Ansarul Islam: Burkina Faso’s Homegrown Menace

Ansarul Islam

Since 2016, armed groups linked to Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) have dramatically increased their presence in Burkina Faso. This kind of crisis is new for the country that was largely peaceful until three years ago. While the violence and insecurity has progressively spread across the country, the epicenter of abuse and insecurity remains the northern Sahel region. The predominant group in the region is the militant group Ansarul Islam (“Defenders of Islam”), which emerged near the Mali border in Dec 2016.

  • Jihadis, especially those linked to AQIM, have long operated in Burkina Faso and have recruited among various communities and carried out kidnapping operations near the Malian border in the north.
  • Jihadi attacks against civilians and Burkinabe security forces only began in earnest in 2017
  • Attacks against defense and security forces are on the rise, and the group’s capabilities now include the use of IEDs, likely trained and assisted by AQIM
  • Ansarul Islam is not ethnically based, but primarily made up of recruits from the Fulani and Rimaibé ethnicities
  • Le Monde reported that Ansarul Islam contained 200 members in 2018
  • On 20 Feb 2018, the US Department of State designated Ansarul Islam as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist (SDGT)
  • Ansarul has set off fighting between ethnic communities in the north, with the Mossi majority accusing Fulani herders of harbouring militants
  • Over 115,000 people are internally displaced and 11,000 people have fled Burkina Faso to neighboring countries. More than 1,000 schools in the affected areas have closed



No official affiliation, but Ansarul’s ties run deep


It not confirmed that Ansarul has pledged allegiance to either the Islamic State (IS) nor any Al-Qaeda affiliate. Given a lack of verifiable information on Ansarul Islam, its composition, and its ideological leanings, it remains difficult to assess the group’s objectives.Although Ansarul Islam is largely focused in Burkina Faso, its roots are deeply embedded in the conflict in Mali. The group was founded by Malam Ibrahim Dicko, a prominent Burkinabe scholar and jihadi. He rose to prominence for preaching radical Islam and memorialising the ancient kingdom of Djeelgodji – a powerful Fulani empire that the militant leader vowed to resurrect. Dicko was a close ally of Amadou Koufa, the leader of the al-Qaeda–aligned and Fulani-dominant Macina Liberation Front (MLF) militant group, which is now within the Mali-based al-Qaeda umbrella group JNIM, the Group in Support of Islam and Muslims. In mid-2017, Dicko died of reported natural causes and was replaced by his brother Jafar.


Compaoré’s Legacy and Ansarul

Burkina Faso did not experience any attacks attributed to jihadi groups until after the fall of the Blaise Compaoré regime. His presidency ended after a popular uprising in 2014 prevented him from extending his 27-year rule. The regime maintained what appeared to be strong lines of communication with jihadis and is known to have negotiated deals with the militant groups to prevent an insurgency in the country. In April 2015, six months after the downfall of the Compaoré regime, the first jihadi militant attacks occurred. Another consequence of the regime’s demise was the disbandment of the autonomous Regiment of Presidential Security (RSP), the Compaoré’s secret service. Officials were recently quoted by a Malian newspaper as saying that they intercepted a communication between an RSP fugitive and Ansarul Islam’s leader. The intercept confirmed the suspicion of the government that former RSP members are taking part in attacks by jihadists both in Mali and Burkina Faso.


The last line of defence

There is a sense of frustration on the streets of the capital Ouagadougou that the state’s response has not been decisive to combat this domestic threat. Until now, the government has been on its heels and often been more reactionary than preventative. The country’s security forces are widely considered among the weakest in Western Africa and the remote and isolated terrain of the Sahel often leaves them vulnerable. To strengthen its efforts, the government announced this month to withdraw its forces currently deployed abroad as part of peacekeeping missions, mostly in Mali. With 1,886 personnel deployed, this accounts for roughly one-fourth of the country’s defense forces. It will then reassign the returning soldiers to the fight against Ansarul Islam in the Sahel. 

This could not come too soon as the Ansarul network permits al-Qaeda’s regional networks more operating space inside the country, allowing for greater recruitment as well as possibly more opportunities to conduct additional large-scale terrorist attacks. There are also now grave concerns what the fall of Burkina to Ansarul and other groups could mean for security regionally. Bakary Sambe, the head of the Timbuktu Institute, recently told AFP that the upsurge in violence “seems to indicate that Burkina Faso is the last obstacle that these groups want to get over to reach the coast”. This would threaten Benin, Ghana and Togo that have so far been spared from the violence.

Image: Strategic Intelligence Service (link)

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grey Dynamics LTD.

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