I’ve put out a new report with the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation entitled “Escalating Conflicts in Burkina Faso.” I look forward to any comments that readers here might have!
Recently, the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal wrote articles with remarkably similar headlines:
- NYT: “Where Terrorism Is Rising in Africa and the U.S. Is Leaving”
- WSJ: “In West Africa, Violent Extremism Spreads as U.S. Trims Military Footprint”
The words “and” and “as” are doing a lot of work in these headlines – more work than should be asked of these poor conjunctions. I know, I know, you’re never supposed to ascribe intentionality to anyone, but it looks to me as though the headline writers wanted to (a) lead readers to think that “as” means “because,” but also (b) preserve plausible deniability for when people call them on their bullshit.
In any case, Nathaniel Powell took the words right out of mouth:
There’s a lot going on with these articles, but one thing that’s clearly going on is that some American journalists went to an annual U.S. military training exercise called Flintlock. The exercise rotates among Sahelian countries, and this year the main portion of Flintlock was held in Burkina Faso. The WSJ, to their credit, is more upfront about the ways that Flintlock informed their reporting; the WSJ article leads with a description of Flintlock. The NYT is less clear about this, not mentioning Flintlock until the ninth paragraph of their story. The NYT buries the context and presents the article as a savvy description of long-term trends – rather than, say, a readout of a few days in Burkina Faso and a handful of interviews with Nigerian special forces officers, the head of US Special Operations Command Africa, and a few think tankers and NGOers. (The NYT and the WSJ, I should add, interviewed a lot of the same people, including the Nigerian special forces colonel who gets a prominent role in both articles.)
Some of the quotes from think tankers, moreover, implicitly contradict the framing of the NYT article. Here are Jean-Hervé Jezequel and Alice Friend, both of whom I respect a ton, quoted in the NYT:
Military analysts and human rights groups cited three main reasons for the spiraling violence in Burkina Faso and its neighbors: French-led counterterrorism operations in Mali have pushed the problem south, into Burkina Faso. Armed Islamic militants have effectively exploited grievances among local populations. Abuses by security forces have fueled jihadist recruiting.
“These are a series of small rural insurgencies that are spreading,” said Jean-Hervé Jezequel, director of the International Crisis Group’s Sahel project in Dakar, Senegal.
Military officials and independent analysts stressed that American and other Western military aid may at best buy time for African allies to address poverty, lack of education, government corruption and other grievances that extremist groups seek to exploit.
“There are no fully military solutions here, just holding actions,” said Alice Hunt Friend, a former top Pentagon official for Africa and a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
So the analysts themselves are saying (a) any real or imagined U.S. drawdown is not a top-tier cause of spreading militancy, and (b) you can’t solve all this with more guns and training.
Another well-informed response to the NYT came from Peter Dörrie:
In other words, the NYT has really confused some issues regarding causality. The situation in the Sahel is bad. The situation in Burkina Faso is very bad. But the view of the world where American military deployments are the only thing standing in the way of rising jihadist tides is just fundamentally wrong. That worldview is, moreover, politically convenient for politicians, bureaucrats, and military officers in Washington, Stuttgart, Niamey, and beyond. The NYT could’ve done more here to question such narratives.
On January 19, the cabinet of Burkina Faso stepped down, including Prime Minister Paul Kaba Thieba after three years of service. The country’s security crisis seems to have been the trigger. A new prime minister, Christophe Joseph Marie Dabiré, soon took over. According to his official biography, Dabiré served in senior positions under both Thomas Sankara and Blaise Compaoré, and was a deputy in the National Assembly from 1997-2007. A new government was announced on January 24, and it contained familiar faces from Burkinabé politics, with several key ministers (Alpha Barry at Foreign Affairs, René Bagoro at Justice) keeping all or most of their previous portfolios.
Here, then, are some key civilian and military members of the reconstituted national security team:
- Minister of Defense: Chérif Sy, former president of Burkina Faso’s transitional parliament. (Read more on the challenges he faces here, and an old but useful biography can be found here.)
- Minister of Security: Ousséni Compaoré, longtime United Nations official and
commander of Burkina Faso’s gendarmerie during the 2014 revolution, retired gendarme (according to some sources, head of the gendarmerie under Sankara, or at least high up in the gendarmerie), and in any case a close ally of Sankara.
- Chief of Staff of the Armée de Terre: Colonel Gilles Bationo, former commander of the first military region (replacing Léon Traoré – read a bit more about the handover here; one interesting detail is that Bationo reportedly speaks both English and Arabic).
- Head of the first military region: Colonel Yves Patrick Ouédraogo (some biographical details available here).
- Head of the second military region: Colonel Adam Néré (short biography here).
- Head of the third military region: Colonel Moussa Diallo
(read a bit on his background here). [UPDATE]: Apparently there are two Colonel Moussa Diallos, and this one is different than the figure profiled at the link.
In terms of patterns, it’s tempting to say that within both the cabinet and the military, President Roch Kaboré had an eye out for not just his own men, but also Sankara loyalists, some of whom had opposed Compaoré. But I would need to dig a bit deeper into the bios to confirm that hunch.
Last week, AFRICOM’s commander, General Thomas Waldhauser, presented the command’s posture statement to the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Alexis Arieff and Jason Warner had good threads highlighting important points of the document:
I have a few points to add:
- I have no insight into how the document was put together, but it felt as though within the statement you could feel three voices wrestling with one another for control: one voice that sees terrorism as the main concern in Africa, another focused on Russia and China, and a third that looks ahead to a grim future of dense, restless, and disease-prone populations. In other words, the document’s zigging and zagging between “Violent Extremist Organizations,” “Great Power Competition,” and “stability” talk did not feel coherent to me, but rather seemed to reflect layers of editing and insertion by constituencies with different priorities and attitudes. The sections on “Great Power Competition” felt the most grafted-on; I wonder whether AFRICOM would have preferred to just talk about terrorism and (in)stability. It was interesting to note that sometimes “Great Power Competition” and mentions of Russia and China fell out of the document for pages at a time, especially in the middle of the statement. It was also interesting to see moments where “Great Power Competition” was conspicuously downplayed (see p. 12, for example, with the “five objectives”). Some of this, I think, must reflect an uncertainty within various U.S. government agencies and offices about whether all the talk of “Great Power Competition” is headed and what the relationship between that and the “War on Terror” (or whatever one is supposed to call it now) is going to be. In other words, some sections might be spliced in just to make various bosses happy.
- I was struck by the frequent moments when the document put forth ideological rather than clinical statements on jihadist groups’ histories, characters, and intentions. On p. 7, for example, the document says, “VEOs [Violent Extremist Organizations] cultivate and encourage an environment of distrust, despair, and hopelessness to undermine governments, allowing for the expansion of their radical ideology.” A sentence like this makes me throw up my hands. The persistent and sometimes explicit suggestion, in U.S. policy circles, that jihadists are essentially nihilists misses a lot about what they say, what they do, and what their strategies are or may be. This kind of language from AFRICOM is so crude as to verge on being plain wrong; I’ve tried to show, including in some recent writing, that there is a lot more *politics* going on with jihadists than just “let’s undermine the government.”
- The overall crudeness of the document is striking. Maybe this is just inevitable in policy documents, but I don’t think it has to be. Take this sentence from p. 10: “Despite the challenges on the continent, Africans are eager and receptive to work with the U.S. to advance common strategic interests.” Do U.S. policymakers and generals have to talk this way? It just sounds silly. There were also several more specific passages that seemed to me absurdly rosy, especially the brief mention of Burkina Faso on p. 28. The section on Cameroon (pp. 31-32) also reads a bit strangely given that this news broke the day after Waldhauser testified. Couldn’t AFRICOM be a bit more forthcoming and blunt about challenges, frictions, and things that are going badly?
- The names of many operations remain ridiculous. “Exercise Lightning Handshake” was my favorite.
Finally, it’s worth noting that some euphemisms – including “advise, assist, and accompany” may be wearing thin as the public gets more information:
On the night of December 31-January 1, two consequential attacks occurred in villages in Mali and Burkina Faso. In Mali, Donzo hunters attacked the village of Koulogon, targeting ethnic Fulani/Peul and killing thirty-seven people. In Burkina Faso, suspected jihadists attacked the primarily Mossi village of Yirgou, which elicited a reprisal attack by Yirgou villagers against nearby Fulani. In Burkina Faso, the death toll soon approached forty.
Koulogon is located in the Bankass cercle of Mali’s Mopti region (see Bankass town on this map), while Yirgou is located in the Barsalogho Department in Sanmatenga Province of Burkina Faso’s Centre-Nord Region (see Barsalogho town on this map).
The two incidents reflect the wider “ethnicization” of Sahelian, and particularly central Malian, conflicts that many analysts have been pointing to in recent years. That is, a dynamic takes hold where jihadists are assumed to be Fulani, the Fulani are targeted for collective punishment, and then both the jihadist violence and the intercommunal violence reinforce the overall dynamic of insecurity, where people organize violence along largely ethnic lines.
These two incidents have received major attention for a few reasons. First, they exemplify this dynamic of spiraling violence, providing instances that the media can readily understand and convey. Second, the death tolls are high in each instance, reflecting wider escalation:
Third, the violence marked a grim start to the new year, and the timing undoubtedly plays a part in the media’s focus on the incidents. And fourth, the attacks underscored how authorities are falling short when it comes to preventing violence. Regarding that last point, it is worth noting that Burkina Faso had already declared a state of emergency in parts of seven out of thirteen regions even before the Yirgou attack.
Here is some of the attention the incidents have gotten.
For one thing, there have been presidential visits to the villages:
Burkina Faso’s President Roch Kaboré has also met Fulani/Peul leaders, attempting to defuse the ethnicization issue:
There are also calls and plans for investigations, with a United Nations inquiry underway regarding Koulogon, and with various civic and ethnic associations calling for other inquiries. For example, in Burkina Faso an association (Fulani-led, from what I can tell) called the Collectif contre l’impunité et la stigmatisation des communautés (Collective Against Impunity and the Stigmatization of Communities) is giving press interviews and organizing marches.
The Collective is also calling for the disarmament of Koglweogo militias (see here for background), depicting the militias as vehicles for ethnic violence.
In short, the conflicts in Mali and Burkina Faso comprise a whole swath of complex, localized but interconnected dynamics and conflicts, and the Koulogon and Yirgou incidents throw a lot of those dynamics into sharp relief. At the same time, there is a limit to how “legible” the violence is when viewed through the prism of individual incidents. This is an important note to conclude on, I think:
As the jihadist insurgency in Burkina Faso grows, recurring questions have surfaced about whether and how much complicity existed between the previous administration of Blaise Compaoré (1987-2014) and al-Qaida in the islamic Maghreb (AQIM), and whether Compaoré’s presidential guard is involved in the current violence. One of the most comprehensive investigations of these issues comes from Joe Penney. His piece must be read in full to be understood, but here is a brief excerpt:
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.
Burkina Faso’s current president, Roch Kaboré, has also mentioned “collusions” between Compaoré’s regime and AQIM.
One obvious and additional step toward shedding light on this issue involves searching through leaked State Department cables to see what American diplomats wrote about Compaoré and AQIM during some of the years when the regional kidnapping economy was at its peak (those years would be 2008-2012 for the kidnapping economy, but the cables cut off in 2010) . I tried various searches (Compaore AQIM, Burkina AQIM, Compaore Qaeda, Compaore GSPC, etc.), which yielded five cables that had what I consider substantive and relevant content for this post’s topic. Most of these cables date from 2009, and this is important partly because Penney refers above to events in 2012.
There are no bombshells in the cables, and most of the mentions of AQIM were vague and brief, although of course it is possible that more sensitive information and analysis was transmitted in more highly classified documents and in meetings and discussions not captured by the cablegate archive. It is also possible that more explosive information is contained in later cables.
Overall, the five cables I found suggest that (a) Burkinabé officials were worried about AQIM infiltration in northern Burkina Faso by 2009; (b) U.S. and French officials were somewhat worried about the possibility of AQIM expansion into Burkina, but in the context of worrying about a broader expansion of AQIM from Senegal to northern Nigeria; and (c) U.S. officials seemed to like Compaoré, consider him and his government worthy of further investment as a security partner in the Sahel, and to have relatively few concerns about whether Compaoré’s role in hostage negotiations implicated him in any nefarious way. The cables do not give evidence of any non-aggression pact between Compaoré and AQIM, but they do suggest that Compaoré’s government lacked a strategy (and possibly lacked the will) to deal with what officials considered AQIM infiltration. None of this undermines Penney’s arguments (again, the cables date from an earlier period than the one he is discussing in the excerpt above); but neither does it necessarily confirm them.
Here are the cables I found, with pertinent excerpts. The first two digits of each number refer to the year the cable was sent.
- 09OUAGADOUGOU1136, “MOD DISCUSSES WIDE RANGE OF REGIONAL SECURITY ISSUES WITH CDA.” This is by far the most important cable and deserves to be read in full. The abbreviations in the title refer to the (Burkinabé) Minister of Defense Yero Boly and the (American) Chargé d’Affairs. The most relevant lines are these: “Noting the recent AQIM kidnappings in Mali and Mauritania, Charge asked whether the Burkinabe armed forces were increasing their security measures. Boly responded that Burkina Faso’s intelligence services have been monitoring the Burkina/Niger/Mali border and collecting important information. Despite these efforts, the country remains vulnerable from a security standpoint. The MOD mused about how to properly exploit the intelligence information and leads they had obtained thus far. The Minister of Defense explained that the northern cities of Markoy (and its market), Gorom-Gorom, and Deou are of particular interest as they are ‘infiltrated’ and ‘Islamicized’. Burkinabe intelligence sources have uncovered Nigerian trained Nigerien nationals (particularly former students of Koranic school in Nigeria) who are operating in that region in a believed liaison with AQIM. The GOBF [Government of Burkina Faso] has their names, they know who they are, but don’t know how to move forward and properly exploit that information. Boly noted that small cells of the type AQIM are know to dispatch currently have a relatively high chance of circulating undetected by Burkinabe security forces…Boly recognized that Burkina Faso has probably only been lucky up to now that AQIM has not focused activities here.”
- 09OUAGADOUGOU135, “PRESIDENTIAL FAREWELL WITH AMBASSADOR.” This is a readout of a meeting between Compaoré and the outgoing U.S. ambassador in February 2009 (though the cable was filed in March). Some important lines: “In something of a new twist, Compaore raised concerns about regional security in the Sahel region. He said that he was worried that ‘Salafists’ had ‘installed themselves’ in Northern Mali. Specifically he said that he was concerned because they had seized hostages and that there might be further instability stemming from these activities. Without providing further details, he indicated that Burkina Faso would soon be approaching the US with certain concrete proposals on how to combat instability in the Sahel region.”
- 09OUAGADOUGOU298, “REQUEST FOR ESTABLISHMENT OF A DEPARTMENT OF DEFENSE POSITION IN OUAGADOUGOU, BURKINA FASO.” As the title suggests, this cable deals with the embassy’s request for more DOD personnel in light of the exponential increase in U.S. military activities in Burkina Faso. For this post’s purposes, the most relevant lines are these: “Geographically, Burkina Faso occupies a key strategic location in West Africa. It borders states with known AQIM activity and may serve as a safe haven or transit point. At present, intelligence on this critical terrorist and security-related threat is absent.”
- 09OUAGADOUGOU569, “A REGIONAL APPROACH TOWARDS AQIM.” Key excerpt: “Although Burkina Faso is a somewhat peripheral actor in these events, it has functioned in a mediating capacity in both conflict resolution and hostage issues. It would certainly play a secondary role in any regional solution, but nonetheless we would like to propose some thoughts on what a regional solution might look like and suggest some steps as to how we might get there.”
- 10ADDISABABA288, “AU SUMMIT – A/S FOR AFRICAN AFFAIRS CARSON MEETS FRENCH COUNTERPART.” This cable, from February 2010, describes a meeting between Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Johnnie Carson and a senior French official. Key lines: “Gompertz thinks the security situation in the Sahel remains fairly unchanged from the Paris meetings on Sahel counter-terrorism (CT) issues six months ago. He said Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Mahgreb (AQIM) is expanding into northern Burkina Faso and recruiting in Senegal. The DGSE [French intelligence] believes AQIM will find weakness in northern Nigeria.”
If readers find any cables I missed, please let me know.