The Strategic Importance of the Attack in Burkina Faso By Steph Schmitt

Eighteen people were killed in a terrorist attack on August 13th in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso. This and other recent attacks in the country illustrate the strategic success of Al Qaeda’s long-term strategy.


Burkina Faso, an extremely poor nation where 90% of the population survives through subsistence farming, is rapidly losing its status as one of the more stable countries in West Africa. Its name, which literally translates into “Land of the Upright People,” was once associated with stability in a region beset by conflict. However, there have been more than 20 terror attacks since 2015, including a 15-hour siege that killed 28 people last year. Groups linked to al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and Ansar al Dine are responsible for the majority of terrorist activity in the country and, although no one has claimed responsibility, are suspected in this week’s attack. Even if the attack turns out to have been led by another group – such as ISIS or a domestic terrorist element – it is still important to analyze the undeniable rise of al Qaeda in the country and greater region.

Al Qaeda Playing the Long Game

In March of this year, four major terrorist groups in the Sahel announced a coalition called Jamaat Nusrat al-Islam wal Muslimeen (the Group for the Support of Islam) and pledged allegiance to al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. The same factions active in Burkina Faso are now part of this broader umbrella. Al Qaeda, although tactically weakened and overshadowed by ISIS in recent years, is making significant inroads by consolidating power and expanding its ideological appeal. Al-Zawahiri is playing the long game: by remaining largely under the radar and forming deep ties within local communities, he has expanded his reach from coast-to-coast of the Sahel. Unlike ISIS, which champions immediate attacks on Western interests, al Qaeda recognizes the strategic value of low-profile activities that will pay dividends in the coming years. The persistent attacks it launches against civilian centers, such as the attack this week on a restaurant in Ouagadougou, seek to demoralize the population and disincentive organic social dissent. Such attacks divert the attention of already limited Burkinabe security forces from protecting other areas of the country. And finally, these attacks expose a feeble state: they delegitimize governmental authority; disincentive foreign investment; and overall weaken the country’s resistance to al Qaeda’s strategy.

Territorial Boon

Against the backdrop of chaos following the August 13th and preceding attacks, al Qaeda is growing territorially. They recently expanded control into the northern regions of Burkina Faso, challenging state authority and making it difficult for the government to deliver services to its people. This region is seen as an increasingly appealing option for terrorist training and recruitment centers. It could also be used as a fallback safe haven if the group is pushed out of other areas in the region. The strategic importance of geographic fallback options cannot be understated. Resurgence following ISIS’ fall back into Sirte, al-Shabaab’s fall back into the southern hinterlands, and the Taliban’s fall back into Waziristan are just a few examples of how failures to eliminate safe havens in neighboring countries prolong conflicts. The northern area of Burkina Faso is also geographically significant because it could serve as the cross road from countries such as Mali and Niger to coastal countries with important ports, including the Ivory Coast and Togo. These links could later prove vital for the smuggling of arms and foreign fighters.

If there is one lesson to learn from the 16-years-old war in Afghanistan let it be this: prevention is better than intervention. We should not wait for nefarious groups to become fully entrenched and pose a direct threat to Western interests before responding. Al Qaeda has made significant strides in West Africa, but its leadership and global appeal is still weak. With consolidated efforts to undermine al Qaeda’s reach now, future risks to Western interests will be greatly mitigated.

What Can be Done?

Undoubtedly, targeted and restrained military and police intervention must compose part of the response in Burkina Faso. The African Union and other regional actors have achieved recent success when responding to transnational terrorist actors and these efforts should be bolstered. However, within Burkina Faso, much-needed reforms to the security sector have not been delivered.

In any conflict where the enemy evokes the power of ideology, kinetics can only be one component of the countervailing response. Regional and international actors need to simultaneously address the drivers of violent extremism, which necessitates social, political, and cultural activities. At the Timbuktu Institute, we are working to pioneer responses to these problems by drawing on existing sources of community resilience, such as connecting to a shared cultural heritage of peaceful coexistence that has existed in the Sahel for generations. We recently completed an initiative to provide persuasive counter messaging to the narratives disseminated through violent extremist groups. Through YouTube videos and social networking tools, we are seeking to engage youth as the principal authors of messages to resist violence and extremism.

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