What is behind church attacks in Burkina Faso?

Recent attacks on churches in northern Burkina Faso are likely to be the work of jihadists whose activities are growing in the region despite a military operation to contain Islamist militancy.

The country’s foreign minister says tackling terrorism has become a fight “for the very survival” of the Sahel region, which incorporates Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger.

The militants have forced 100,000 in Burkina Faso alone to flee their homes in recent months.

Three key Islamist militant groups have established a front in northern and eastern Burkina Faso: Ansarul Islamthe Group for the Support of Islam and Muslims (GSIM) and Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS).

One of the most audacious attacks of recent years – the January 2016 siege on a luxury hotel that killed 30 people in Burkina Faso’s capital Ouagadougou – was carried out by al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), which has since merged with two other jihadist groups – Ansar Dine and al-Mourabitoun – to form GSIM.

It operates in Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso and was behind two other attacks in Ouagadougou – on a café in August 2017 and the French embassy and army Headquarters (HQ) in March 2018.

A propaganda video released last month by the Islamic State (IS) group shows the Sahel’s appeal to global jihadist when “brothers” in Burkina Faso and Mali were congratulated for pledging their allegiance.

Ansarul Islam, meaning Defenders of Islam, is the home-grown group, founded in 2016 by the radical and popular preacher Ibrahim Malam Dicko, who is said to have fought with Islamist militants in Mali when they took over the north of country in 2012, prompting France’s intervention.

Dicko died in April 2017 and his brother Jafar is now leading the group, which has received logistical support from both AQIM and ISGS, according to Human Rights Watch.

Widespread frustration with the lack of jobs and infrastructure has made Burkina Faso a fertile recruiting ground for jihadists – and there are numerous smaller groups, not all of which are affiliated to larger ones or pledge allegiance to Islamist ideology.

According to the Economist, many are fighting for farmland or against government corruption but “adopt the ‘jihadist’ label because they happen to be Muslim”. –BBC

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