Gunmen attacked a four-star hotel in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, on Jan. 15, highlighting so-called “Islamist extremist” organizations’ operations in West Africa — and the role of Burkina Faso and other regional states as partners in French and United States “counterterrorism” operations.
The attacks took place at the Splendid Hotel, a facility popular with foreign nationals, diplomats and military operatives from Europe and North America. Nearby Cappuccino Café was sprayed with bullets, leaving many casualties.
After a several-hour standoff involving more than 100 hostages, Burkinabe police and soldiers, led by French and U.S. Special Forces, stormed the hotel and retook the area. Paris and Washington maintain military operatives in this landlocked nation and coordinate a task force ostensibly designed to track down members of al-Qaida of the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and similar organizations. (BBC, Jan. 18)
Hostages released after the operations said gunmen targeted those who appeared to be of European ancestry; many lay wounded after being hit by bullets. One U.S. citizen, six Canadians, French, Dutch and Swiss nationals were among the 29 people who died.
Burkina Faso’s government declared three days of national mourning beginning on Jan. 17 and announced that police and military forces stepped up security measures there in conjunction with neighboring states, including Mali, which has experienced similar incidents.
Newly elected President Roch Marc Christian Kaboré stated, “These truly barbaric criminal acts carried out against innocent people, claimed by the criminal organization al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), seek to destabilize our country and its republican institutions, and to undermine efforts to build a democratic, quiet and prosperous nation.” (Aljazeera, Jan. 18)
The online agency SITE, which monitors global posts on such actions, reported that AQIM had taken responsibility.
Power struggles add to instability
The impoverished state of Burkina Faso underwent a national uprising in October 2014 that ousted longtime Western-backed dictator Blaise Compaoré. After mass demonstrations pushed for Compaoré’s removal, another coup occurred illustrating divisions in the military.
In September, an attempted coup by the Regiment of Presidential Security (RSP), headed by Gen. Gilbert Diendéré, sought to oust interim President Michael Kafando weeks before the election. Diendéré was a former ally of the ousted Compaoré, who is now in Ivory Coast. Nevertheless, Roch Marc Christian Kaboré was elected as the new head of state on Nov. 29.
In 2015, during the transition and period leading to the national elections, Diendéré attempted to take power ostensibly to try to halt the election and change the character of the constitutional model. Decisions regarding the elections and the current government’s composition resulted from negotiations among various political interests, the military and envoys from the regional Economic Community of West African States.
Pascaline Compaoré, a junior fellow at the Conflict Prevention and Risks Analysis Division, noted in an article posted Jan. 15 on the website of the Institute of Security Studies in Dakar, Senegal, “[Former President] Compaoré’s regime depended heavily on the … Regiment of Presidential Security. Despite the former president’s ousting, the RSP continued to interfere in the political transition process. Some of its members, under the leadership of General Gilbert Diendéré, were responsible for the 17 September 2015 coup attempt, which resulted in the disintegration of the corps.”
The report continued, “The coup d’état pointed to a lack of concrete progress in neutralizing the RSP. During the first post-putsch cabinet meeting, it had been decided that the RSP should be disarmed and reintegrated into other army postings. That some of these soldiers could continue to threaten the country’s security and stability remains a cause for concern. The dismantling of the RSP created an important security gap, which must be addressed with urgency given the volatility in the region and the backdrop of instability in the country.”
This Jan. 15 attack is not the first; there have been two other incidents in northern and western Burkina Faso. Mali underwent a similar disturbance in November at a hotel housing foreign diplomats and Western military personnel.
Prior to the attacks at the hotel and café, the Burkinabe Ministry of Defense released an advisory reporting that 20 armed men killed a policeman and a civilian in an attack on the village of Tin Abao in the country’s northern region. It was not immediately clear who was behind that incident.
In December, the French embassy warned its citizens not to travel to a national park in eastern Burkina Faso amid reports that Malian-based Islamist groups had pledged to abduct foreign nationals. Al-Mourabitoun, which claimed responsibility for an attack in Mali late last year, said in May that it was holding a Romanian man abducted from northern Burkina Faso.
In other reports, 50 unidentified gunmen carried out an offensive operation against a Burkina Faso security brigade near the western border with Mali in October; three people were killed. The then-transitional government blamed the incident on disgruntled elements in the RSP who were involved in September’s attempted coup.
Operation Barkhane and ‘war on terrorism’
Burkina Faso and Mali have become centers in the U.S. and French “war on terrorism.” Large deployments of imperialist Pentagon and French military troops are also in Niger and Chad.
Operation Barkhane, a force based in Chad that was purportedly established to combat Islamist fighters throughout the Sahel region, is stationed at the Splendid Hotel in Burkina Faso. This French-led unit was created in 2014 as the successor to other military contingents in Mali, known as Operation Serval, and Operation Epervier in Chad.
Barkhane consists of a 3,000-person French force permanently headquartered in N’Djamena, Chad’s capital. The operation has representatives from five countries — the former French colonies of Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger. They are described as the “G5 Sahel.” The military operations units are named after a crescent-shaped dune in the Sahara Desert.
Until recently, Burkina Faso was a major producer of cotton and other agricultural commodities exported to Western states. It has emerged as a major center for gold mining, and is now the fourth largest producer of the mineral on the African continent.
Neighboring Niger contains large deposits of uranium, which is mined and controlled by the French-based Areva nuclear energy corporation. The U.S. has constructed drone stations and other offensive weaponry in Niger in cooperation with Paris to guard its corporate interests.