In my post about the latest United Nations report on human rights in Mali, I noted that there is a significant trend of fairly localized kidnapping in Mali. This trend appears in other parts of the Sahel as well, notably in Burkina Faso and Niger. It is true that Westerners still get kidnapped, but the situation is far different now than it was in the late 2000s and especially the early 2010s, when al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) was making tens of millions of dollars in ransoms for Europeans. These days, victims are often nationals of the countries where they are seized, and the primary motivations sometimes appear political or reprisal-based, with ransoms sometimes seeming to be a secondary motivation or even not a motivation at all, given that a disquieting number of the captives are eventually executed. It is not always clear, moreover, who the perpetrators are – jihadists appear to be behind many, but not all, of the kidnappings.
An important kidnapping occurred on August 11 in Burkina Faso. The victim is the Grand Imam of Djibo (map), Souaibou* Cissé. Djibo is the capital of the Soum Province, which is a conflict hotspot and the birthplace of the Burkinabè jihadist movement Ansar al-Islam or Ansaroul Islam (Defenders of Islam) – a movement in the orbit of the Mali-centric al-Qaida subsidiary Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wa-l-Muslimin (the Group for Supporting Islam and Muslims, JNIM). According to Jeune Afrique, the imam was seized while returning from Burkina Faso’s capital to Djibo – more precisely, he was kidnapped on the road between Namsiguia (spellings vary) and Gaskindé (map). The road from Namsiguia to Djibo is so dangerous that it was the subject of an in-depth report by the Burkinabè journalist Tiga Cheick Sawadogo (see my writeup on his report here). The deputy mayor of Djibo, Oumarou Dicko, was killed in an ambush near Gaskindé on November 3, 2019 while traveling the same road.
Continuing with Jeune Afrique‘s account, unidentified gunmen stopped the car the imam was riding in, searched the passengers and checked their identities, took the imam, and let the others go. The imam has been threatened before, and a jihadist blockade of Djibo and environs reportedly involves searching vehicles going in and out of Djibo. To me, this reads as a premeditated and targeted kidnapping of the imam, rather than a crime of opportunity.
Radio Omega adds other details: gunmen fired at the imam’s house in a 2017 incident that killed a retired policeman; he received a series of telephone threats after that; and Burkinabè security forces were guarding his house until February 2020, when they were withdrawn without explanation. Radio Omega is not a source I know well.
If it was Ansaroul Islam that kidnapped Imam Souaibou Cissé, some context helps to explain why there may be personal bad blood beyond the wider context of jihadists not liking clerics who oppose them. Here is Crisis Group in its 2017 report on northern Burkina Faso (p. 4):
At the beginning of 2016, the emir of Djibo and the grand imam, whose daughter Malam [Ibrahim Dicko, Ansaroul Islam’s founder, who reportedly died in 2017] married, disowned him. He then repudiated his wife and took to the bush, losing most of his followers in the process. Only a close circle of loyal supporters followed him to Mali for training. From there, he tried to eliminate his former comrades. Ansarul Islam has a strong tendency toward settling accounts, which led one locally elected representatives to fear that a “cycle of vengeance” would be established in the long term. The attack on the Nassoumbou military base on 16 December 2016, reportedly led by Ansarul Islam and the Islamic State in Greater Sahara (ISGS) cost the lives of twelve Burkina soldiers and made Ansarul Islam’s existence official.
Dicko and Cissé had a war of words as well, with Cissé taking to the radio in an attempt to counter Dicko’s messaging and reduce local recruitment to Dicko’s Ansaroul Islam.
Threatening, kidnapping, or even killing Muslim clerics has been a tactic of jihadists in central Mali and elsewhere, so this incident fits into a larger trend. Still, this is one of the most prominent figures in the region to be kidnapped or harmed.
*For the Prophet Shu’ayb.