The Cappuccino Café, one of the scenes of the attacks in OuagadougouAlthough Burkina Faso had already been the scene of small-scale attacks and kidnappings of foreigners in the past, terrorist actions like those that bloodied its capital Ouagadougou on January 15 are unprecedented. Just a few hours after the attack, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) released an initial communiqué through its media wing al-Andalus, where it attributed the operation to its affiliate, the “Murabitun knights.” The Murabitun attacked in Burkina Faso not even two months after the attack on the Radisson hotel in Bamako, Mali.
The years of massacre in Algeria
The claim rekindles interest in the relationships between AQIM and the brigade Murabitun. Unlike the constellation of Middle-Eastern jihadists in which alliances between groups are clearer, the case of the Sahara and the Sahel is complex because the links between groups are often unstable and volatile; formations can arise and fall apart in a few years only to create new organizations, adapting themselves to the needs of the moment and overcoming ideological differences. The origins of AQIM and the Murabitun are an example of this dynamic.
AQIM was founded on the ashes of the Algerian Armed Islamic Group (GIA) (which fought the Algerian military government in the Algerian Civil War) and the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC), created in 1998 by commanders seceding from the GIA who were dissatisfied with the excessive violence against Algerian civilians. Although at first this new movement had some success in recruiting, a counterterrorism campaign by the Algerian government in the early 2000s made it fall out of favour. It was then that the GSPC declared allegiance to al-Qaeda, becoming al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb in January 2007.
Over time al-Qaeda in the Maghreb went through several internal divisions: brigades and other groups were formed, including the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (Mujwa) and the brigade al-Mulathamin (“the veiled”), from whose union was born the brigade of Murabitun in August 2013 and headed by the notorious Mokhtar Belmokhtar. The Murabitun took their name in memory of the warriors who in the eleventh century gave birth to the Berber Sultanate of the Almoravids – in Arabic, precisely al-Murabitun. At the time, the warriors lived in the ribat, a fort on the border of the Dar al-Islam, whence they waged jihad in Africa and Islamic Spain. The name of the Belmokhtar’s organization, therefore, is meant to be a sign of the jihad’s alleged continuity with the ancient Almoravid Empire.
As a veteran of the jihad in the 1980s that had brought thousands of mujahideen together in Afghanistan to repel the Soviet invasion and later a member of the GIA, the Algerian Belmokhtar is considered the undisputed master of jihad in the Sahara and the Sahel. As a trafficker and terrorist he financed the activities of his brigade and AQIM by trafficking in cigarettes – hence the nickname “Mr. Marlboro” – weapons, drugs and human beings, as well as with the ransoms paid by governments and private entities for the release of foreigners kidnapped in the region. In 2012, the US General Carter Ham defined AQIM as the richest affiliate of al-Qaeda.
Why an attack in Burkina Faso
A few days after the attack in Ouagadougou, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb issued a second statement, much wider than the first. In the document, which opens with an image of three young jihadist perpetrators of the attack, AQIM explains the reasons for the attack, sends a message to France and its allies, and proclaims its close ties to the Iraqi and Palestinian mujahideen.
The terrorists’ target – we read – was the “dens of crusaders plundering our wealth, assailing our honour, and desecrating what we hold sacred.” The statement goes on to say that “[a]fter the study, analysis, and collection of intelligence, and the finalisation of objectives, through its best fighters and knights, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb struck one of the most dangerous dens of world espionage in West Africa – in particular, the hotel Splendid and some bars in the Burkinabe capital Ouagadougou, whence is directed the war against Islam and where the contracts are signed to plunder Africa’s resources.”
The “crusaders” obviously are the French, who began to colonise the region in 1896, have been part of the history of Burkina Faso. Even after the country’s independence, granted in 1960, French influence has never ceased. Since October 2014, after ruling the country for 27 years, popular protests forced President Blaise Campaoré to resign and the French have encouraged the process of political transition.
As for the charge of espionage, it seems to be a reference to the commitment of the French to the war against terrorism in West Africa. From January 2013, for more than a year, France was engaged in Operation Serval, which provided military and logistical support to the forces of the government of Mali to free the north of the country from occupation by the rebel jihadists. Operation Serval ended on 15 July 2014 and was followed by the ongoing Operation Barkhane, which combats Sahel-based jihadists and reconfirms the French military commitment in West Africa. On its territory, Burkina also hosts the French special forces that liberated, along with Malian forces, the Radisson hotel in Bamako attacked by Belmokhtar’s jihadists in November.
In the second press release, AQIM accuses France of interference and makes it responsible for the “bloodshed of its subjects.” Echoing the words of Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Qaeda in the Maghreb has warned France and its allies, advising them to leave Muslim lands if they do not want their citizens’ safety to be jeopardised:
“Today the question of security is a global issue; it cannot be considered only in part. Either leave us in peace in our land or we shall endanger your peace and that of your subjects, as you endanger ours. Good brings good and he who begins it is the most noble, evil brings evil and he one who begins it is the most unjust, as the lion of Islam, Osama bin Laden, already told you, and as our emir Ayman al-Zawahiri repeated: ‘security is a common destiny; if we live in security you will live in security; if we are at peace you will be at peace, but if we are struck and killed, God willing, you will be struck and killed. This is the just reciprocity’.”
A reference to the medieval history of the Maghreb also appears in the statement. The jihadist fighters in the Sahara and the Sahel are defined as “descendants of Yusuf bin Tashfin”, the first Almoravid sultan who reigned in the Maghreb al-Aqsa (now Morocco) from 1089 and in al-Andalus (Muslim Spain) from 1094. As heirs of the Almoravid dynasty, the combatants are to be called to avenge the eleventh century ruler: “The combatants neither forget the injuries received nor settle for a miserable life; they are determined not to put up their swords until their umma will shine again, and the cross and disbelief humiliated under their feet.”
This “blessed operation” recalls AQIM as “nothing but a drop in the ocean of the world-wide jihad.” The statement concludes with an invitation to all the mujahideen to “destroy Zionist, crusading, and Shia impiety” and an exhortation addressed specifically to the Sunnis of the Levant and especially Iraq “to stand united in the face of international conspiracies against the jihad, and apply the word of their Lord: ‘And hold fast to the rope of Allah, all of you together, and do not be divided’ (Qur. 3:103).”