Attack on restaurant in Burkina Faso capital underlines jihadist threat to foreign interests across the Sahel
Two men armed with automatic weapons killed eighteen people – mostly foreigners - in an attack on the Aziz Istanbul restaurant in Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso, on 13 August. After entering the building, which is situated on the city’s main Kwame Nkrumah Avenue, the gunmen held their positions for several hours, engaging in a firefight with the security forces who eventually killed both attackers. There has been no claim of responsibility for the incident so far. However, it can take days and even weeks for jihadist groups to securely transfer information internally ahead of releasing any statement, so this delay is not unusual. We believe that the al-Qaeda-affiliated Jamaat Nusrat al-Islam wa al-Muslimeen (JNIM) is the most likely perpetrator of the attack.
JNIM was formed in March by the merger of Sahel-based groups Ansar al-Din (AaD), the AaD-affiliated Macina Liberation Front, al-Qaeda in the Maghreb (AQM) and the AQM-affiliated al-Murabitun. AQM and al-Murabitun have carried out several major gun attacks in the region in recent years, including against the Radisson Blu Hotel in the Malian capital of Bamako in November 2015; a café and hotel (also on Kwame Nkrumah Avenue) in Ouagadougou in January 2016; and hotels in Grand Bassam, a coastal town in Cote d’Ivoire. These incidents were all similar in terms of the attackers’ use of automatic weapons and siege tactics, and their targeting of sites popular with foreign residents and visitors.
JNIM signalled that it would maintain this strategy for its operations in June, when it claimed responsibility for a gun attack at the Campement Kangaba resort, around 10 km east of Bamako, in which two dual French citizens, a Chinese and Portuguese national were among the dead. Coupled with the latest attack, this suggests that the group will continue to prioritise soft targets frequented by foreigners. Doing so will be popular among jihadists, who oppose foreign influence in the region. Moreover, Kwame Nkrumah Avenue is a well-known entertainment hub, which includes gambling and drinking venues. JNIM therefore likely struck this area in order to be seen as retaliating against un-Islamic behaviour, something that it hopes will further appeal to hardline Islamists and jihadists, and so boost its support across the region.
We have said before that JNIM would prioritise its operations in Mali, which will continue to face the greatest threat as the group seeks to consolidate its growing hold on territory in the country’s north and central regions. However, our 21 July Report also noted that JNIM had developed strong ties with various ethnic and tribal factions in northern Mali. Many of these ethnic groups are spread out across the Sahel region, and so JNIM will also seek to use these ties to strengthen its ability to operate transnationally. This means the threat of violence is also high in Burkina Faso, Cote d’Ivoire and Niger, and it could rise if the ongoing fragility of the Malian peace accord facilitates JNIM’s efforts to develop its ethnic and tribal links further. Attacks will continue to prioritise soft targets popular among foreigners, and JNIM will be particularly keen to strike French and US interests in retaliation for Paris and Washington’s counter-militancy efforts in the region.