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As al-Qaeda strikes again, Burkina Faso and Mali seek to end the jihadi threat | The World Weekly

Why attack Burkina Faso?

At 7.30pm on Friday evening gunmen attacked Ouagadougou’s Splendid Hotel and the nearby Cappuccino cafe.

Twenty-eight people were killed and dozens more wounded in what was the most serious terrorist incident in Burkina Faso’s history.

An al-Qaeda affiliate known as AQIM, or al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, claimed responsibility for the attack shortly after.

Like the group’s November assault on the Radisson Blu hotel in Mali’s capital, the Splendid Hotel was an obvious target for terrorists looking to cause carnage while grabbing the world’s attention.

In a city with little luxury accommodation, the hotel was popular with Burkina Faso’s elites, international businessmen and aid workers visiting the country.

The neighbouring Cappuccino cafe was also often packed with locals and expats. By Saturday morning, 18 nationalities were counted among the dead.

Special police forces are seen during search operations following the attack by al-Qaeda-linked gunmen on January 16, 2016

But putting hyperbole and propaganda aside, what message is AQIM looking to send - and for whom is it intended?

For ISIS

First, it is a message to rival jihadist groups, particularly Islamic State (ISIS), that AQIM is once again a force to be reckoned with.

Weakened by infighting over the last few years, AQIM has seen its reach and influence diminish as Islamic State (ISIS) has made significant gains in North and West Africa.

But some of these divisions appear to have healed. Most importantly, the influential Mokhtar Belmokhtar and his al-Mourabitoun unit are reportedly back in the fold, and have claimed they were responsible for both the Ouagadougou and Bamako attacks.

Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb is not the only jihadi group in the region. Not only is there al-Mourabitoun, there is also Ansar Dine, the Movement for Oneness and Jihad and the Macina Liberation Front. The Libyan Civil War in 2011 dispersed weapons throughout North Africa and the Sahel region. This has emboldened separatist groups and radical Islamist fundamentalists to challenge governments and state boundaries.

For France

Secondly, the attack is a message to France and its Operation Barkhane– a 3,000-strong military force spanning five countries intended to combat Islamist militancy – that the intervention is not working.

Operation Barkhane has a base in Ouagadougou, and French commandos were involved in the response on Friday – but by then it was too late.

One of the few strategies available to the militants to deal with Operation Barkhane is to stretch French resources over an ever greater area. Every attack is followed by calls for greater security measures, but trying to meet these demands over an area the size of the Sahel/Sahara region is physically difficult and financially punishing. As it found out in Mali, AQIM can’t tackle the French military head-on, but it can make its work as difficult and expensive as possible. Meanwhile AQIM’s losses in the operation are minimal – three men and their weapons.” - Andrew McGregor, director of Aberfoyle International Security

AQIM’s expansion has struck again at the heart of a regional capital, sending a strong signal to the international community that French troops alone cannot cope with the problem.

For Burkina Faso

Friday’s attack was also a message to Burkina Faso’s new government that it now falls within AQIM’s expanding theatre of operations.

The latest attack “would seem to be an attempt by AQIM not just to reinforce itself as the main jihadist group in the region, but also to show that it can spread its violent campaign to new frontiers,” said the BBC’s Africa security correspondent, Tomi Oladipo.

This is bad news for the country’s newly-elected president Roch Marc Christian Kabore, who came into office in November after a year of political turmoil following a coup that forced out long-term president Blaise Compaore.

For the Burkinabe people

Finally, for the citizens of Burkina Faso, this attack sends a more ominous message: that their fight for genuine self-determination is not over yet.

The mass uprising against Compaoré in October 2014 was notable because it was relatively peaceful.

Even when a key Compaore ally seized back power from the interim government in late 2015, the popular response was angry but overwhelmingly calm.

But for groups like AQIM, who set themselves up as the only pathway to radical change, the success of people power is an existential threat which must be undermined.

The attack sends a powerful message, sewing seeds of fear, doubt and insecurity in an otherwise positive political win for the Burkinabe people.

Can Burkina Faso and Mali come together to stop terror?

Burkina Faso and Mali have agreed to work together to counter the growing threat of Islamic militants in west Africa by sharing intelligence and conducting joint security patrols, following two deadly and well-coordinated attacks in the region.

The prime ministers of the two countries met on Sunday, two days after al-Qaeda militants seized the Splendid hotel in Burkina Faso’s capital Ouagadougou, opened fire on a restaurant and attacked another hotel nearby. The assault killed at least 29 people from at least 18 countries and left 50 other people injured.

The assault, claimed by al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), follows a similar raid in November on a luxury hotel in Mali’s capital Bamako, which killed 20 people, including citizens of Russia, China and the US.

The exact details of the cooperation between Burkina Faso and Mali were not immediately clear, but the patrols and intelligence-sharing mark an intent by the two countries to prevent the spread of militancy as AQIM and others expand operations in the region beyond their usual reach.

Islamic militants have used northern Mali as a base for many years, but over the past year they have staged a number of attacks in other parts of the country. Burkina Faso’s authorities are now concerned that its long desert border with Mali could become a transit point for militants.

Burkina Faso's President Kabore (L) and Benin's President Thomas Boni Yayi (R) visit the site of the Splendid hotel

“There is a very strong political will on the part of the two states to combine our efforts to fight terrorism,” said Paul Kaba Thieba, Burkina Faso’s prime minister.

Thieba and his Malian counterpart Modibo Keita visited the outside of the Splendid hotel on Sunday, where bullet holes and a charred exterior offered reminders of Friday evening’s attack.

Tight security was in place around the hotel. Inside, Burkinabe and French security officials were conducting an investigation.

Security forces in Burkina Faso retook the 146-room hotel on Saturday after firefights with militants, at least three of whom were killed. Survivors said the militants targeted white victims at the hotel and at the restaurant, both of which were popular with westerners.

The attack fits into a pattern of AQIM attempting to expand its operational zone through unpredictable attacks on high-value soft targets. Such attacks at best persuade Westerners to abandon their presence in the Sahel; at worst they at least restrict the mobility of Westerners active in the region, whether in the business, humanitarian or security sectors.” - Andrew McGregor, director of Aberfoyle International Security

According to provisional figures from the Burkinabe government, among the dead were eight Burkinabes, four Canadians, three Ukrainians, two Portuguese, two French, two Swiss and one Dutch citizen. Seven bodies are yet to be identified. Justin Trudeau, Canada’s prime minister, on Saturday said six Canadians had been killed.

A nine-year-old Italian boy and his mother were killed in the assault on Cappuccino, the restaurant opposite the Splendid Hotel, Italy’s foreign ministry said on Sunday. The boy, Michel Santomenna, and his mother were the son and wife of the restaurant owner, Gaetano Santomenna. The woman was not Italian and has not yet been named.

“Italy will continue to work to ensure that the international community remains united and intensifies its efforts to fight the terrorist threat, which once again showed its most inhuman and cruel face by targeting innocent civilians,” Italy’s foreign ministry said.

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