From targeted killings to complex attack – The Irchad network
Recent months have seen a significant increase in incidents of suspected jihadist activity in the Soum Province of Burkina Faso’s far north. Spillover from the Mali conflict in the border areas is nothing new, but the current trend shows very negative tendencies. Various attacks have plagued the area ranging from targeted killings, assassination attempts, village incursions to a high-casualty complex attack against an army position. A significant component of the insecurity in the regions stems from what could be viewed as the wider “Fulani struggle” where the notion of jihad plays an increasingly important role. Recent events in Djibo and surroundings point to a intra-communal dimension of this conflict with one layer being the targeting of community elites, shown in the almost simultaneous attacks that targeted local councilmen in the localitys of Pétèga and Soboulé on November 12, these types of targeted killings are far from as common as on the Malian side of the border. Another important layer is the internal conflict of a local network of Imams or Muslim preachers named Al-Irchad, at least one member of this network has been subjected to a targeted killing with other members being the suspected perpetrators. This conflict indicates that some radical elements aim at eradicating those more moderate or unwilling to take part in the radicalization and recruitment of youth or even more extreme activities like conducting violent and armed attacks, like in the case of Amadou Boli assassinated on November 12 in Djibo, allegedly number two in the Al-Irchad network, an individual who may have known too much about the network’s activities to constitute a threat.
More recently, the Al-Irchad network received renewed attention, on January 1, two attacks took place in Djibo and Sibé, in Djibo a man escaped an attempted abduction or assassination but was shot three times, in Sibé an imam was shot dead by alleged members of the Al-Irchad network. Local media reported that the mentioned imam actually was killed by his son in the presence of another Al-Irchad member. Additionally, the locality of Kérboulé saw an incursion by unknown gunmen who on October 18 clashed with the Koglweogo self-defense militia, the attack claimed the lives of three miners, one Koglweogo and another individual was wounded. Further, on December 16 a large-scale attack targeted the army camp in Nassoumbou, an attack that left twelve Burkinabe soldiers dead, all being soldiers belonging to GFAT or ‘Groupement des forces armées anti-terroristes’, the Burkinabe army’s counter-terrorism battalion.
Large-scale attack in Nassoumbou – From Irchad to Ansaroul Islam
The extent of the attack in Nassoumbou is significant and constitute the largest damages in terms of human lives ever inflicted on the Burkinabe army by jihadists, none of the known groups roaming the area have officially claimed responsibility for the attack, similar to the attack in Tazalite, Niger on October 6, which also resulted in a heavy casualty toll. The area of Soum is far from alien to jihadist militancy and the Burkinabe and above all the Fulani component within groups operating in the region is strong in all the various militant factions both jihadist and non-jihadist, be it Ansar Dine’s southern katibas (al-Mansour, Macina and Khalid Ibn al-Walid), AQIM’s al-Mourabitoune, remnants of MUJAO now going by the name Islamic State in the Greater Sahara following their break away from al-Mourabitoune or any of the armed signatory groups in Mali. Burkinabe media attribute the attack to Malam Ibrahim Dicko, alleged leader of the previously mentioned Al-Irchad network, also given the name “Ansar-ul-Islam lil-Irchad wal-Jihad”. Worth noting regarding Dicko’s name is that ‘Malam’ is a simple transcription of the Arabic word ‘Mu’alim’ or colloquially ‘Maalem’ meaning Teacher, hence, Dicko has been given the title teacher or scholar for having teached in neighboring Niger and for being a well-known preacher in Djibo, although his real name is Boureïma Dicko. Dicko is married to the sister of the Grand Imam of Djibo. The imam himself threatened by Dicko and his followers.
The reports on the Nassoumbou attack do not only attribute the attack to Dicko, it is also stated that he claimed responsibility for the attack something that raises some skepticism, the claim that a relatively unknown network should have been able to recruit, train, arm and independently carry out a military operation of the magnitude like the Nassoumbou attack is dubious. A report in Le Quotidien links Dicko to Amadou Koufa, the emir of Ansar Dine’s Katiba Macina, although the report contains inconsistencies by stating that Dicko during a stay in Mali in 2015 was arrested together with Koufa, detained on charges of possession of illegal arms, but subsequently released. The actual time of this incident and the arrest of Koufa seems incorrect, although a recent article in Jeune Afrique mentions a certain Ibrahim, close to Koufa arrested in late 2013 by French Serval forces in the area of Tessalit on charges of attempting to join jihadist groups, kept detained for two years under the supervision of DGSE (Direction Générale de la Sécurité d’État) in Bamako before being released. The passage mentioning Ibrahim makes reference to a known preacher in Djibo and in connection to dozens of men who have chosen jihad and joined the ‘maquis’ (shrublands) during the last months in the area of Djibo, doubtlessly Ibrahim Dicko. Prior to his arrest reportedly a member of Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MOJWA). Multiple attacks on the Burkina side of the border have been claimed or attributed to previously mentioned jihadist groups, several of these groups have lost some important operatives according to reports such as the arrests of Souleymane Keïta, Yacouba Touré and the Burkinabe Boubacar Sawadogo, who allegedly was responsable for a previous attempt to install a Burkinabe branch for Ansar Dine, and also possibly behind the attack that targeted Burkinabe gendarmes on October 9, 2015 in Samorogouan.
A new Ansar Dine branch in gestation, Ansaroul Islam?
The reports in the Burkinabe media do not seem totally unfounded, recent activity in Soum points to the presence of units operating with a hyper-localized agenda, additional activity has been signaled in the forests between Mondoro and Djibo, and also on the Malian side of the border. The attack in Nassoumbou has not been claimed by any of the more well-known groups and katibas roaming the region, still a detailed claim of responsibility does exist if we follow the trails in Burkinabe media reports, the facebook page ‘Ansaroul Islam’ have issued claims for both the attack in Nassoumbou and the targeted assassination and assassination attempt that took place just days ago in Djibo and Sibé, the authenticity of the claims are questionable although the claims are “signed Malam Ibrahim Dicko”, received directly from Dicko or retreived from another source. One message on the page makes direct reference to Amadou Koufa stating that Dicko and Koufa are together at the front. If we assume that the claims mentioned are authentic and that the connections between Dicko and Koufa are true, then it is valid to say that Ansaroul Islam could be viewed as a Burkinabe branch of Katiba Macina, and by extension Ansar Dine.
The historical references, Macina and Djelgodji
Like Amadou Koufa’s Katiba Macina claims the revival of the Fulani Macina Empire (l’Empire Peul du Macina) established by Cheikou Amadou in the early 19th century, we also find the reference ‘Djelgoodji’ below in the purported claim of responsiblity for the Nassoumbou attack. Djelgodji constitutes the historical region and kingdom of the Peuls with the Soum province marking the borders except for the eastern part that covers the historical part of the Kurumba of Arbinda. In addition to the often natural ties between communities in border zones there is a strong historical link between Mopti and Soum, dating back to the migrations of Peuls into Songhaï territory in the 17th and 18th century with a group of Dicko lineage (nobles), the Djelgobè, migrating from Hombori (Douentza) in the Mopti Region at the end of the 17th and in the beginning of the 18th century, due to famines or dynastic quarrels in the Macina, but also as part of Peul movements in general during the period, migrations that consequently led to the creation of what today constitute the Fulani heartland in Burkina Faso. Hence, we have the links between Koufa and Dicko, references to historical regions of Peuls on both sides of the borders added to the alleged establishment of this new faction. Two “brothers” united by blood, sharing a common goal by restoring their respective historical Fulani kingdoms. References and discours likely used as a tool to attract and recruit Fulani youth.