Since last year, jihadi attacks in northern Burkina Faso have been steadily on the rise. These have largely been attributable to a newly established but understudied jihadi group, Ansaroul Islam (Ansar-ul-Islam), which has its roots in the ongoing insurgency in Mali and is linked to al-Qaida’s network in the Sahel.
Its budding insurgency greatly threatens the security of Burkina Faso and neighboring countries. State responses to the violence have been heavy-handed, which only furthers the cause of Ansaroul Islam (Ansar-ul-Islam).
Ansar-ul-Islam is an al-Qaeda-linked group suspected behind a wave of terrorist attacks in Burkina Faso in late 2016. Led by radical Burkinabe preacher Malam Ibrahim Dicko, the group reportedly seeks to reestablish the Peulh kingdom—also known as Djeelgodji—which had been toppled through French colonization in the late 1800s.
According to security analysts Héni Nsaibia and Caleb Weiss, Ansar-ul-Islam is the first native jihadi group founded in Burkina Faso.
The newly-formed group claimed responsibility for an attack on December 12, 2016, targeting a Burkinabe military post near the northern border with Mali and leaving 12 soldiers dead.
On New Year’s Eve, simultaneous assassination attempts by unidentified militants left one former Ansar-ul-Islam member dead and another critically wounded, in attacks that were believed to have been carried out by Ansar-ul-Islam.
On March 5, 2017, suspected Ansar-ul-Islam assailants targeted a Malian army post near the border with Burkina Faso, killing 11 Malian soldiers.
Ansar-ul-Islam was responsible for at least 78 attacks in northern Burkina Faso since December 2016. The group’s primary targets appear to be civilians and civilian infrastructure, but it has also routinely targeted the Burkinabe security apparatus.
Lassane Yameogo, a former researcher at the Nordic Africa Institute, says IRSAD has managed to recruit and train radicalized young men. “The main problem is the absence of Malian authorities on their side of the border. If the security forces of the countries involved cooperated, terrorists could not run over borders into hiding after attacks,” Yameogo says.
On February 20, 2018, the U.S. Department of State designated the group as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist.
Ibrahim Dicko returned to Burkina Faso in 2016 and transformed a charitable organization he had been running into an armed group.
He lost many followers by militarizing but retained a core cadre. Dicko launched an insurgency in December 2016 in response to security forces’ operations in his hometown. His group has since taken de facto control of parts of northern Burkina Faso.
Dicko’s participation in the Mali conflict radicalized him and developed his fighting and organizational skills, which he used to operate a Salafi-jihadi fighting force in his home country.
His brother succeeded him after his death. Malam Dicko’s story is but one of many playing out across the Muslim world as fighters return home from conflicts in Mali, Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere.
Ansar al Islam uses both the threat and the application of violence to expel or suppress rivals, including state representatives and local officials. The population faces limited options: acquiesce to Ansar al Islam, support often equally harsh and frequently absent security forces, or relocate.
The group kidnaps and assassinates educators, elected representatives, religious and traditional leaders, and security officials, especially non-Fulani.