.
In many parts of the country, the people are caught between the dangers of the extremists and the security forces. This type of narrative, historically, has played to the advantage of extremist groups, swelling their ranks in violent and terroristic protest against the official government’s atrocities.
Although the United States is planning to decrease its footprint in this region after the 2017 attacks on its soldiers, the money continues to roll in for the fight against terrorism. The US is scheduled to provide $100 million to Burkina Faso’s military over the next two years and another $242 million in military aid to the G5 Sahel. Japan has also pledged $2.7 million toward Burkina Faso’s fight against terrorism and $23 million to the larger G5 Sahel.
A skeptical observer can easily note a troubling trend in Burkina Faso. The continuing rise in terrorist attacks along with death counts achieved by the counter terror forces appears to be financially profitable. While the country and its people encounter growing instability and insecurity due to this fight, the government itself (which has recently indefinitely delayed its planned elections) may have found a new source of revenue and security.