Burkina Faso: Jihadists’ Ethnic Strategy and the Koglweogo Problem

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 17 Issue: 23

(source: faso24.com)

The Sahel has quickly become an epicenter of terrorism, with the once relatively stable Burkina Faso on the verge of replacing Mali as a focal point of jihadist violence. Instability from the prolonged conflict in Libya has been emanating into Mali and beyond since the fall of Ghaddafi in 2011 and the subsequent influx of weapons and fighters. This influx, coupled with the lack of effective state control and flexible narratives espoused by terror groups in the region, allowed militant groups to gain a strong foothold in southern Mali. The violence inevitably began to spill across the border into Burkina Faso and Niger as militants expanded operations and found haven near the Sahel Reserve, a protected wildlife area that straddles the borders of the three countries.

The primary jihadist groups responsible for attacks in Burkina Faso are Jama’a Nusrat ul-Islam wa al-Muslimin (JNIM), Islamic State Greater Sahara (ISGS), and the locally grown Ansaroul Islam. The dramatic increase in terrorist attacks in Burkina Faso, however, is not solely indicative of a newfound support base and is as much a reflection of the ease in which these groups can exploit and operate in areas characterized by ethnic diversity and a lack of basic services and state control, particularly by police or security forces. Jihadist groups have been responsible for a staggering number of attacks over the past three years, but the second order effect of widespread communal violence has been equally devastating and, if unchecked, could outlast the existence of these jihadist organizations and become a lasting fixture of Burkinabe society.

Burkina Faso had historically been characterized by moderation and the peaceful coexistence between the country’s ethnic and religious groups. That coexistence, however, has dissipated throughout much of the country and has been replaced by ethnically fueled massacres, disappearances, and other widespread abuses that act as a feedback loop for jihadist groups seeking to exploit the turmoil and recruit marginalized Muslim youths. The rapid increase in ethnic violence has been fueled by two primary factors—the tactics of jihadist groups and the proliferation of self-defense militias known as koglweogo.

Much like in Mali, militant groups have pursued a strategy to exploit social cleavages in the country’s remote northern and eastern regions, depicting themselves as guardians of marginalized groups and fueling the insecurity needed to operate largely unopposed. These groups began by focusing on attacks against the state to deter police and military operations before increasingly targeting churches and mosques. In October, an attack on a mosque in Oudalan province killed at least 16 worshippers, and in early December, an attack on a protestant church left 14 dead in Hantoukoura (LeFaso.net, October 13; LeFaso.net, December 2). Gunmen have also engaged in targeted attacks on moderate imams and Christian clerics to foment animosity between religious groups (Twitter.com/menastream, September 25, 2018). Many of the deadly attacks on mosques and churches are not officially claimed, likely as part of a strategy to create confusion, pit communities against one another, and spark reprisals by ethnic militias. This strategy has not worked as well as intended, likely due to the prevalence of interfaith communities and families, so jihadists have increasingly targeted Mossi and Foulse ethnic groups to foster an ethnic rivalry against the Fulani rather than push a broader Muslim-Christian rivalry.

Burkinabe police and security forces are largely absent in the country’s Sahel, Centre-Nord and Est regions. In areas where they do patrol, they only do so during the day before retreating to safer areas before nightfall for fear of attacks by jihadist groups. As such, the culprits of attacks are rarely identified or brought to justice, creating suspicion among the various ethnic and religious community members while also forcing the state’s reliance on koglweogo who live in the communities.

Koglweogo were a response to the lack of effective state control in much of the country, with some groups dating back to at least 2009. [1] Koglweogo have proliferated independently of the state over the past several years due to the instability that followed the ouster of former President Blaise Compaoré  in 2014 and more recently because of the threat from jihadist groups. These self-defense militias across the country are not entirely homogenous, but they are predominantly Mossi in the Sahel, Centre-Nord, and Est regions, where jihadist attacks have been most prevalent (LeFaso.net, February 20; infowakat, November 15). Koglweogo are now an embedded feature in towns and communes across the country and are funded and supported by local administrations, state authorities, and through donations from community members. Burkina Faso’s overwhelmed police and security forces have increasingly attempted to integrate these groups into the country’s security framework by using them as an extension of formal security forces, with the Ministry of Territorial Administration, Decentralization and Security recognizing many koglweogo groups (Taz, April 27). Despite recognizing and tacitly supporting their existence, the government has no real control mechanisms or actual oversight over their actions.

The jihadists groups operating in the region are historically Fulani-oriented and have capitalized on the Mossi ethnic makeup of the koglweogo, who have responded to attacks by cracking down on the predominantly Muslim Fulani ethnic group, which is a minority in Burkina Faso as a whole. Unclaimed attacks likely perpetrated by jihadist groups are routinely followed by koglweogo detaining, torturing, evicting or summarily killing Fulani community members accused of harboring or being linked to jihadist groups. For instance, a nighttime attack in January that killed seven people in the village of Yirgou, Barsalago province—a predominantly Mossi village—triggered a violent response by the local koglweogo, which razed countless homes and killed upward of 40 Fulani men and children accused of harboring jihadists (LeFaso.net, January 9). Countless similar incidents have taken place across the country, with hundreds of Fulani members killed and thousands displaced while those who stay have taken up their own arms or joined jihadist camps.

Large scale operations by Burkinabe military forces have only managed to displace jihadist groups to other areas while creating mistrust among communities due to alleged abuses. The military does not have the capacity needed to sustain operations, hold territory, and provide a constant security presence, making the koglweogo a necessary aspect of the government’s security plan. Given the fact they have primarily served to foment widespread ethnic violence, however, there is a glaring need for the government to rein in these groups by creating some sort of oversight and control mechanisms while also seeking to hold accountable those who have committed crimes against Fulani community members. The government should work quickly to promote reconciliation between ethnic groups to quell the violence and cycle of vengeance. Reconciliation will help dry up recruitment streams for jihadist groups seeking to capitalize on the Fulani’s marginalization and will prevent communal violence from becoming a lasting issue that would persist even if the country manages to quell the jihadist threat.


[1] Koglweogos: The Risk of Community Ownership of Security, Centre for Democracy and Development. https://cddelibrary.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/05/Koglweogos-the-Risk-of-Community-Ownership-of-Security.pdf