Islamic State claimed fighters from its West Africa Province affiliate carried out an August attack in Koutougou in northern Burkina Faso that killed 24 soldiers, the country’s worst-ever insurgent attack.
Burkina Faso’s military said 24 soldiers were killed and seven others injured on August 19 in a “major attack by armed terrorist groups” in the Koutougou department of Soum province in the northern Sahel Region which borders Mali.
“Several dozen terrorists” on motorbikes and in pickup trucks carried out the attack, a security source later told AFP. “It’s clearly an attack that was well-prepared and coordinated by several terrorist groups. They fired heavy weapons, including rockets, which set fire to several installations, transport and weaponry.”
In issue 200 of the weekly al-Naba propaganda magazine posted on social media on Thursday, September 19, ISIS claimed its fighters were responsible for the Koutougou attack, but repeated information that had previously been published.
It said ISWAP fighters “attacked a military base of the Burkina Faso army in the area of Koutougou in the middle of last month, leading to 24 deaths in their ranks and a large number of wounded.”
It said survivors fled, “leaving the Mujahideen to take control of the whole area and set fires, burning and destroying vehicles and armor, and capturing various ammunition and weapons.”
Prior to Koutougou, the heaviest Islamist militant attack against Burkina Faso’s security forces left 12 soldiers dead at Nassoumbou, also in Soum province, in December 2016.
Since May, Islamic State has attributed insurgent activities in the Mali-Burkina Faso-Niger tri-border area to its West Africa Province affiliate, rather than to what was previously known as Islamic State in the Greater Sahara. In a June 15 ISIS propaganda video, ISWAP militants purportedly in Burkina Faso were shown reaffirming their pledge of allegiance to ISIS.
In May, Burkina Faso called for an international coalition to tackle terrorism in the Sahel. That was echoed in July, when President Mahamadou Issoufou of Niger called for the creation of an “international coalition” modeled on the alliance that fought ISIS in Iraq and Syria.
There may be trans-Atlantic support for a new initiative – officials said in August that the U.S. will seek additional contributions from the Global Coalition Against ISIS to combat the group and its affiliates in Africa.
Earlier this week, the new Commander of U.S. Africa Command General Stephen Townsend made his first trip as commander to the Sahel, visiting Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger. Townsend was previously in charge of Coalition troops fighting ISIS in Iraq and Syria as Commander of Combined Joint Task Force – Operation Inherent Resolve.
“It is important for the U.S. to continue to support the international effort taking place in Burkina Faso while containing the spread of terrorism,” Townsend said on Wednesday.
Burkinabé forces recently partnered with the Washington, D.C. National Guard as part of a comprehensive training program, but Townsend poured cold water on a potential U.S. military deployment.
“I don’t think we should expect a military presence or combat troops on the ground as is the case with some French troops,” he said.
Neighboring Niger hosts an estimated 800 U.S. troops, the largest American deployment in Africa. The U.S. is building a large and controversial air base known as Niger Air Base 201 in the northern city of Agadez. The U.S. Air Force began regular operations there in August, with C-130J Super Hercules transport aircraft flying limited missions into the facility.
Niger recently gave the Americans permission to arm drones stationed there, and MQ-9 Reapers are set to start flying missions from the base by the end of the year. Armed U.S drones already fly from Air Base 101 near the capital Niamey, around 800 km southwest of Agadez.
Upsurge in attacks in Burkina Faso
One of the poorest countries in the world, former French colony Burkina Faso lies in the heart of the sprawling, impoverished Sahel, on the southern rim of the Sahara desert.
The country has been battling an escalating wave of attacks over the last three years, beginning in the North region near the border with Mali. Attacks have spread to the East region, near the border with Togo, Benin and Niger, and to a lesser extent, the west of the country.
Most attacks are attributed to the Group to Support Islam and Muslims (JNIM) which has sworn allegiance to Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, but also to Ansar ul Islam, which emerged near the Mali border in December 2016, and to Islamic State-affiliated groups.
Multinational efforts to fight Sahel insurgency
Burkina Faso is also part of the G5 Sahel Joint Force, the long-planned 4,500-strong joint counter-terrorism coalition that also includes troops from Chad, Mali, Niger and Mauritania.
France spearheaded the G5 Sahel initiative, but it has been undermined by lack of training, poor equipment and a shortage of funds. United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has long-called for regular U.N. funding for the G5 Sahel Joint Force, but the U.S. has pushed back against direct funding, preferring instead bilateral funding for individual states.
In a September 5 statement, JNIM reinforced its opposition to former colonial power France, warning G5 Sahel governments that attacks against their forces would continue while they support the France-led Operation Barkhane counter-terrorism force.
The 4,500-strong Barkhane force has mandate for counter-terrorism operations across the Sahel and includes personnel from Estonia and helicopters from the United Kingdom. Denmark plans send two helicopters and up to 70 troops to support the force.
On September 14, ECOWAS leaders at an Extraordinary Summit on Counter-Terrorism decided to mobilize “up to a billion dollars for the fight against terrorism,” Niger’s President Mahamadou Issoufou said.
The money, paid into a common fund from 2020 to 2024, will help reinforce the military operations of the nations involved, and those of the joint military operations in the region. Full details of the plan will be presented to the next ECOWAS summit in December.
With reporting from AFP