On a muggy evening in mid-August, a convoy of gold miners and gendarmes in 4x4s and pickup trucks drove on an unpaved road from a Canadian-owned gold mine in Boungou, eastern Burkina Faso. Just a few miles after leaving the facility, the convoy hit a mine. Gunmen jumped out from the thick forest on the side of the road and opened fire, killing five gendarmes and one miner.
Two months later, in the northern town of Inata near the Malian border — another gold-mining site — a column of militants on motorcycles ambushed police in the early hours of the morning, killing one gendarme and carrying away police equipment as they fled the scene. The Burkinabé military authorities called in the help of French troops stationed in neighboring Niger, and they sent two Mirage fighter jets that struck the fleeing militants. This opened up yet another front for France’s overstretched military operation in the Sahel region, cementing the perception that six years after the French intervention in Mali, security in the region is deteriorating.
Since January 2016, more than 200 militant attacks have killed at least 263 people in Burkina Faso, according to data from Héni Nsaibia, a researcher at the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project. The violence “has created a kind of psychosis in terms of security, especially in the north,” said Bénéwendé Sankara, vice president of parliament. “So far, the consequences are terrible. Schools and health clinics are closed, people have fled. It’s become a no-man’s land.” The incidents in Boungou and Inata are emblematic — both in the nature of the attacks and the unknown identity of the attackers — of the destabilization of the Burkinabé state.
These attacks are enveloped in a huge mystery — just who is committing them, and why?
A few of the major attacks have been claimed by regional jihadi groups like Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, Islamic State in the Greater Sahara, and Al Mourabitoun. Ansar Al Islam, a group founded by the late Burkinabé radical preacher Malam Ibrahim Dicko, has claimed others. But more than 90 percent of the attacks have not been claimed — including the assaults on Boungou and Inata — and the assailants are unknown, at least to the public. “Behind terrorist attacks, there is always a political and religious motivation,” Police Commissioner Anihifahata Yacoub Sié Rachid Palenfo told me when I recently visited the country. “In the case of Burkina Faso, we did not feel a religious motivation. What, then, is the message?”
What’s happening in Burkina Faso appears to be, at least in part, an example of blowback against U.S. anti-terror tactics. That’s because a now-disbanded elite military unit that received training from the U.S. is suspected of being involved in the attacks against the country.
There are multiple theories behind the swift breakdown in security — and all turn around the 2014 revolution that overthrew ex-dictator Blaise Compaoré and threatened his feared presidential guard, known by its French acronym RSP and led by Gen. Gilbert Diendéré. By toppling only the president, which led to the disbanding of his key military unit a year later, the revolution left the country with a gaping security hole. As a special unit of roughly 1,300 soldiers with separate living quarters, equipment, training, and pay from the regular army, the presidential guard protected the interests of the party in power, rather than the country at large. The RSP was particularly potent, too — it had its own counterterrorism unit that received training from both France and the U.S.
The insecurity that Burkina Faso is experiencing today appears to be proof that support for an elite unit that works for a corrupt dictator can lead to more terrorism and insecurity. This type of mistake is one of the hallmarks of the so-called war on terror and has been repeated, in various forms, in Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, Yemen, and numerous other countries. In Cameroon, for example, the Rapid Intervention Brigade, an elite unit that the U.S. has worked with to fight Boko Haram in the north of the country, has been accused of numerous human rights violations while fighting Anglophone separatist groups in western Cameroon.
Although the first truly democratically elected government in Burkina Faso’s history took the reins in January 2016, “the existence of the state is still uncertain,” said Méleguem Traoré, a former head of parliament and close confidant of Compaoré, the former president. In March, a double attack hit the army headquarters and French embassy in the heart of the capital, Ouagadougou, killing 16. After gunmen from Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb targeted two restaurants on one of the capital’s busiest streets, businesses have set up airport-style security at establishments throughout the city. In Ouagadougou’s main square, Place de la Nation — where protesters massed to demand the fall of Compaoré in 2014 and again when Diendéré’s men carried out their own coup attempt in 2015 to return to power — jumpy soldiers now monitor all passersby.
Strangely, the key to ending the mysterious terror attacks may not lie in remote battlefields, but in a public spectacle that takes place every weekday in the north of Ouagadougou.
It happens at 10 a.m. in the upscale Ouaga 2000 neighborhood — traffic is shut down on a main throughway housing embassies and a major hotel. It is in this neighborhood, at a convention center, that Diendéré, the former head of the presidential guard, and former Foreign Minister Djibril Bassolé, as well as 82 others, are standing trial for their roles in a 2015 coup d’état that sought to overthrow the fledgling transitional government in favor of Compaoré’s allies. Former RSP soldiers, some wearing the uniforms of the regular army and some wearing civilian clothes, respond one by one to questioning by military judges and prosecution lawyers. Diendéré — who is locked in a maximum-security military prison and charged with treason, attacking state security, and the beating and murder of protesters — is due to stand for questioning soon.
Few would have dreamed it was possible for someone so feared and powerful as Diendéré to face such serious criminal charges, making the trial an unprecedented push toward justice and accountability. Dozens of journalists attend the proceedings, passing through the tight security checkpoints to enter every morning and write full accounts of the day’s proceedings in almost all of the country’s newspapers.
Prior to their political demise, Diendéré, Bassolé, and the Mauritanian consultant they worked with, Moustapha Limam Chafi, were key U.S. allies in Francophone West Africa. Burkina Faso, which means “Land of the Upright People,” had never experienced a terrorist attack. For instance, in 2012, Compaoré, then president, sent Diendéré on a mission north of Timbuktu, Mali, to procure the release of Swiss hostage Beatrice Stockly, who had been kidnapped just nine days earlier by Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. Over soft drinks and grilled lamb with one of the most wanted Al Qaeda leaders, Diendéré ensured the handover of millions of dollars in return for the Swiss missionary.
Compaoré — who had come to power in a coup that killed the revolutionary leader Thomas Sankara in 1987, instilling stability through authoritarian rule — had played a key role in negotiating the release of multiple Western hostages in the region. There was a cost to this, however. Known as the pompier-pyromane (“firefighter-pyromaniac”), his efforts to negotiate peace deals with neighbors (like the talks between Tuareg rebels and the Malian government in Ouagadougou in 2012) were buffeted by reports that he had played a more nefarious role in numerous conflicts, including arming rebels in Ivory Coast and trading weapons for diamonds to former President Charles Taylor in Liberia.
Photos: Joe Penney/Reuters
In 2014, a popular uprising of millions of protesters fed up with the pompier-pyromane took to the streets and chased him from power. Compaoré fled on a French helicopter to neighboring Ivory Coast and is still there. One of the transitional government’s most ambitious acts was to try to completely dissolve the RSP. But in 2015, before the transitional government got a chance to carry out its plan, Diendéré and the RSP staged a coup against the transitional government. Diendéré’s forces were defeated by the regular army and street protests. The RSP was completely dissolved immediately after the civilian government was restored to power.
But this created a dangerous vacuum.
“The intelligence system that we had was based on structures at the gendarmerie and at the presidential security unit,” said Traoré, the confidant of the ousted president. “Those structures were brutally broken up, and the man at the center of all that, Gen. Gilbert Diendéré, was taken out of play,” he added.
Under Compaoré, Tuareg rebel groups who had allied with Al Qaeda were able to come in and out of Burkina while the country hosted peace talks between them and the Malian government, giving way to rumors that Compaoré had a tacit agreement to allow their presence in exchange for no attacks. The new government made a conscious decision to cut off their access to the country. “They could have kept up the contacts, but I think the political choice was to break with these groups and to ask those who were in Burkina to leave,” said Sankara, the parliament vice president. “And I think it’s the result of this decision that it was necessary to hit Burkina.”
Some in Burkina believe that the RSP and the former regime are at least partially the cause of the country’s growing instability. “There is a common interest between the terrorist groups that operate in West Africa and the Burkinabé political camp that is no longer in power,” said Guy Hervé Kam, co-founder of the Balai Citoyen, one of the main groups that organized protests against Compaoré, and one of the prosecution’s lawyers in the trial against Diendéré and his co-conspirators. The police commissioner, Anihifahata Yacoub Sié Rachid Palenfo, said that while RSP deserters may be participating in the attacks today, there is no proof of this, although he noted that a number of RSP dismissed for mutiny in 2011 had been proven to be committing crimes and attacks shortly after their dismissal.
The researcher Héni Nsaibia argued that “pointing fingers at Diendéré, Bassolé, ex-RSP, and former President Blaise Compaoré has been very convenient for the current regime.” Nsaibia believes a large portion of the attacks are carried out by Ansar Al Islam militants but also the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara, both of whom are not claiming responsibility because “none of the groups have created any media wings,” as well as “strategic considerations to survive long-term by avoiding unwanted attention, including military action and ISR/ESM measures by international forces, the latter creating difficulties for the militants in communicating with each other regularly from greater distances.”
Providing some support to Nsaibia’s thesis, a spokesperson for the French military said that in addition to the airstrike on fleeing militants in Inata, whom the French suspect to be from the Ansar Al Islam, French soldiers have also supported Burkinabé patrols in the east of the country to stop “armed groups that carry out predatory attacks and actions against the security forces.”
A damning Human Rights Watch report stated that the Burkinabé military’s heavy-handed response to jihadi militants often aggravated the problems. According to the report, “Burkinabé security forces have conducted counterterrorism operations in 2017 and 2018 that resulted in numerous allegations of extrajudicial killings, abuse of suspects in custody, and arbitrary arrests,” and a significant portion of the abuses were against the Peul ethnic group. The security forces’ wanton violence has led to more lawlessness and local residents are less likely to cooperate with them against the jihadi groups, the report noted.
Diendéré’s lawyer, Mathieu Somé, said that his client is innocent on all charges he is facing (Diendéré is also on trial for his alleged role in the murder of Thomas Sankara, as well as for the killing of protesters in the 2014 revolution), and that the trial is a waste of time. “When you don’t know how to run a country, you’ll always blame it on someone else,” he said. “Why continue to divide the country with a nonsensical affair?”
Kam, however, told me that the prosecution has audio recordings of RSP and former regime members plotting in French and Arabic with Malian militants to attack the country. The attacks echo an audio recording released in 2015 purporting to show the president of neighboring Ivory Coast’s parliament, Guillaume Soro, floating a strategy to destabilize the Burkinabé armed forces in the wake of Diendéré’s failed coup of 2015. “You hit a city in the north; we take a police station or a gendarmerie. They’re going to flee, they can’t resist,” Soro says in a phone conversation with Djibril Bassolé, who replies “Yes, OK.” Soro is a former rebel who received arms from Compaoré and Diendéré when his New Forces soldiers were fighting then-Ivorian President Laurent Gbagbo, and is close to the former Burkinabé regime.
These are uneasy times in Burkina. Kam is worried for his own security and thinks that there will be more serious attacks to threaten the stability of the country as the trial draws closer to its end. There have already been three prison breaks to free Diendéré that he knows of. “The atmosphere of fear is not that they will come back to power, it’s that they are like wounded beasts capable of lashing out if they have the opportunity,” Kam said. “Take an officer in the box of the accused who has been in power his whole life. He knows that if the trial ends, he will do 20 years in prison and will lose everything. What does he lose by trying to cause trouble?”
The hope for a new kind of democracy that swept the nation after the dictator fell has given way to fear and apprehension. With Burkina Faso’s security falling apart, the U.S. response seems to be more of the same. The U.S. military is once again working with counterterrorism units in the country. “We are helping Burkina Faso build counterterrorism units to counter violent extremist organizations (VEOs) based out of Mali, and we assist terrorism response forces in Ouagadougou,” said U.S. Africa Command spokesperson Becky Farmer.
The Burkina government vows to continue with the trial against Diendéré and its regular army missions against the militants. Parliament recently passed laws raising its meager security budget, but it’s not clear if that will be enough. Unlike neighbors Mali and Niger, there is relatively little foreign military presence in Burkina, though that may change soon. “It’s a kind of pressure cooker, it’s bubbling, and we must find the remedy, otherwise all the ingredients are there for it to explode,” said Sankara, the vice president of parliament. “We are fighting them. We pay the price, every day there are deaths, but I believe that we must succeed in eradicating them.”
Additional reporting by Nadoun Coulibaly and Claude Romba.