Interview: Jihadists Target Religious Cohabitation in Burkina Faso

Bakary Sambe, is a professor and researcher at the University of Gaston Berger in Saint Louis, Senegal. He is the coordinator of the Observatory on Religious Radicalism and Conflict in Africa and the director of the Timbuktu Institute think tank.

Q: There was an attack on a restaurant and following hostage taking on August 13th in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso. Is this exactly the same scenario as a year and a half ago on 15 January, 2016, when we saw attacks at the Café Cappuccino and at the hotel Splendid? Do you see any differences?

A: The modus operandi of the last attack leads us to believe that there is a similarity in relation to the attacks on the Cappuccino and the Splendid. At the same time, there really hasn’t been a cease to the attacks in Burkina Faso since 2015/2016.

In November 2016, there was a double bombing in Soum, Djibo, and Pétéga, with the attacks on Ariel. And in March 2017, the same attacks at Baraboulé. And three other attacks, in June, in the region of Soum.

So, all of these localities- the localities of Titabé, Sentangué, Tin-Akof- have been continuously targeted by jihadists. Which is to say that after the first attack in Burkina Faso the jihadist phenomenon took hold. Burkina Faso is an example of stability, a model of cohabitation, and a land where you can find real social cohesion.

Q: For you, is it this model which the jihadists have attacked?

A: Burkina Faso symbolizes a model, in the sense that there exists peaceful cohabitation between all the religious communities, which the jihadists want to challenge. Notably there has been an emergence of domestic terrorists, such Ibrahim Malam Dicko and his group Ansarul Islam. This is a novelty because so far it is the transnational groups, like Al-Mourabitoune, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, etc., which operate in this region of the Sahel.

Q: Are there many religious divisions in the Burkinabe society?

A: I believe that there is a capacity of resilience in Burkina Faso – we find it elsewhere in Côte d’Ivoire – which means that it will be difficult to have a jihadism in mass. The population has the capacity to regenerate its cultural resources, which has been at the root of this model in West Africa.

Q: What could be the other reasons for why Burkina Faso is a preferred target for jihadists today?

A: It could be that Burkina Faso is a cross roads; a space to extend the zones of intervention for the jihadist groups. We must also note that in Burkina Faso, no less than six groups are operating and launching attacks, this includes Ansar Dine, the Macina Liberation Front, the Islamic State in the Sahar, Ansarul Islam d’Ibrahim Malam Dicko, and others.

As we know, today Burkina Faso is experiencing many military operations: the operation Celo, which is led by the Malian forces in the north west; Operation Tapoa in the east of the country; and Operation Segéré with the Togolese

Q: Never the less, everything seemed to commence in 2015?

There was a form of rupture with the departure of Blaise Compaore. As long as this form of … I do not say « Gentlemen’s Agreement » … existed, Burkina was spared. Starting with the transition and the end of the transition, and the departure of personalities like Diendéré [when the Burkina Faso general Gilbert Diendéré in 2015 failed] or others, we see nevertheless that there is a deterioration of the safe climate.[s1]

 Q: Bamako, Mali, Grand-Bassam in Côte d’Ivoire, Ouagadougou…are we seeing an inexorable expansion of terrorism across the Sahel, starting in Mali?

The Malian borders are not only a problem for Mali, but a problem for all its neighbors. Remember Grand Bassam? This was done from the Malian frontiers. The first attacks on Burkina Faso, also, were from the same Malian borders.

It is to say that with the phenomenon of the “underbelly belly” we are left with vulnerabilities in all these countries. There are no exceptions anymore.

Q: The chiefs of state called to reinforce the fight against terrorism in the Sahel. Is the G5 (Mali, Chad, Niger, Mauritania, and Burkina Faso) the solution?

A: We cannot count solely on the security solutions. If military solutions were durable solutions against terrorism or extremism, there would no longer be Taliban in Afghanistan. However, the Taliban still exists, despite the 15 years of American presence. There would no longer be Jihadism in northern Mali with Serval and Barkhane…

But I believe that the structural political changes of the 1990s weakened our states, and weakened completely the educational system. This gave much more visibility to these groups, which substitute the state and profit from vulnerabilities. They profit also from the porous nature of the borders. Besides, the security solutions, which are imposed by the management of emergencies, it is necessary to reflect to find a true strategy for prevention, with the solutions of development and education.

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