A terrorist attack in the African nation of Burkina Faso left 35 civilians, 80 terrorists, and seven members of the security forces dead on Tuesday. The gun battle, which took place in the town of Arbinda in Sahel region near the country’s border with Mali, lasted for several hours before the remaining terrorist forces were driven out. Most of the civilians killed were women.
Though there are several terrorist groups operating in the region, none of them claimed responsibility for the attack. AP reports this is the case when many civilians are killed, but that’s not entirely accurate. Most groups attacking towns do so to spread fear, forcefully recruit new members, steal supplies, and capture women. The more likely reason for the anonymity is the high death toll of the terrorists themselves relative to the security forces members they killed.
“The heroic action of our soldiers has made it possible to neutralize 80 terrorists,” President Roch Marc Christian Kabore said. “This barbaric attack resulted in the death of 35 civilians, most of them women.”
It was not immediately clear where the women were at the time of the attack and why so many died.
For years Burkina Faso was spared the kind of Islamic extremism long seen across the border in Mali, where it took a 2013 French-led military intervention to dislodge jihadists from power in several major towns.
That changed with a pair of deadly attacks in 2016 and 2017 in the capital of Ouagadougou, both of which targeted spots popular with foreigners.
To the north, Mali received an intervention from France that helped neutralize many of the most powerful terrorist groups in the region in 2013. The operation was deemed a success and there was relative quiet for three years. During that time, both France and the United States participated in arming and training security forces, but as terrorism ramps back up in the region, these efforts seem to have been ineffective.
This is the challenge with half-measures. Participation in police actions and direct military intervention has become extremely unpopular after the post-9/11 debacles in the Middle East. But doing nothing seems callous, particularly when the state governments are unable to prevent terrorism from spreading. Economic solutions have been worthless as corruption in the governments prevent full aid from making it to the people. Even when the aid is received, an inability to protect it and the people it was meant for has created more moral dilemmas regarding how to deal with hotspots around the world, particularly in Africa and Asia.
Should we simply ignore them and let the governments handle their own problems even if they’re ill-equipped? The unfortunate answer to this is Yes; it’s the right answer because intervention has been proven universally ineffective, but the answer is unfortunate because it means doing nothing for people who need help.
How about the United Nations? Interventions gain a bit of popularity when the combined forces of multiple nations are engaged. But the scenarios in which U.N. Peacekeepers are employed almost always surround civil wars. The U.N.’s record against terrorists is scant because the governing body has always been reluctant to take an active role other than essentially acting as human shields between warring factions. Tackling terrorism requires proactive combat situations which is not deemed worthy of the organization’s mandate.
There’s a greater risk that spreads beyond the region. Just as the Islamic State grew from offshoots of al Qaeda, so too is it possible (and at some point, likely) that disparate terrorist organizations in Africa start working together to increase their control. In 2013, the State Department identified four viable terrorist organizations in Africa, and three of them were believed to have under 1000 members. Today, there are 34 known terrorist and militant groups operating across the continent. Boko Haram alone is believed to have at least 15,000 members.
While we continue to celebrate the long death of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, variations of the group continue to pop up and grow in Africa where exposure to the western world is much lower. The model used to defeat the Islamic State – arming, training, and assisting through airstrikes – is practically impossible in Africa. Corruption is rampant in governments. Logistically, there’s much more land to cover and not enough of a presence by any western military forces. It’s a much more challenging prospect to try to contain or eliminate them if they begin consolidating and coordinating. They can go from being a bunch of “JV teams,” as President Obama famously mischaracterized the Islamic State, to becoming a true militant terrorist juggernaut.
There is no easy solution. Contrary to the rants by armchair anti-terrorist experts, there never is an easy solution. We’re dealing with an enemy that hasn’t fully presented itself and that has remained conspicuously localized. But that’s not going to continue to be the case indefinitely. Unfortunately, we’re beyond the point when we can stop it in its infancy.
It’s time that Americans start paying more attention to what’s happening in Africa. The Islamic State caught most experts by surprise when they rose to power. The 34 terrorist groups in Africa pose an even greater potential threat.
We are currently forming the American Conservative Movement. If you are interested in learning more, we will be sending out information in a few weeks.
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