Islamic State-linked jihadists have slaughtered more than 250 civilians in a terror campaign aimed at carving the group a new foothold in Africa’s poorest region, human rights campaigners have warned.
Gunmen have carried out a series of massacres across the west African nation of Burkina Faso, targeting mainly church congregations and workers for Western-owned businesses.
The carnage in what was previously a largely peaceful nation are part of a new wave of extremist violence now destabilising the Sahel, the vast and impoverished semi-arid region south of the Sahara.
The killings in Burkina Faso are documented in a new report by Human Rights Watch, whose researchers gathered evidence of 256 deaths during just eight months between April and December of last year.
Two armed groups have been held responsible: Ansar ul-Islam, a home-grown jihadist movement formed in 2016, and Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS). Ansar ul-Islam operates mainly in Burkina Faso’s gold-mining areas, where it takes a cut of profits earned by locals operating unlicensed gold mines.
ISGS operates mainly from Niger, where it was blamed for the killing of four US special forces troops during a gunfight in an isolated village in 2017. One witness told a Human Rights Watch researcher how around 30 gunmen attacked a Catholic church in Dablo, in Burkina Faso’s Centre-Nord region, last May.
First they executed the village priest, ignoring his pleas for mercy for his flock. “The priest turned around, raised his hands, clutching the Bible, and sunk to his knees,” the witness said. “And the jihadist shot him in the chest, saying, “Allahu Akbar.”
Five other men were also killed and the church defiled, while female parishioners were warned to “abandon” Christianity and start wearing the veil. The following day, gunmen elsewhere in Centre-Nord attacked a procession of Catholic worshippers carrying a statue of the Virgin Mary, killing four.
Many attacks have taken place in Burkina Faso’s gold mining region, including the massacre in November of 39 mine workers in an army-escorted convoy operated by Canada’s West Africa Mining Exploration Corporation. The attackers took out the convoy’s armoured escort vehicle with a road-side bomb, and then raked the vehicles with gunfire.
“One of the attackers said, ‘We told you we’re against the whites, and not to work for them’,” said a witness, who only survived because he was hidden under the corpses of his dead colleagues.
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The attacks, along with targeted assassinations of village chiefs and volunteers working with government-backed self-defence groups, have forced nearly 500,000 people to flee their homes in Burkina Faso.
While much of the violence has been aimed at Christians, who make up nearly a quarter of Burkina Faso’s mainly Muslim population, Muslim communities have been targeted too. Burkina Faso’s security forces have struggled to contain the jihadists, who operate mainly in remote rural areas.
On Christmas Eve, an attack claimed by ISGS killed seven security force members at a gendarme base guarding a camp for displaced people in the Arbinda region. At least 35 civilians, mostly women, also died.
“Armed Islamist groups in Burkina Faso have attacked civilians with unmitigated cruelty and utter disregard for human life,” said Corinne Dufka, West Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Deliberately targeting farmers, worshippers, mine workers, displaced people and traders are war crimes.”
The jihadists have recruited followers to their ranks by complaining about lack of development in Burkina Faso, which is poor even by west African standards, with nearly half its 20 million population below the poverty line.
However, they are part of a wider upsurge of violent Islamism across the Sahel region, which began in northern Mali in 2012 when Tuareg separatists allied with local al-Qaeda cells.
That alliance, which saw entire cities like Timbuktu fall into jihadist control, was ended by a French military invasion in 2013, since when 5,000 French troops and 15,000 UN peacekeepers have tried to maintain stability. But while Tuareg groups in Mali have largely observed a UN-backed ceasefire agreement, jihadist groups have proliferated across the wider region.
Their effectiveness has been boosted by an alliance declared in 2017 between four key factions, including al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and al-Mourabitoun, an al-Qaeda offshoot group. Al-Mourabitoun claimed responsibility for an attack on a Radisson hotel in Mali that killed 20 people in 2015, and for an attack on a hotel and cafe in Burkina Faso that killed 30 people in 2016.
This summer, around 250 British troops are due to deploy to assist the UN mission in Mali, where more than 200 peacekeepers have already died in insurgent attacks.
The viability of Western military operations across the Sahel has been cast into doubt, however, over a decision last month by President Donald Trump to consider reducing its own troop deployments in the region.