Burkina Faso is in the grips of a dangerous threat from armed Islamist fighters who are murdering civilians and threatening to destabilize other West African countries. But the government’s abusive counterinsurgency strategy, notably the summary execution of suspects, risks inflaming the conflict by driving more people into the hands of Islamist militant recruiters.
Since 2017, I have documented the alleged extrajudicial execution by the security forces of more than 150 men accused of supporting or harboring terrorists. I cannot confirm whether any of the executed men supported armed Islamists. But all of the victims were last seen in the custody of government security forces and found hours later shot in the head or chest.
Nearly all the victims were ethnic Fulani, or Peuhl in French, whose grievances have been exploited by the Islamists to garner recruits. “We are hostage to both sides,” a Peuhl elder told me. “By day we fear the army, and by night the jihadists.”
One Sunday morning in May, armed Islamist fighters rode into the Burkina Faso town of Dablo and headed straight for the Catholic church. “We were singing, when they burst in,” a member of the congregation told me. “They gunned down the priest, then ordered five men, including a choir member, to lie down, then executed them in front of their families. Before leaving, they told our women to start wearing the veil.”
The attack on the church was the latest by the armed Islamists since the emergence in 2016 of a homegrown group, Ansaroul Islam. Since then, this group and others linked to both al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara have murdered teachers and mayors; gunned down people in cafes in the capital, Ouagadougou; kidnapped foreigners; pillaged livestock; and forbidden villagers from farming or celebrating marriages.
The increased pace and breadth of the attacks has displaced more than 130,000 people since the start of 2019, prompted the government to declare a state of emergency and stoked fears that the violence could spread beyond Burkina’s border.
The kidnapping, in May, of two French tourists and their guide in a game reserve in northern Benin, and reports of emergent armed Islamist cells in other West Africa countries previously untouched by this violence, should be a wake-up call to the international community.
But in response to a legitimate threat, the government has adopted a hard-line approach in which scores of suspects have been unlawfully executed. This approach has alienated the nomadic Fulani, members of the ethnic group most affected by this approach, and whose members reside in several of the countries at risk.
Dozens of witnesses to more than 20 raids by government forces in northern Burkina Faso provided me with lists of the victims and drew maps indicating where the bodies were found.
“The soldiers surrounded the market and detained 17 men,” said one witness to an operation on May 10 in the northern town of Titao. “Before taking the men away, a soldier said, ‘you will not live to see another market day.’” Another witness described finding the men two days later some 25 kilometers away, some of whom had been shot in the head.
Three witnesses described how nine suspects were found dead after being detained in a similar operation in Belharo village in February. A witness showed me photographs of the victim’s burial and said, “We found Hamadoun, 72 years old, with both knees and his forehead on the ground, like he’d asked to pray before being shot.”
A Burkinabe human rights organization documented an additional 60 executions of suspects they say took place during a major operation in February, near the town of Kain.
Fulani villagers complained bitterly to me of being caught between the armed Islamist groups and government forces. The Islamists try to recruit them and threaten to execute those collaborating with the government, and the security forces pressure them for intelligence about the presence of armed groups and mete out collective punishment if they do not provide it.
In a recent interview, Defense Minister Moumina Cheriff Sy, appointed in January, identified as a top priority the reassurance of the population that “there is a government and an army that is there to protect them.”
And yet, villagers with a front-row seat to his army’s operations don’t see it that way. “People are fleeing the army in great numbers; for them, their army is synonymous with fear, not security,” a community elder told me.
Burkina Faso civilians and security force members have paid a heavy price since 2016, but killing suspects in the name of security is only fueling its terrorism problem. The government is bound by domestic and international laws to guarantee suspects a fair trial and prevent unlawful killings by security forces. Moreover, the atrocities by the army appear to be alienating the population they are mandated to protect and shoring up the ranks of these abusive groups.
Burkina Faso’s international partners should raise their voices, insist that the authorities rein in abusive units committing atrocities and lend crucial support to the chronically neglected judiciary and military justice systems.
Burkina Faso is facing a very real threat, but it has to get its counterterrorism strategy right. That means anchoring it in respect for human rights.
Corinne Dufka is West Africa director at Human Rights Watch.