A few months after the announcement of the alleged death of the radical preacher Ibrahim Malam Dicko, what is the influence of Ansarul Islam, a movement he created in the province of Soum in northern Burkina Faso? What are the dynamics underlying the crisis? Is it an armed jihad or a revolt against a sclerotic social elite? To answer these questions, the International Crisis Group conducted a field investigation and published a report on Thursday, October 12. Cynthia Ohayon, an analyst for West Africa, answers Sahelien.com’s questions.
Sahelien.com: What is really happening in northern Burkina Faso? Is it an armed jihad or a revolt against a sclerotic social elite?
Cynthia Ohayon: There has been a resurgence of attacks in northern Burkina Faso, mainly in the province of Soum. These attacks, which are not claimed, are attributed to Ansarul Islam, an armed group that is said to be connected to so-called jihadist groups active in the Sahel. Yet at the origin of this group is an Islamic association and a preacher, Malam Ibrahim Dicko, who emerged by questioning the social order prevailing in the province of Soum. This social order rests on the power of religious authorities (marabout families) and customary practices, on traditional practices that create frustrations especially among young people, and on social cleavages between descendants of masters and descendants of slaves. It is the protest of this sclerotic society that has earned Malam Dicko a strong popularity in the province. He then fell into violence and took up arms without engaging a large number of inhabitants and began to operate in a similar way to groups active in Central Mali (attacks on security, targeted assassinations). To understand this phenomenon, it is therefore important to return to its origins.
“If he is alive, «Malam» might have an interest in making to believe that he is dead so that they can stop to track him down. If he is dead, his group may prefer to maintain the doubt so as not to show signs of weakness. For us, the doubt remains”.
The question that all or almost are asking today is: «Malam» is he dead or alive?
It is a question that we also ask all our interlocutors. The Burkinabe military think he is dead, but have no formal proof. This is often the case with this type of armed group leader: they are sometimes presumed dead several times without any certainty. It would be a certain Jafar Dicko, apparently his little brother, who would have taken over the direction of the movement. But all this must be taken with caution. If he is alive, «Malam» might have an interest in making to believe that he is dead so that they can stop to track him down. If he is dead, his group may prefer to maintain the doubt so as not to show signs of weakness. For us, the doubt remains.
What are the sources of funding for Ansarul Islam?
This question should be rather addressed to intelligence services. It is very difficult to know precisely how the group buys arms and maintains its survival. It has links with other armed groups operating in the region, particularly in central Mali. These groups probably provide support. But his ties remain unclear. It is sometimes said to be close to the Katiba Macina, headed by Hamadoun Kouffa and now affiliated with the Support Group for Islam and Muslims. In any case, it uses their territory, the Center of Mali, as a rear base. Other observers report links between Ansarul Islam and the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (EIGS), with whom it allegedly led the Nassoumbou attack of December 2016. All this remains in the conditional, and it is likely that Ansarul Islam has links with all these groups.
And what is the influence of this movement presently in the Soum?
Concerning the influence of Ansarul Islam, if Malam failed to plunge the whole province into widespread violence, he managed to create a climate of terror. Today, people are afraid to express themselves. Local elites and civil servants feel threatened. Anyone who is perceived as collaborating with the security forces is threatened or even murdered. A part of the population could also, without collaborating with Ansarul Islam, refuse to report suspicious individuals, if only because traditionally, one does not denounce one of his own.
Until now, however, it was said that the incidents and disturbances in central Mali are extending into the Sahel region of Burkina Faso and creating a situation of insecurity. But you, you are saying: attention, the bottom of the problem in Burkina is endogenous …
The articulation between the exogenous and the endogenous is complex. The dynamics at work in central Mali and in northern Burkina Faso are similar. The Center of Mali has become a gray area from which armed groups can operate by crossing borders. As long as Mali is not stabilized, it will be difficult to really solve the problem in northern Burkina Faso. However, the bottom of the problem in Burkina Faso is endogenous, it is a matter of dynamics specific to the social organization of the province of Soum. In fact, they are often armed groups claiming to be jihad who, to establish themselves in a land, fan and exploit the internal tensions within the societies that inhabit it.
You say in your report that northern Burkina Faso has long been neglected by the State of Burkina Faso in terms of infrastructure, health center, water and electricity, whereas it is the second less poor region with a underground that is full of riches. Is this a factor that drives young people to join the Ansarul Islam movement of Malam Dicko?
The factors driving young people to join «Malam» are multiple and should not obscure the diversity of individual trajectories. What is certain is that the contrast between high economic potential and weak infrastructure ( the tar road still does not reach in Djibo) is fueling frustration. Human development indicators (literacy, schooling, health) are at a very low level in this region, which makes its inhabitants say that the State is abandoning them. This mistrust between the State and the people does not help: it does not encourage collaboration with the security forces, and it can only reinforce the echo of the speech of «Malam», when he denounces the abandonment of the region by the central authorities.
What are the possibilities for the conflict to spread to other regions of Burkina Faso?
Other regions, particularly border regions, are also vulnerable. In particular, it is the province of Oudalan, in the zone of the three borders called Liptako-Gourma, where there have already been attacks. Western Burkina Faso is also vulnerable but not the same aggravating factors as in the province of Soum. The latter has specific characteristics that contribute to explaining why it is the epicenter of the crisis, in particular the weak involvement of local elites in the fight against radicalism and the strong rivalries that animate them, and a very marked divide between Fulani (descendants of masters) and Rimaibé (descendants of slaves).
..”.We should not see attacks on teachers exclusively as an attempt to target the Western school, it is a reading that places too much emphasis on the religious dimension”.
You write that in the Soum, unlike what happens in the center of Mali, Ansarul Islam does not attack the schools. Did the attacks on teachers respond to other motivations?
According to our sources, the «Malam» group was very popular among teachers, perhaps because being educated, they were more receptive to a protest speech. At least some of the teachers who were targeted may have been targeted because the Malam group seeks above all to eliminate its former comrades who refused to follow it in the violence. There are, indeed, a few schools that have been threatened, since Ansarul Islam seems to seek to drive out the presence of the State.
But we should not see attacks on teachers exclusively as an attempt to target the Western school, it is a reading that places too much emphasis on the religious dimension. As proof, Ansarul Islam has never, to my knowledge, attacked a bar or a club, and we can still drink beer in Djibo.
What are the challenges faced by Burkina Faso security forces?
The Burkina Faso security apparatus faces the challenge of adapting to a new, asymmetrical threat, even though it has been deeply shaken and weakened by the fall of the regime of Blaise Compaoré. The latter founded his security system, notably intelligence, on men and not on institutions. Many elements have to be reconstructed and this will necessarily take time to change the culture of the Burkinabe army and to instill in the military the necessity of combat and the appropriate responses to an unconventional war against non-State armed groups.
Is the joint strength of the G5 Sahel sufficient to stabilize this area and beyond the Sahel?
The strength of the G5 Sahel has an interesting aspect in that it seeks to Africanize security in the Sahel and to promote regional cooperation, which is essential to combat cross-cutting threats. But this force will also reinforce the military aspect of the solution, and cost a lot of money, even though this response seems ineffective. The military effort that was carried out in the spring of 2017 resulted in a short-lived respite, and even the rainy season did not prevent the resurgence of attacks.
Interview by Sidi Ahmed S.