The latest terror attack in Burkina Faso’s capital, Ouagadougou, on Friday 15 January, announced the bloody entry of an al-Qaeda franchise into a country that had so far been spared the traumas of radical Islamism.
At first glance, this looks like the spillover from a wider conflict with militant Islamists across North and West Africa – but the attacks have as much to do with Burkina Faso itself as with global jihadist movements and their goals.
Nestled just underneath Mali and Niger in West Africa, Burkina Faso is still in the midst of a democratic transition which began in 2014 with the ousting of its president of 27 years, Blaise Compaoré. Compaoré was a towering regional figure: having orchestrated the assassination of his predecessor Thomas Sankara in 1987, he changed course and made his country a staunch ally of the West.
As abductions by militant groups in the region steadily mounted from the early 2000s onwards, he became a go-to negotiator whenever Western powers tried to free hostages held in the Sahara. Ouagadougou became a natural base for negotiations and regional dealmaking, whilst at the same time remaining a crucial logistical base for the French army.
But Compaoré stumbled when he tried to amend the constitution to lift the limit on the number of terms a single president could run for, and this triggered a relatively chaotic, but ultimately successful, democratic process: the president fled to neighbouring Ivory Coast, an interim military government was formed, and an attempted coup was mounted. Finally, at the end of 2015, there was a successful general and presidential election, and Roch Marc Kaboré was formally sworn in as president.
From the jihadist perspective, this makes Burkina Faso a choice target. Its dogged and determined democratic transition goes fundamentally against the violent theocratic Islamist creed. Besides, with the country no longer protected by Compaoré’s skillful diplomatic contortions, its logistical and political support to the French-led anti-jihadist push in the Sahel region (operation Barkhane) has become more conspicuous than ever.
Burkina Faso is also home to a sizeable expat community (including some 3,000 French citizens), which makes it an even more desirable target for jihadists. The message to the West in general, and to France in particular, is clear: there will be no truce, and the power of bombs and even boots on the ground has clear limits.
And then there’s another dimension: the global competition between the so-called Islamic State (IS) and al-Qaeda.
The recent territorial and military successes of IS in Iraq and Syria have attracted a great many militants and resources, to the detriment of Al-Qaeda which is now on the back foot on many fronts – and not least because Ayman Al Zawahiri’s charisma and flair for leadership does not match Osama bin Laden’s.
With IS reportedly growing in Libya and its ideological sibling Boko Haram still rampaging across northern Nigeria and its bordering states, al-Qaeda increasingly needs to demonstrate that it has retained power and operational capacity. It did so by striking Mali in both March and November 2015 (the second time in the wake of the Paris attacks perpetrated on behalf of IS); the Ouagadougou attack is another way to re-assert itself and maintain its ebbing credibility within jihadist circles.
By showing the world that they can still strike where they want, and that they have the power to extend the zone of jihad to new regions in West Africa, Al Qaeda increases its fledgling ability to retain militants and funds. Its eagerness to communicate on the social networks about the attack (a strategy apparently borrowed from IS) indicates how al-Qaeda is growing anxious not to appear outwitted.
For the main organiser, the Algerian Mokhtar Belmokhtar, who has had complex and often fractious relations with the al-Qaeda leadership, it is also a way to shore up his status as the organisation’s frontman in North and West Africa – this at a time when his main logistical base, Libya, could soon become IS’s new bridgehead in Africa.
These attacks on restaurants and hotels popular with foreigners are clearly calculated to make the highest possible symbolic impact on a number of audiences.
To the Burkinabè population, they convey disapproval of the country’s political transition and its participation in efforts to uproot jihadism from West Africa. To fellow jihadists attracted to the apparently more “successful” IS, they prove al-Qaeda is still in the business of campaigning to establish a world caliphate, even if its timetable is less ambitious than IS’s.
Last but not least, this is a reminder to the West that radical Islamism can use multiple strategies to fight back global efforts to eradicate it. Unfortunately, it seems the war against global jihadism will be a long and protracted one, and that military might simply will not be enough to destroy the ideology sustaining it.
But at the same time, we should also remember that attacks like the ones that rocked Ouagadougou are also a measure of weakness, since they implicitly acknowledge that their perpetrators cannot successfully sustain any form of full-scale military confrontation. And while Burkina Faso’s heartening progress towards true civil democracy may make it a prize target, it also shows that jihadism in West Africa is by no means winning the day.