Burkina Faso and the Looming Jihadist Threat to Coastal West Africa

Burkina Faso and the Looming Jihadist Threat to Coastal West Africa

Publication: Terrorism Monitor 

By: Jacob Zenn

The Jamestown Foundation

Ten years ago, the prospect that Nigeria would become a jihadist hotspot—let alone the world’s third “most terrorized” country after Iraq and Afghanistan—received hardly any consideration (Africanews.com, December 6). Nevertheless, much has changed in ten years. Today the situation in northeastern Nigeria is worse than any predictions made a decade ago. Moreover, the violence from Nigeria has spilled over into neighboring Chad, Niger and Cameroon. This begs the question—are there “peaceful” countries today in West Africa that ten years from now could spiral into jihadist violence?

This article examines the security situation in southern Burkina Faso, which shares borders with “peaceful” countries on the West African coast, such as Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Togo and Benin. Those countries have largely been spared from jihadist violence, with the exception of the 2016 Grand Bassam attack in Côte d’Ivoire that left 16 dead. Now, however, they appear to be on the verge of suffering from jihadist spillover from Burkina Faso into the northern regions of their countries. This article first reviews recent attacks that have occurred in southern Burkina Faso and discusses the networks of groups operating there. It then highlights certain structural factors in coastal West African countries that jihadists could exploit to launch attacks similar to what they have done in Nigeria, if not Burkina Faso and Mali as well.

Attacks Spreading Towards Coastal West Africa

Geographically, Burkina Faso is the only country that borders all of the following coastal West African countries: Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Togo, and Benin. Therefore, those countries’ border security inevitably depends on Burkina Faso. A sampling of recent attacks in southern Burkina Faso demonstrates that jihadists in the country are gradually becoming stronger and moving closer towards those countries’ northern borders. For example:

  • On August 22, militants attacked a customs post in Batié, Noumbiel province, which is at the far tip of Burkina Faso and in between the borders of Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana (com, August 22).
  • On August 28, a roadside bomb that, “bore the hallmark of attacks attributed to jihadists,” killed seven members of the security forces in Pama, Kompienga province, Burkina Faso, which is only a few kilometers from the borders with Togo and Benin (Gulf Times, August 28).
  • On August 31, militants attacked a police office in Galgouli, Poni province, Burkina Faso, which sits directly on the border with Côte d’Ivoire; the police compared the militants’ tactics to the operation in Batié one week earlier (net, August 31; Twitter.com/Menastream, August 31).
  • On November 15, militants in Pama, which is near Togo and Benin, erected a checkpoint on a road for several hours to inspect for indicators of government personnel but let passengers travel onwards if they were civilians, which led to apprehension among civilians in the area about a lack of government presence (Actuburkina, November 15).
  • On December 12, militants engaged in gunfire with the Burkinabe police in Nadiagou, Kompienga province, which, like Pama, is near Togo and Benin (com/Menastream, December 12).
  • On the same day, on December 12, a police post in Bourom Bourom, Poni Province, which is less than 50 kilometers to the border with Ghana, was attacked (net, December 12).

Who is Behind the Attacks?

Most of these attacks have been unclaimed and reported to be carried out by “unidentified armed men” (hommes armés non encore identifies). In theory, the attacks could have been carried out by regular bandits. The targets, frequency, and tactics, however, suggest a level of capability and organization similar to more formal jihadist groups or networks. Moreover, an arrested militant from Burkina Faso in Mali, Adama Konate, was described as a “coordinator” on the tri-state border between Côte d’Ivoire, Mali and Burkina Faso. Another militant, Abdallah Sawadogo, had been ordered by Ansar Dine in Mali to set up a branch in Burkina Faso (Fasozine.com, December 13; Twitter.com/Menastream, December 13).

Another cell that was broken up in Koutiala, Mali led to the arrest of Sawadogo’s brother. That cell had reportedly been targeting the capitals of Côte d’Ivoire, Mali, and Burkina Faso (crossainceafrique, December 12; Twitter.com/Menastream, December 12). Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and its respective Fulani-oriented Malian and Burkina Faso-based affiliates, Jama’a Nusrat ul-Islam wa al-Muslimin (JNIM) and Ansaroul Islam, have already been involved in attacks on foreigners near Abidjan (Grand Bassam), Bamako, and Ouagadougou (Terrorism Monitor, February 10, 2017). Notably, however, these arrested militants were from the majority Mossi ethnic group in Burkina Faso that does not have the same historical narratives of jihad as Fulanis, who have been the primary recruitment targets of jihadists in Mali and Burkina Faso to date (Terrorism Monitor, November 13, 2015).

It becomes evident, therefore, that AQIM networks have begun penetrating Burkina Faso and probably have cells that have reached the borders of coastal West African countries or operate there. Nevertheless, there are also Islamic State in Greater Sahara (ISGS) militants active in those areas, with that group having, among others, attacked a school and a bar not far from the border with Benin in Tapoa province, Burkina Faso, in November and December (Twitter.com/Menastream, November 23; Lefaso.net, November 24; Twitter.com/Menastream, December 9). Those attacks, like the ones frequently seen in northern Burkina Faso on schools of Western education—which have led to the closure of 220 schools—appear to be ideologically oriented (Jeuneafrique, October 23). That again would suggest jihadists, not bandits, are involved, although in some cases jihadists may double as bandits and vice-versa. Crossover between militants in ISGS and AQIM groups in Burkina Faso also likely exist, considering they do not appear to be fighting each other; they come from a similar historical lineage with AQIM; and are operating in the same places.

The Operational Environment

It is also worth bearing in mind that the populations in the northern regions of Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Togo, and Benin are predominantly Muslim and some people—especially in northern Benin and parts of the other three countries—are ethnically and linguistically linked with northern Nigerian Hausas. These populations could enable not only positive trade exchanges but also the spread of negative jihadist ideologies. Shaykh Jaafar Mahmud Adam, who was a mentor of former Boko Haram leader Muhammed Yusuf, for example, conducted preaching (dawa’) in Benin, Togo, and Ghana (kubanni.abu.edu, 2009). Such exchanges have certainly continued with other less prominent Wahhabist preachers since his assassination by Boko Haram in 2007 after he fell out with the group. Ghana, for example, has also witnessed similar trends to Nigeria since the 1990s where hardline Wahhabist groups, such as one called Ahl as-Sunna, which was incidentally the same name as Adam’s group in Nigeria, have clashed with Sufis. [1] Jihadist groups, therefore, could find ideologically similar Wahhabist adherents in the northern regions of these countries even if such adherents have not been prone to violence yet.

In Burkina Faso, it is also important to recall that jihadist activities only occurred after the country’s political turmoil in 2015. Prior to then, the Burkinabe leader, Blaise Compaoré, had dealings with AQIM mediators. The country, however, lost those relationships after the coup. The breakdown of “deals” with jihadists may have contributed to the spike in terrorist attacks since 2015 (Jeuneafrique, November 26, 2014).

The spillover and expansion of jihadist activity from Mali into Burkina Faso and now from there toward the borders of Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Togo, and Benin is a trend worth monitoring. Once across the borders, the jihadists will likely seek their fellow kin ethnically or ideologically as well as other communities that are alienated or politically marginalized where jihadist narratives of Muslim-Christian rivalry can resonate. In Mali, for example, jihadists have exploited intra-Muslim ethnic tensions between Fulanis and Dogons. Even more apparent religious differences would presumably be easier for them to exploit, especially because—like in Nigeria—the country’s coastal Christian populations tend to be better off economically than the Muslim populations (rfi.fr, May 4, 2016).

Ten years ago, few suspected Nigeria would become a land of jihad, and only several years ago Burkina Faso was off the jihadism radar. Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Togo, and Benin are currently considered to be relatively immune from jihadism, but it appears, on the contrary, that they are on the cusp of being on the receiving end of attacks.


[1] David Owusu-Ansah’s Interview with al-Hajj Ibrahim Umar, Accra, Ghana, July 14, 2005: kora.matrix.msu.edu

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