As Burkina Faso grapples with increasing threats of terrorism there are fears that the country may lose control of its troubled Northern region to extremists following persistent attacks on troops and civilians in the region.
By Reuben Nwankwo
Apprehension is gradually creeping into Burkina Faso in the wake of U.S. State Department warning to Americans living in the West African country urging them to avoid Burkina Faso’s volatile North because of “persistent security threats including terrorism.”
The region is now the home of a controversial local preacher, Ibrahim Malam Dicko, who radicalized and has claimed responsibility for recent deadly attacks against troops and civilians. His association, Ansarul Islam, is now considered a terrorist group by Burkina Faso’s government.
Nearly a dozen attacks have left at least 33 people dead in the region since January 2017, officials say. Scores of schools have closed after teachers received threats telling them to teach about the Quran and Islam or leave. One teacher and a villager were killed early this year by Dicko’s men, underscoring that the region risks falling outside the government’s control.
The three attackers in the 2016 massacre were of foreign origin, according to al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, which claimed responsibility in the aftermath along with the jihadist group known as Al Mourabitoun. But the terror threat in Burkina Faso is increasingly homegrown, experts say.
Lamoussa Robgo, coordinator of “Equal Access,” a nongovernmental organization working to tackle religious extremism and violence, said the transformation of Dicko’s association into a terror group means that extremism is taking hold in Burkina Faso, where more than 60 percent of the country is Muslim.
“This was foreseeable in the sense that religious extremism began to increase in recent years among certain Muslims, notably with the creation of a mosque with help from associations in Qatar and also with the return of people who had studied the Quran in Mali with extremist preachers,” Rogbo said.
A recent report by International Crisis Group also cited the danger of foreign influence: “Burkinabe scholars and preachers trained in the Gulf sometimes return home promoting practices and ideas far removed from the realities of peaceful coexistence in Burkina,” it said.
In recent weeks, French forces backed by Burkinabe and Malian forces launched operations to end the attacks. But the extremists are becoming harder to identify.
“Terrorists are no longer recruited from foreigners because they are easily detected,” said Capt. Guy Ye, spokesman for the gendarmerie.
Activists are trying to get out their anti-extremism message through radio programs in local languages, urging people to reject those who want to use religion to commit criminal acts.
“We have received many messages of resilience, encouragement and hope. But it’s a long-term struggle,” Rogbo said.