Image Source: Institute for Security Studies
The recent military coup in Burkina Faso indicates a deepening governance and security crisis in the Sahel that threatens to impede regional and international counterterrorism efforts and destabilize an ever-widening geographic area as jihadists exploit instability to expand their spheres of influence.
The insecurity and violence associated with Salafi-jihadi activity in the region generated the successive coups in Burkina Faso. On September 30, members of the Burkinabe military led by Captain Ibrahim Traore overthrew the government in the second military coup of 2022. Lt. Col. Paul-Henri Damiba, who seized power in a similar fashion on January 24, announced his resignation on October 2 after several days of isolated violence in the capital, Ouagadougou. These successive coups ended a very brief period of civilian leadership in Burkina Faso following a democratic transition in 2015. The first military junta, led by Damiba, suspended the constitution, dissolved the government, and arrested former President Roch Marc Christian Kaboré. Damiba described the military takeover as both “necessary and indispensable” to the survival of the country in the face of the previous government’s failure to stem Islamic extremism. Nine months later, Colonel Traore cited similar grievances for his own power grab after Damiba’s junta failed to prevent and respond to large-scale massacres in northern and eastern Burkina Faso, where militants have expanded control since Damiba took power.
Until 2015, Burkina Faso had been largely insulated from the spread of violent extremism plaguing its neighbor Mali. In 2014, a popular uprising ousted long-serving authoritarian leader Blais Compaoré. A coup attempt in 2015 left the military, which already confronted the twin challenges of insufficient equipment and poor training, deeply divided. There are rumors that Burkina Faso was spared attacks by jihadist organizations during Compaoré’s rule because he colluded with them. This collusion ended when Kaboré came to power in 2015. Since then, the once-peaceful country has witnessed an exponential increase in violence and instability.
Burkina Faso is now emerging as the epicenter of the Sahelian security crisis, recording the highest number of fatalities from militant attacks so far in 2022. In the past three years, almost 2,000 Burkinabe have died in terrorist attacks. Moreover, 2022 is expected to be the deadliest year for both Burkina Faso and Mali since the Salafi-jihadist threat first emerged in the region. Burkina Faso is plagued by the presence of multiple Salafi-jihadist groups affiliated with Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. Prior to 2019, extremist violence was mostly contained in the Liptako-Gourma region and tri-border area which joins Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso, but attacks have since spread to regions of the country that were previously stable. This expansion has been facilitated by an under-resourced military and a population disenchanted with the government’s failure to address the security crisis.
In this context, the successive military coups were a reflection of the population’s growing frustration with the government’s inability to adequately respond to the terrorist threat. Two major terrorist attacks in nothern Burkina Faso in June and November 2021, which killed more than 200 people combined, sparked the popular demonstrations that created conditions for the military takeovers. Mere days before the latest coup, Al-Qaeda militants attacked a supply convoy in northern Burkina Faso, killing 37 soldiers and civilians and injuring more. This latest spate of political volatility is likely to further reduce counterterrorism pressure and worsen the cyclical violence and anti-government grievances that lead to Salafi-jihadi expansion.
The experiences of neighboring Mali, which itself has suffered successive coups in recent years, offers a bleak and unsettling picture of what is likely to befall Burkina Faso in the coming months. Mali has become increasingly unstable following its own successive coups, which significantly weakened regional and international counterterrorism efforts.
The Malian junta has impeded regional cooperation on counterterrorism through a series of decisions alienating its neighbors. In May 2022, Mali withdrew from the G5 Sahel. This multi-national military force, composed of troops from Niger, Chad, Burkina Faso, and Mauritania, was established in 2017 to combat the Salafi-jihadist threat in the region. The decision to withdraw has further isolated Mali, which has faced sharp criticism and economic sanctions from West Africa’s regional political bloc in response to its democratic backsliding. This move formalized an ongoing breakdown in cross-border coordination in response to the Salafi-jihadist threat. The junta also recently enraged the Ivory Coast and other neighboring countries by detaining 49 Ivorian peacekeepers during a routine rotation of the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA), a peacekeeping mission established to carry out security-related stabilization in the country. The Ivorian soldiers were accused of being mercenaries. This breakdown of regional cooperation creates ideal conditions for jihadists to operate and expand in poorly governed peripheral regions where they are able to move freely across borders.
The Malian experience also provides insight into the fate of international counterterrorism efforts in Burkina Faso following this latest coup. The Malian junta repeatedly criticized the French military presence in its country, accusing France of supporting jihadists and failing to quell the rising violence. Following the military takeover in Mali, the junta’s leaders quickly alienated its European partners, who were providing counterterrorism support in the region. French forces withdrew from Mali in August 2022 and the junta has imposed airspace restrictions on remaining European forces, causing them to suspend their operations in the region. As France and other European partners withdraw, they are taking critical intelligence, reconnaissance, and military capabilities with them.
The Malian military junta has, at the same time, embraced closer relations with Russia, which has attempted to exploit anti-Western sentiment and position itself as a reliable ally in the fight against the Salafi-jihadist threat. The Wagner Group, a private Russian mercenary organization, arrived in Mali in December 2021 at the request of the military junta and has since been providing counterterrorism support in place of France and other European countries. The Wagner Group has also been active throughout Sudan and the Central African Republic where its operatives have been accused of human rights violations, including mass killings, torture, enforced disappearances and rape. Their arrival in Mali has been similarly linked to increased violence against civilians in conflict-stricken zones. The military junta itself has adopted a hyper-militarized approach to countering terrorism and permitted extensive military abuses against civilians. The presence of the Wagner Group has only exacerbated this worrying trend.
These developments in Mali offer insight into what is likely to befall Burkina Faso in the near future. The new Burkinabe junta has expressed its willingness to seek different security partners, leading to similarly adverse effects on regional and international counterterrorism efforts in the Sahel. The junta’s weak and militarized governance will also exacerbate tensions between Burkinabe civilians and the military, permitting the Salafi-jihadi movement to capitalize on popular grievances and expand its reach further in the Sahel.
Like in Mali, the Burkinabe coup will likely lead to a breakdown in regional and international counterterrorism efforts. French troops are currently stationed in Burkina Faso to provide security assistance. France has long faced backlash from locals due to its colonial history in the region and its failure to respond adequately to the jihadist threat. Russia, meanwhile, has been waging information campaigns across the Sahel to exacerbate long-standing anti-colonial grievances against France and boost support for Russian influence. Damiba, the first junta leader, was tolerant of French military support in the region. Traore, on the other hand, has blamed France for the jihadist expansion and signaled his willingness to seek Russian support instead. According to geopolitical analyst Dr Samuel Ramani, “Another African country will move from cooperation with France to an alliance with Russia.”
This trend was evident among coup supporters in Burkina Faso, just as they were in Mali only one year earlier. Burkina Faso’s latest coup reflected popular support for Russia, with young people seen waving Russian flags in Ouagadougou and attacking French institutions. Moreover, the founder of the Wagner Group, Yevgeny Prigozhin, congratulated Traore and described him as “a truly worthy and courageous son of his motherland.” It is important to note that Traore has caveated his pro-Russian position by claiming that he also seeks to maintain good relations with other states and increase cooperation with all partners, like the U.S. and “not necessarily [just] Russia.” However, the growing instability and violence in Mali following its successive military coups and increasingly intimate relations with Russia are ominous signs of what is likely to befall Burkina Faso in the coming months. If Burkina Faso does choose to coordinate with the Wagner Group, it will almost certainly lead to the same trends being seen in Mali with increased violence against civilians. This will, in turn, increase the salience of the Salafi-jihadist narrative, promoting recruitment and community penetration in the Sahel as these extremist groups offer themselves as alternative forms of governance and protection.
Ultimately, the most pressing threat posed by the successive coups in Burkina Faso is the expansion of Salafi-jihadist groups into littoral states bordering the Sahel. Located at the critical junction between the Sahel and West African coastal states, Burkina Faso occupies a highly strategic position that insurgent groups are eager to exploit. Attacks in coastal states have been episodic thus far, but the expanding spheres of influence of many terrorist groups throughout the region are cause for concern. As jihadist groups expand southward, they widen the corridor leading to coastal states and spread their operations across an ever-widening geographic area. This will both impede the regional and international counterterrorism campaigns by obligating them to disperse their operations over a greater distance and increase the potential for the Salafi-jihadi movement to overtake the entire African continent. As a report by the International Crisis Group contends, “…the wider the ‘Burkinabé door’ opens, the greater the risk that the central Sahel’s violence will become a broader regional phenomenon.”