Non-international armed conflicts in Burkina Faso
Burkina Faso is party to parallel non-international armed conflicts (NIACs) against a number of jihadist groups, notably Ansaroul Islam, the Islamic State in West Africa Province (ISWAP), the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS), and the Group for the Support of Islam and Muslims (JNIM).
A number of parallel NIACs are taking place in Burkina Faso, in particular:
- Burkina Faso is party to NIACs against at least Ansaroul Islam, the Islamic State in West Africa Province (ISWAP), the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS), and the Group for the Support of Islam and Muslims (JNIM).
- While self-defence groups operate in the country, due to their lack of organization and the low intensity of violence it is not possible to conclude that they are party to NIACs against jihadist groups.
- France has been militarily active in the country since 2014, when it launched Operation Barkhane with the consent of the Burkinabe government. In light of the number of armed confrontations, especially in recent years, France is party to parallel NIACs against jihadist groups operating in Burkina Faso.
Two criteria need to be assessed in order to establish whether the violence in Burkina Faso meets the threshold for non-international armed conflict:
- First, the level of armed violence must reach a certain degree of intensity that goes beyond internal disturbances and tensions.
- Second, in every non-international armed conflict, at least one side in the conflict must be a non-state armed group which must exhibit a certain level of organization in order to qualify as a party to the non-international armed conflict. Government forces are presumed to satisfy the criteria of organization. For further information, see ‘Non-international armed conflict’ in our Classification section.
Intensity of the violence
Various indicative factors are used to assess whether a given situation has met the required intensity threshold, such as the number, duration and intensity of individual confrontations; the types of weapons and military equipment used; the number of persons and types of forces participating in the fighting; the number of casualties; the extent of material destruction; the number of civilians fleeing and the involvement of the United Nations Security Council. For further information, see ‘non-international armed conflict – Intensity of violence’ in our Classification section.
The security apparatus of Burkina Faso has been weakened since former president Blaise Compaoré resigned from office on 31 October 2014, following massive protests against his plans to extend his almost three decades-long rule. Since then, the country has experienced a security vacuum. Indeed, Compaoré’s benevolent attitude towards some armed groups allowed him to keep them away from his country’s territory. The dismantling of the Presidential Security Regiment (RSP), an ‘elite army unit’ which was directly under his command, further contributed to disrupting the security apparatus. M. Bonkoungou and J. Penney, ‘Protests force out Burkina president, soldiers vie for power’, Reuters, 31 October 2014; The Social Roots of Jihadist Violence in Burkina Faso’s North, International Crisis Group, Africa Report No. 254, 12 October 2017. The crisis has had important consequences in the rural areas, where the former president was already struggling to maintain power and control. Burkina Faso: Stopping the Spiral of Violence, International Crisis Group, Africa Report no. 287, 24 February 2020.
Furthermore, at the beginning of 2013 the government deployed 1,000 Burkinabe troops across the northern border with Mali and additional 650 troops in Mali in the wake of the African-led International Support Mission to Mali (AFISMA) under the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). According to the International Crisis Group, this strategic shift could have been responsible for putting ‘Burkina Faso in some jihadists’ firing line.’ Shortly after the deployment of Burkinabé troops to Mali, a spokesperson for the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) stated ‘Bamako, Ouagadougou and Niamey are targets for our suicide bombers.’ R. Depagne, Burkina Faso’s Alarming Escalation of Jihadist Violence, International Crisis Group, 5 March 2018.
Due to these developments, Burkina Faso has been affected by intense armed violence between armed groups and the government. Indeed, between 2015 and 2020 more than 550 attacks have been carried out by jihadist armed groups against both Burkinabe armed forces and civilians. Burkina Faso: Stopping the Spiral of Violence, International Crisis Group, Africa Report no. 287, 24 February 2020.
Taking advantage of the change of power and the security vacuum that has affected Burkina Faso, since 2015 a number of jihadist groups have started operating in the country. In rural areas, victims of land disputes and banditry have been an easy target for recruitment by these armed groups. Notably, from Mali it is worth mentioning the Islamic State in West Africa Province (ISWAP), the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS), and the Group for the Support of Islam and Muslims (JNIM). Among local jihadists groups, Ansaroul Islam is the most active. Burkina Faso: Stopping the Spiral of Violence’, International Crisis Group, Africa Report no. 287, 24 February 2020. The attacks have been taking place in particular in the Sahel region, close to the border with Mali and Niger, in particular in Soum, Oudalan, Séno, and Yagha provinces. The capital Ouagadougou has similarly been targeted. R. Depagne, Burkina Faso’s Alarming Escalation of Jihadist Violence, International Crisis Group, 5 March 2018. Based on the information at our disposal it is possible to conclude that currently the Burkinabe army has been engaging in a number of parallel NIACs against at least Ansaroul Islam, ISGS, ISWAP, and JNIM. It should be noted that these groups seldom claim responsibility for their actions and not all of them have official channels of communication, therefore it is particularly difficult to distinguish the actions of these groups from instances of banditry and other criminal activities that affect the region. The Social Roots of Jihadist Violence in Burkina Faso’s North, International Crisis Group, Africa Report No. 254, 12 October 2017.
Ansaroul Islam is based in Soum province, where it poses a major threat. On 16 December 2016, Ansaroul Islam claimed its first attack conducted against the Nassoumbou military base, allegedly in cooperation with the Islamic State in Greater Sahara (ISGS). The military operation caused the death of 12 Burkinabe soldiers. Hostilities between this non-state actor and the Burkinabe armed forces have intensified in particular since 2017, when the government decided to deploy more troops to face Ansaroul Islam’s rise. Notably, on 23 March 2017 security forces killed Harouna Dicko, a member of the armed group, and arrested eighteen others in Soum province. International Crisis Group, Crisis Watch, March 2017. In May, security forces killed Gorane Dicko, another member of the opposition group, between Soboulé and Pétéga. International Crisis Group, Crisis Watch, May 2017. Moreover, in November Burkinabe troops engaged in armed confrontations with Ansaroul Islam’s fighters near Ariel. International Crisis Group, Crisis Watch, November 2017; Burkina Faso: Stopping the Spiral of Violence, International Crisis Group, Africa Report no. 287, 24 February 2020; Tackling Burkina Faso’s Insurgencies and Unrest, International Crisis Group, 28 January 2019.
In mid-2017, the founder and leader of Ansaroul Islam, Malam Dicko, died and his brother took over control. This led to internal fighting which led to a fragmentation of the group. Since the change in leadership, the intensity of violence between state armed forces and the group has substantially declined. D. Eizenga, The Current State of Insecurity in Burkina Faso, Italian Institute for International Political Studies (ISPI), 9 September 2019; P. Le Roux, Ansaroul Islam: The Rise and Decline of a Militant Islamist Group in the Sahel’, Africa Center for Strategic Studies, 29 July 2019. Nevertheless, this does not imply that international humanitarian law (IHL) ceases to apply. Indeed, it is worth recalling that a non-international armed conflict ‘continues until a peaceful settlement is achieved.’ ICTY, Prosecutor v Haradinaj et al., Judgment, IT-04-84, 3 April 2008. Accordingly, IHL continues to be applicable regardless of oscillating intensity of violence, thus even when the intensity requirement is not met for a certain time.
ISGS, ISWAP, and JNIM have been equally active in Burkina Faso, conducting attacks against security forces and civilians also in other parts of the country, in particular in the Sahel region in the north, and in the eastern part of the state. A number of illustrative confrontations support this conclusion. For instance, on 4 December 2018 ISGS fighters attacked a checkpoint of the gendarmerie on Dori-Seytanga axis, wounding three gendarmes. International Crisis Group, Crisis Watch, December 2018. Moreover, on 28 December 2018 JNIM conducted an ambush that caused the death of 10 Burkinabe soldiers. Nevertheless, it should be noted that in 2018 JNIM chose to claim only 3 attacks out of 200 suspected militant attacks. Insecurity in Southwestern Burkina Faso in the Context of an Expanding Insurgency, ACLED, 17 January 2019.
In 2019, armed confrontations continued to oppose jihadists groups and governmental forces. Among the deadliest episodes of violence, it is worth recalling the joint offensive launched by JNIM and ISGS in Liptako-Gourma, an area at the border between Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger, in August 2019. Government troops were forced ‘to tactically withdraw from the border areas and leave previously contested territory under militant control.’ State Atrocities in the Sahel: The Impetus for Counterinsurgency Results in Fueling Government Attacks on Civilians, ACLED, 2020. Moreover, in December 2019 ISGS conducted an unsuccessful attack against a military base in Arbinda town, which resulted in the death of 80 militants and seven soldiers. Regional Overview: Africa 15 December 2019 – 4 January 2020, ACLED, 10 January 2020.
In light of increasing insecurity, over the past years the government has intensified its response. Notably, ‘special gendarmerie units and conventional military forces have carried out larger operations than before.’ Notably, in March and May 2019, the army has conducted two major military operations in the east and in the Sahel, respectively Operation Otapuanu and Operation Ndofu. Furthermore, nearly 2000 soldiers have been deployed permanently in the region. While these operations have not put an end to assassinations, kidnappings, and attacks on the civilian population, they have reduced major attacks and have contributed to reach a ‘precarious balance.’ ‘Burkina Faso: Stopping the Spiral of Violence’, International Crisis Group, Africa Report no. 287, 24 February 2020.
In 2020, the conflict continued to deteriorate, although the overwhelming majority of the attacks carried out by the jihadist groups remained unclaimed. On 9-10 April 2020, suspected members of JNIM killed at least nineteen soldiers in Loroum province, in the northern region. On the other hand, security forces continued engaging in counterinsurgency operations, which resulted in the death of 36 fighters, allegedly members of ISGS. International Crisis Group, Crisis Watch, April 2020. Fighting between security forces and ISWAP militants have been constant in the Sahel region. On 11 May 2020, 8 soldiers were killed near the Kananfogouol artisanal mining site in Yagha province, while 20 jihadists died in later clashes. International Crisis Group, Crisis Watch, May 2020.
In January 2020, the parliament adopted a legislation that allows the army to use civilian volunteers in the fight against Jihadist forces. The Defence Minister Cherif Sy clarified that civilians will be trained for two weeks. They have to be at least 18 years old and should go through a moral investigation before being able to serve the army. ‘Burkina Faso to recruit civilians in fight against armed groups’, Al Jazeera, 23 January 2020.
In 2021, armed confrontations between the governmental forces and the jihadists groups have remained sustained in the country. Albeit the fact that the groups Ansaroul Islam and ISWAP have claimed very few attacks, JNIM and ISGS engaged and were involved in many armed confrontations , as well as abductions. In March 2021, ISGS, for example, engaged in several armed confrontations against the governmental armed forces in Oudalan province. International Crisis Group, Crisis Watch, March 2021. On 9 December 2021, JNIM militants ambushed and killed 14 people in Titao town. International Crisis Group, Crisis Watch, December 2021. Similarly, in March 2022, JNIM combatants launched a complex attack in Namentenga province as well as in Gourma province, killing about 30 individuals, mainly gendarmes and soldiers. International Crisis Group, Crisis Watch, March 2022. The Governmental armed forces reacted to these attacks by conducting several operations aiming at weakening jihadists groups. In mid-October 2021, State’s air force conducted air strikes on ISGS and JNIM positions in Sahel. ACLED, Regional Overview: Africa 9-15 October 2021. On 9 May 2022, the Government claimed that 40 JNIM militants were killed by the armed forces after an ambush in Barani area. International Crisis Group, Crisis Watch, May 2022. Sine April 2022, Burkina Faso and Nigeria have joined their forces to fight against ISGS and JNIM. The Defense ministry claimed that the air strikes and ground offensives led to the killing of 100 combatants and the detention of 40. Local sources have nevertheless stated that the majority of the victims were civilians. ACLED, Regional Overview: Africa 9-15 April 2022.
While the Government of President Kaboré denied the presumed negotiations with JNIM for the release of 20 JNIM members, the leader of the military junta, Lt. Col. Damiba announced in April 2022 that he was having a dialogue with jihadists with the creation of “local committees for dialogue for the restoration of peace”. However, it is too early to see if the dialogues will permit a decrease of violence in the country. International Crisis Group, Crisis Watch, March 2021.
In 2021 and 2022, the Governmental forces of Burkina Faso has continued to deploy its troops and to conduct multiple operations in order to counter jihadists attacks and to weaken armed groups. It was the case on 19-25 July 2021 in Kompienga province where a counter-insurgency operation of the military killed dozens of suspected jihadists. International Crisis Group, Crisis Watch, July 2021. Similarly, on 15-16 March 2022, about 40 jihadists were killed in Loroum province by security forces. International Crisis Group, Crisis Watch, March 2022.
The intensity of violence is further exemplified by the number of displaced individuals. Specifically, on 21 February 2020 the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) announced that violence is displacing 4.000 people daily and that the total number of displaced people has reached 765.000 individuals, seven times more that in February 2019. International Crisis Group, Crisis Watch, February 2020. On 1 August 2020, the UN Humanitarian Agency announced that Burkina Faso counted over 1 million internally displaced persons, before reaching over 1, 850, 000 as well as over 25, 000 refugees and asylum seekers on 31 March 2022. Operational Data Portal, Refugee Situations, Burkina Faso.
In July 2022, members of JNIM and ISGS started attempting isolation the Sahel region from governmental forces. As a consequence, the government organized counter-insurgency operations. Notably, on 3 July armed forces destroyed two jihadist military bases respectively in Yagha province and Seytenga town, killing 34 fighters. International Crisis Group, Crisis Watch: Burkina Faso.
On 30 September 2022, members of the armed forces successfully conducted a coup d’état that ousted the then-president Lt. Col. Damiba. On 2 October, supporters of the leader of the coup, Capt. Ibrahim Traoré, organised demonstrations in the capital, waving Russian flags and threw rocks at French embassy. On the same day, Damiba stepped down, handed power to the leader of the coup, and fled to Togo. International Crisis Group, Crisis Watch: Burkina Faso.
Between the end of 2022 and the beginning of 2023, a new wave of intense fighting affected the Sahel region, as jihadist groups engaged in armed confrontations against members of state forces. Notably, on 2 December armed forces killed at least 7 members of JNIM. International Crisis Group, Crisis Watch: Burkina Faso.
It is worth noting that Ghana has affirmed that Wagner group is currently present in Burkina Faso, where it would support the government in its fight against jihadist groups. The Burkinabe government refused the allegations. On 21 December, Ghana’s national security minister met the interim president Traoré in Ouagadougou to discuss the issue. International Crisis Group, Crisis Watch: Burkina Faso.
Violence between Jihadist groups
In 2020, ISGS started expanding its military activities into JNIM territory, hence rising tensions between the two groups. These were further exacerbated when JNIM expressed its willingness to negotiate with the Malian government, while ISGS opposes to such idea. This led to small classes, but violence quickly escalated. Notably, in April 2020 60 jihadists were killed and 40 captured in the Burkina Faso’s northern Sahel region during hostilities between the two groups. In the first half of the year, 10 armed confrontations have been registered and they resulted in the death of 90 people. Moreover, on 14, 16, 20, and 30 April fighting has been reported between ISWAP and JNIM in Soum province, causing at least 100 casualties. International Crisis Group, Crisis Watch, April 2020; ‘Burkina Faso’s new conflict front: Jihadists against jihadists’, The New Humanitarian, 17 August 2020.
Since 2021, while clashes between JNIM and ISWAP have continued to intensify, armed confrontations between JNIM and ISGS have sharply increased in frequency and violence. Notably, between 8 and 12 February 2021, the two groups clashed in Oudalan and Soum provinces causing the death of more than 20 combatants. Throughout the months, clashes continued and contributed to the weakening of ISGS in Sahel resulting in the death of dozens of people. Confrontations and their frequency have intensified, causing many casualties. It therefore seems now appropriate to conclude for the existence of parallel NIACs between JNIM and respectively ISGS and ISWAP. Indeed, the two core elements of a NIAC have been reached: there is a protracted armed violence taking place between the groups, which are exhibiting a certain degree of organisation. International Crisis Group, Crisis Watch, February 2021.
Self-defence groups have been present in Burkina Faso for decades. However, following the weakening of the central government and the deterioration of security in the country, they have flourished in recent years. ‘Jihadis, vigilantes, and demoralised troops: A who’s who in Burkina Faso’s spiralling crisis’, The New Humanitarian, 9 March 2020.
Koglweogo groups – “guardians of the bush” in the local Mossi language – have appeared in 2015 and have gained importance since then. While their primary objective is to fight crime, they have not been able to compete with better armed and organized jihadist groups. Accordingly, certain Koglweogo groups decided to sign non-aggression agreements with Islamist forces, while a number of their former members have joined these groups or collaborate with them regularly. T. Quidelleur, ‘The Local Roots of Violence in Eastern Burkina Faso’, Noria, 28 January 2020. However, clashes have been reported between Koglweogo and jihadist groups as well. For instance, between 10 and 12 December 2019 presumed members of JNIM or ISGS conducted a raid in the village of Kantari in the Est region and clashed with Koglweogo fighters, killing seven individuals. ‘Regional Overview – Africa (8 - 14 December 2019)’, ACLED, 16 December 2019.
Though Koglweogo groups were less implied in armed confrontations, they are still present in Burkina Faso. Recently, between 21 and 23 January 2022, the Koglweogo community clashed with supected jihadists in Komondjari province, killing about 25 indivuals on all sides. [ International Crisis Group, Crisis Watch, January 2022.
The Dozo group is a brotherhood of about 5.000 hunters that is active in in western Burkina Faso, as well as in other West African countries. In the Hauts-Bassins region, the Dozo has opposed resistance to the attempts to establish Koglweogo groups in the region, hence triggering armed clashes between the two groups. S. Hagberg, ‘Performing Tradition while Doing Politics: A comparative study of the dozos and koglweogos self-defense movements in Burkina Faso’ (2019) 62(1) African Studies Review 173; Burkina Faso: Stopping the Spiral of Violence’, International Crisis Group, Africa Report no. 287, 24 February 2020.
Lastly, as mentioned in the previous section the parliament promulgated a law that allows the recruitment of civilians into the army, following two weeks training and a moral investigation. ‘Burkina Faso to recruit civilians in fight against armed groups’, Al Jazeera, 23 January 2020. The aim is to tackle the jihadist threat by arming volunteers that could help Burkinabe security forces in the fight against opposition groups. The volunteers receive ‘brief military training, unspecified equipment, healthcare and bonus payments,’ while village leaders are in charge of managing the recruitment. ‘Burkina Faso approves state backing for vigilantes fighting jihadists’, Reuters, 22 January 2020. Since their inception, civilian volunteers have engaged in armed confrontations against jihadist groups. For example, suspected members of Islamist armed forces killed 10 volunteers in Soum province, and in response civilian volunteers attacked and killed 22 Jihadist fighters in the town of Gargaboulé (Soum province). International Crisis Group, Crisis Watch, February 2020.
Civilian volunteers fighting alongside security forces (VDPs) have become a constant presence in the confrontations with jihadists and suspected jihadists. International Crisis Group, https://www.crisisgroup.org/crisiswatch/database?location%5B%5D=21&date_range=custom&from_month=01&from_year=2021&to_month=06&to_year=2022 ]" target="_blank">Crisis Watch, March 2021. On 13 July 2021, JNIM clashed with security forces and VDPs, wounding 3 VDPs while 5 of them went missing. Similarly, on 2 and 11 February 2022, at least 4 VDPs were killed after a clash between the volunteers and JNIM and ISGS militants in Centre-North region. International Crisis Group, Crisis Watch, July 2021; International Crisis Group, Crisis Watch, February 2022.
Ansaroul Islam was founded by Malam Ibrahim Dicko, whose real name is Boureima Dicko. In 2009 he started preaching in villages in Soum province. While local authorities were alarmed by the radical nature of his speeches, they did not take any actions against him. In September 2013, he was arrested by French forces during Operation Serval in Tessalit, in northern Mali and was realized from prison in 2015. Upon his return to Burkina Faso, the emir of Djibo and the grand imam disowned him. Therefore, he decided to hide in the bush and went to Mali to train a small circle of loyal supporters. The Social Roots of Jihadist Violence in Burkina Faso’s North, International Crisis Group, Africa Report No. 254, 12 October 2017.
Its first military attack against state forces – conducted on 16 December 2016 – the jihadist group has attracted increasing support from the local population in Soum province, also due to the lack of a strong governmental presence in the area. The Social Roots of Jihadist Violence in Burkina Faso’s North, International Crisis Group, Africa Report No. 254, 12 October 2017. In mid 2017, Malam Dicko died and his brother, Jafar Dicko, took over control. However, his autocratic and dictatorial leadership caused internal fighting within the group. Notably, it seems that Ansaroul Islam has fractured into smaller groups, while several former members have joined other jihadist non-state actors. In mid 2019, Ansaroul Islam was estimated to have only ‘a few hundred active fighters and a network of informants and logistical supporters located between the villages of Boulkessi and Ndaki in Soum Province.’ D. Eizenga, The Current State of Insecurity in Burkina Faso, Italian Institute for International Political Studies (ISPI), 9 September 2019; P. Le Roux, Ansaroul Islam: The Rise and Decline of a Militant Islamist Group in the Sahel, Africa Center for Strategic Studies, 29 July 2019. In 2020, JNIM has been claiming the attacks conducted by Ansaroul Islam, thus raising doubts as to whether it could still be considered as an armed group party to a NIAC against the Burkinabe government. ‘Burkina Faso: Stopping the Spiral of Violence’, International Crisis Group, Africa Report no. 287, 24 February 2020.
Group to Support Islam and Muslims (Jama’at Nusrat al Islam wal Muslimin, JNIM)
The Group to Support Islam and Muslims (Jama’at Nusrat al Islam wal Muslimin, JNIM) is an umbrella organization that announced its inception in a video published in March 2017. The groups that founded it are Ansar al-Din, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), al-Mourabitoun, and Katibat Macina. Its leader is Iyad Ag Ghali, the Tuareg leader of Ansar al Dine. As explained in a letter by the Chair of the
Security Council Committee concerning Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (Da’esh), Al-Qaida and associated individuals and groups, JNIM is considered the most dangerous armed group operating in the Sahel region. Letter dated 15 January 2019 from the Chair of the
Security Council Committee pursuant to resolutions 1267 (1999), 1989 (2011) and 2253 (2015) concerning Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (Da’esh), Al-Qaida and associated individuals, groups, undertakings and entities addressed to the President of the Security Council, UN Doc. S/2019/50, 15 January 2019, §§36-37.
With regard to its tactics, it has been reported that it adopts an asymmetric strategy, alternating three types of attacks: ‘simple attacks with the use of small arms or improvised explosive devices, which occur frequently; more elaborate attacks combining small arms and improvised explosive devices, which are less frequent; and complex attacks with many combatants, indirect fire and several improvised explosive devices, such as the one in Ber on 27 October 2018, for which JNIM planning capabilities were required.’ Letter dated 15 January 2019 from the Chair of the Security Council Committee pursuant to resolutions 1267 (1999), 1989 (2011) and 2253 (2015) concerning Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (Da’esh), Al-Qaida and associated individuals, groups, undertakings and entities addressed to the President of the Security Council, UN Doc. S/2019/50, 15 January 2019, §39.
While it operates mainly in Mali, it has been present in Soum region since 2017 and it has extended its armed activities in eastern Burkina Faso during the following year. From mid-2017, taking advantage of the fragmentation of Ansaroul Islam, it has started recruiting its fighters and, from 2020, it has been claiming Ansaroul Islam’s. ‘Burkina Faso: Stopping the Spiral of Violence’, International Crisis Group, Africa Report no. 287, 24 February 2020. In February 2020, the Malian government started talks with the jihadist group. Nevertheless, it is unclear whether this will have any concrete consequences for the conflict in Burkina Faso. ‘Jihadis, vigilantes, and demoralised troops: A who’s who in Burkina Faso’s spiralling crisis’, The New Humanitarian, 9 March 2020.
Islamic State in the Grater Sahara (ISGS)
The Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) was founded in 2015 following a splint within the Al-Mourabitoun group, a Mali-based jihadist group which joined al-Qaeda in 2015. ‘Jihadis, vigilantes, and demoralised troops: A who’s who in Burkina Faso’s spiralling crisis’, The New Humanitarian, 9 March 2020; ‘Al-Mourabitoun’, Counter Extremism Project. In May 2015, it pledged allegiance to the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant. In October 2016, the latter officially recognized the pledge. The group was originally based in Mali and Niger, but it started expanding its military activities in Burkina Faso as well. While ISGS and JNIM are traditionally rivals, in Burkina Faso not only they operate in the same areas, but they have been able to cooperate at times. Nevertheless, a number of clashes have been recently reported between them. ‘Jihadis, vigilantes, and demoralised troops: A who’s who in Burkina Faso’s spiralling crisis’, The New Humanitarian, 9 March 2020. Since 2019, the armed attacks committed by ISGS have been claimed by the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP), ‘which adopted a new narrative to show a unified ISIL presence in the region.’ Letter dated 15 July 2019 from the Chair of the Security Council Committee pursuant to resolutions 1267 (1999), 1989 (2011) and 2253 (2015) concerning Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (Da’esh), Al-Qaida and associated individuals, groups, undertakings and entities addressed to the President of the Security Council, UN Doc. S/2019/570, 15 July 2019.
Islamic State in West Africa Province (ISWAP)
The Islamic State in West Africa Province (ISWAP) is a Boko Haram splinter group which originated from Nigeria. Following a rapid rise in the early 2010s, in 2015 the Nigerian army and its allies started to put Boko Haram under pressure, which exacerbated internal tensions. In March 2015, one of the leading figures of Boko Haram, Abubakar Shekau, pledged allegiance to the “Islamic State” (IS) and renamed the group Islamic State in West Africa Province (ISWAP). One year later, a number of senior leaders left the group, retaining the name ISWAP and obtaining recognition from IS, while the group led by Abubakar Shekau retained the name Boko Haram. Between 2018 and 2019, internal disputes led to a change of leadership: Nur was allegedly executed, while Abu Abdallah took the place of Abu Musab. International Crisis Group, ‘Facing the Challenge of the Islamic State in West Africa Province’, Report no. 273, 16 May 2019.
While there are not precise figures regarding the number of members of ISWAP, it has been reported that it is composed of 18.000–20.000 fighters, while other sources report that ISWAP has 3.500-5.000 fighters. Facing the Challenge of the Islamic State in West Africa Province, International Crisis Group, Report no. 273, 16 May 2019. It operates on a broad geographical area in Burkina Faso. Taking advantage of its control over the Malian Ansongo cercle, it expanded its activities in the neighboring Oudalan province, in Burkina’s Sahel region. It is in this region that it conducted its first military attack in 2016, targeting a customs post in Markoye. Since then, it has expanded in other provinces of the Sahel region as well as in eastern Burkina. Burkina Faso: Stopping the Spiral of Violence, International Crisis Group, Africa Report no. 287, 24 February 2020.
JNIM and ISWAP have been collaborating, conducting joint military operations in eastern Soum and Burkina’s East region, in particular against French troops. However, they do have different views in particular with regard to targeting civilians. While ISWAP has often conducted attacks against the civilian population, and in particular Christian communities, JNIM has always opposed this practice, unless the target is a prominent figure that has spoken against the jihadist group. Since late 2019, the two groups have engaged in occasional clashes against each other in Mali and it is thus unclear whether they will continue to cooperate in Burkina Faso. Burkina Faso: Stopping the Spiral of Violence, International Crisis Group, Africa Report no. 287, 24 February 2020.
While self-defence groups constitute a threat to security in Burkina Faso, they are not sufficiently organized to be party to a NIAC.
Koglweogo groups – “guardians of the bush” in the local Mossi language – have started appearing since 2015. The first Koglweogo group was founded in Kombissiri (Centre-South region) and its authority over the other groups is extremely limited. Accordingly, they cannot be considered as a unified non-state actor. However, they do have close ties which allowed them to expand from village to village thanks to a system of patronage, which allowed them to reach the Centre, Plateau-Central, Centre-North, Centre-East and East regions. This was possible thanks to the support of traditional local authorities. Burkina Faso: Stopping the Spiral of Violence, International Crisis Group, Africa Report no. 287, 24 February 2020. Dozo groups are brotherhoods of hunters who are active in several West African countries and have a strong presence in Burkina Faso, where they act as self-defence forces. The leader of the Dozo group based in Burkina, Yacouba Drabo, invited its members to cooperate with the government in the fight against jihadist groups. ‘Jihadis, vigilantes, and demoralised troops: A who’s who in Burkina Faso’s spiralling crisis’, The New Humanitarian, 9 March 2020; ‘Me Drabo Yacouba, chef dozo : « Si vous refusez de collaborer avec les FDS parce que vous avez peur, sachez que même si vous ne dénoncez pas les bandits, vous ne serez pas épargnés »’, Le Faso, 11 September 2019.
In August 2014, France started Operation Barkhane with the aim of fighting jihadist groups operating in the Sahel region. The operation is conducted with the agreement of members of the G5-Sahel, namely Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger. ‘France sets up anti-Islamist force in Africa's Sahel’, BBC, 14 July 2014; ‘François Hollande’s African adventures’, The Economist, 21 July 2014.
In 2017, following the rise of Ansaroul Islam’s attacks, the Burkinabe government decided to deploy more troops in the northern part of the country and to conduct joint military operations with the French and Malian armies. Accordingly, since then armed confrontations between French forces and jihadist groups present in Burkina Faso have intensified. For instance, in mid-April 2017 French troops captured eight members of jihadist groups and killed two of them, while one French soldier was killed. Furthermore, in November 2017 French troops were attacked in the capital the day before a visit by French President Macron. International Crisis Group, Crisis Watch, April 2017; International Crisis Group, Crisis Watch, November 2017. On 14 February 2018, French airstrikes killed several leaders of JNIM in northern Mali; as retaliation, the French military headquarters in Ouagadougou were attacked on 2 March, when 16 people were killed. R. Depagne, Burkina Faso’s Alarming Escalation of Jihadist Violence, International Crisis Group, 5 March 2018. On the other hand, French-led Operation Barkhane has regularly targeted Ansaroul Islam members, hence contributing to the fragmentation and weakening of the group. P. Le Roux, Ansaroul Islam: The Rise and Decline of a Militant Islamist Group in the Sahel, Africa Center for Strategic Studies, 29 July 2019. In November 2019, French defence minister announced the deployment of armed forces to the ‘three borders area’ of Burkina Faso, upon invitation of the Burkinabe government. H. Winkins, ‘France announces troop deployment to Burkina Faso’, Al Jazeera, 6 November 2016. The French involvement in the conflict does not change its classification. Indeed, under the ‘support-based approach’ suggested by the ICRC France is bound by IHL of NIACs even if the hostilities it conducts against the jihadist groups do not reach the level of violence which would be necessary to make IHL of NIACs separately applicable. T. Ferraro, ‘The applicability and application of international humanitarian law to multinational forces’ (2013) 95(891/892) International Review of the Red Cross 561–612.
Though the Sahel region may be seen as a land full of potentials when it comes to renewable energy or natural resources, States in the region are facing numerous challenges such as climate change, lack of economic prospects, poor access to employment or essential services, among others. One of the main threats in this region is still the threat of terrorism and crime. Permanent mission of France to the United Nations in New York, Peace and Security, Sahel; Alliance Sahel, The Sahel Alliance. In order to tackle those threats and challenges, five States – i.e., Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger – decided to coordinate their actions and created the G5 Sahel in February 2014. The G5 Sahel has become an international organisation with a legal framework and a secretariat. The G5 Sahel therefore aims at guaranteeing proper conditions for development and security in the territory of the member States while supporting and promoting democracy and good governance as well as a viable regional development. European Council on Foreign Relations, Mapping African Regional Cooperation, G5 Sahel.
With regard to the security and safety of their territory and population, the G5 Sahel States established the G5 Sahel Joint Force in 2017. The latter mainly aims at responding to the development, threats, and attacks of armed groups. United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner, https://www.ohchr.org/en/countries-and-territories/africa-region/project-supporting-g5-sahel-joint-force-implementation-human-rights-and-international-humanitarian#:~:text=The%20Heads%20of%20States%20of,multiplying%20their%20national%20efforts%20to ]" target="_blank">Project supporting the G5 Sahel Joint Force with Implementation of the Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law Compliance Framework. To do so, the G5 Sahel Joint Force is composed of 5,000 soldiers, is supported by the African Union, the United Nations, and the European Union, and mainly conducts anti-terrorist operations in the whole Sahel region. Permanent Mission of France to the United Nations in New York, Peace and Security, Sahel. The first operation conducted by the G5 Sahel Joint Force took place from 27 October to 11 November 2017 in Burkina-Mali-Niger. International Crisis Group, Crisis Watch, November 2017. The G5 Sahel Joint Force also faces many challenges with regard to the lack of financial resources or even the capabilities and means of their armies. Furthermore, if the G5 Sahel Joint Force may rely on international voluntary contributions, those contributions are not stable since they oscillate according to international circumstances and geopolitical interests. Nevertheless, since 2017, the G5 Sahel Joint Force has conducted many operations. In addition to the Barkhane military activities, jihadists groups have been weakened in Sahel. M. Dieng, ‘The G5 Joint Force for the Sahel was set up four years ago: why progress is slow’, The Conversation, 14 September 2021. Military cooperation between France and the G5 Sahel member states has been topic of discussion on 13 January 2020 during a meeting in Pau, France, between the five heads of State of G5 Sahel member states and French President Macron. International Crisis Group, Crisis Watch, January 2020.
All parties to the conflict are bound by Article 3 common to the 1949 Geneva Conventions, which provides for the minimum standards to be respected and requires humane treatment without adverse distinction of all persons not or no longer taking active parts in hostilities. It prohibits murder, mutilation, torture, cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, hostage taking and unfair trials.
All parties are also bound by customary international humanitarian law applicable to non-international armed conflict. Customary international law consists of unwritten rules that come from a general practice accepted as law. Based on extensive study, the International Committee of the Red Cross maintains a database of customary international humanitarian law.
In addition to international humanitarian law, international human rights law continues to apply during times of armed conflict. Under human rights law, the territorial state has an obligation to prevent and investigate alleged violations, including by non-state actors. Non-state armed groups are increasingly considered to be bound by international human rights law if they exercise de facto control over some areas.
- Burkina Faso
- G5 Sahel (Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger)
- Ansaroul Islam
- Islamic State in West Africa Province (ISWAP)
- Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS)
- Group for the Support of Islam and Muslims (JNIM)