Burkina Faso: 6 killed in church attack

ISIS leader Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi says he has accepted an oath of allegiance from Burkinabe militants

FILE PHOTO: Security forces deploy to secure the area after an overnight attack on a restaurant in the Burkina Faso capital Ouagadougou, August 14, 2017. REUTERS/Hamany Daniex/File Photo

At least six people died when terrorists attacked a Protestant church in northern Burkina Faso on Sunday, just hours before a video was published showing ISIS leader Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi accepting an oath of allegiance from an offshoot in the country.

At around midday, as worshippers filed out of church, gunmen on motorbikes killed a pastor, two of his sons and three churchgoers in the small town of Silgadji, some 100 kilometres south of the Malian border.

It came just three months after Burkinabe Prime Minister Paul Kaba Thieba and his cabinet resigned en masse amid growing insecurity in the landlocked West African nation, where different faiths have traditionally lived peacefully side-by-side.

The attackers’ affiliations are currently unknown, although the local Ansarul Islam and fighters affiliated with Al Qaeda and ISIS are known to operate in northern Soum province, where the shootings took place.

"Ansarul Islam is by far the most active group in the north of the country, but it has tended to carry out kidnappings and assassinations," Thomas Murphy, an intelligence analyst at The Risk Advisory Group, told The National.

ISIS has a history of attacking churches. In 2016, two terrorists slit the throat of an 85-year-old Catholic priest outside his church in Normandy, France, while two Coptic churches were bombed in Egypt in 2017.

The Sri Lanka church attacks, which claimed 253 lives last month, were claimed by Al Baghdadi on Monday in a video – his first in five years. Therein, he accepted oaths of allegiance from leaders of ISIS affiliates in Mali, Afghanistan and Burkina Faso.

“Burkina Faso has featured much more prominently in Islamic State propaganda in recent months,” said Mr Murphy. “It is credible that the recent attack was carried out by ISIS-linked militants.”

The shooting is the latest sign of rising violence across the vast, arid Sahel region, which stretches from Senegal in the west to Eritrea in the east. An estimated one million people have been driven from their homes in the past year.

Initially, Burkina Faso was insulated from the worst violence, as former president Blaise Compaore cut deals with armed groups, according to the International Crisis Group. These relationships reportedly collapsed months before Mr Compaore was toppled in a 2014 popular uprising.

Today, the Burkinabe army is weak and demoralised. Two days before the church attack, gunmen killed five teachers in a village school in the east of the country.

On Wednesday, leaders of the so-called G5 Sahel countries – Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Chad and Mauritania – will meet German Chancellor Angela Merkel in the Burkinabe capital, Ouagadougou, to discuss the fight against extremism.