Burkina Faso church attack reflects rising threat in the Sahel

Militants struck 158 times in the West African nation last year, up from 12 in 2016

(FILES) This file photo taken on November 2, 2017 shows Malian soldiers, part of a joint military force, the G5 Sahel, sitting in a vehicle as they patrol on November 2, 2017 in central Mali, in the border zone with Burkina Faso and Niger. 
Oil-rich Gulf countries pledged 130 million euros on December 13, 2017 towards fighting jihadists in West Africa's Sahel region, as French President hosted leaders in a bid to boost a fledgling five-nation military force. / AFP PHOTO / Daphné BENOIT
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A squad of militants killed six people at a Catholic church in Dablo in northern Burkina Faso on Sunday, in the latest sign of rising violence across the vast, arid Sahel region.

At the height of Mass at around 9am, between 20 and 30 gunmen reportedly burst into the church in the northern province of Sanmatenga and opened fire. While most worshippers fled, the militants cornered a group of them, killing five churchgoers and the priest.

They then torched the church and local shops and looted a medical centre. Security forces, dispatched from a base in Barsalogho – 45 kilometres south – were slow to arrive, provoking anger in the town.

The Burkinabe government labelled it a “barbaric and cowardly attack” and accused the extremists of “attacking religion in an evil plot to divide us”.

In January, then prime minister Paul Kaba Thieba and his cabinet stood down amid a rise in kidnappings and extremist attacks.

But the record of his successor, Christophe Joseph Marie Dabire, is not much better. The Dablo attack follows a similar attack last month on a protestant church in the northern town of Silgadji, which killed six, including a priest.

"We have recorded more than 20 attacks in the past month alone [in Burkina Faso]," Thomas Murphy, an intelligence analyst at The Risk Advisory Group, told The National.

Burkina Faso is one of five countries in the Sahel region – which stretches from Senegal in the west to Djibouti in the east – battling Islamist insurgency.

“Security in the Sahel has deteriorated significantly in the past 18 months or so,” said Mr Murphy. “This has put considerable strain on security forces across the region, and so terrorist groups will almost certainly continue to mount frequent attacks.”

Burkina Faso was largely insulated from the rising tide of violence by former president Blaise Compaore, who offered logistical support to armed groups, according to the International Crisis Group. Mr Compaore was toppled in a 2014 popular uprising.

Attacks in the West African nation have risen from 12 in 2016 to an estimated 158 last year. Earlier this month, on a visit to the country, German Chancellor Angela Merkel pledged $51 million (Dh187m) to help Burkina Faso fight Islamist extremism.

While the local Ansarul Islam has traditionally been most active, the region now hosts fighters tied to Al Qaeda and ISIS. Despite a rise in violence in recent years, attacks on churches have been rare in Burkina Faso, where different faiths have long coexisted peacefully.

Security experts have identified a rise in ISIS propaganda in Burkina Faso, while in a rare video released last month the group’s leader, Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi, accepted an oath of allegiance from a Burkinabe affiliate.

Today, the country is part of the so-called G5 Sahel, a regional anti-terrorism force that includes Niger, Chad, Mauritania and Mali. The peacekeeping operation in Mali has become the UN’s deadliest in recent years, while France has 4,500 troops in the region to assist local forces.

The attack in Dablo came just two days after French special forces carried out a rescue mission in northern Burkina Faso, freeing four hostages and losing two soldiers in the process. With the hostage takers reportedly en route from Benin to Mali, the operation demonstrated the cross-border nature of militancy in the Sahel.

An estimated 4.3 million people have been uprooted by the violence in the past half-decade, with a million displaced since last year.