Map of Al Qaeda-linked attacks in Mali and neighboring countries since 2014. Map made by Caleb Weiss for The Long War Journal.
A joint Burkinabe-French special forces unit ended an al Qaeda siege on a hotel that began yesterday in the West African nation of Burkina Faso. Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Al Qaeda’s official branch in North Africa, claimed responsibility for the attack which reportedly killed more than 20 people from more than 18 countries. More than 100 hostages have reportedly now been freed from the standoff.
The jihadists opened the assault by detonating two car bombs near the Splendid Hotel. After the blasts, an assault team estimated at six gunmen, attacked the perimeter, according to the BBC. The jihadists also targeted the nearby Cappuccino cafe.
The hotel was then raided by Burkinabe and French special forces after the blasts, killing the attackers. However, as the attack at the Splendid Hotel was concluding, jihadists also targeted the nearby Yibi Hotel. A Burkinabe official later confirmed that one attacker was killed at the second hotel. Burkina Faso’s Interior Minister also stated that “two black Africans and an Arab” were among the killed attackers, but this has yet to be confirmed. Burkina Faso’s president, Roch Kabore, stated that at least 150 hostages were freed in the joint raid.
AQIM quickly claimed credit for the deadly assault. In statement released online, AQIM’s Africa Muslim account said that “your mujahideen brothers in Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb’s Katibat al Murabitoon have broken into a restaurant in the one of the biggest hotels in Burkina Faso and are now holed up in the hotel and clashes are continuing with the enemies of Islam.”
AQIM also released a photo explaining its justification for the attack. “In a new message from the heroic champions of Islam, with their blood and their bodies, to the slaves of the cross, the occupiers of our homes, the looters of our wealth, and who would undermine our security, launched a group of knights, Al Murabitoon, on a commando raid in Hotel Splendid.” The jihadist group went on to say that, “in the heart of the Burkinabe capital, Ouagadougou, and where employees of the kuffar [apostate] United Nations frequent, [this is] a reminder to the worshipers of the cross of their crimes against our people in Central Africa and Mali and other Muslim countries and revenge for our Prophet.”
While the hotel siege was ongoing, two suspected jihadist attacks also occurred in northern Burkina Faso. Near the town of Tin Akoff, which sits close to the Malian border, two gendarmes were killed by suspected jihadists when 20 gunmen stormed a nearby village yesterday. Additionally, an Austrian couple was kidnapped today by suspected jihadists near the Burkina Faso town of Baraboule, also near the Malian border.
Easy borders and a chaotic political landscape have likely made it easier for Al Qaeda to operate in Burkina Faso. In early April 2015, Al Murabitoon kidnapped a Romanian from a manganese mine in northern Burkina Faso. Al Murabitoon quickly put out a statement to the Mauritanian news agency Al Akhbar, in which the group took credit for the kidnapping. Months later, the jihadist group released a video in which the hostage, identified as Iulian Ghergut, was shown to still be alive. [See Threat Matrix report, Al Murabitoon shows Romanian hostage in new video.]
The attack in Ouagadougou is similar to AQIM and Al Murabitoon’s attack in Mali’s capital of Bamako last November. In that attack, the jihadists stormed the Radisson Blue in Bamako, killing 22 civilians and taking more than 100 people hostage before being killed in a joint raid led by Malian forces. Al Murabitoon said it was responsible in conjunction with the “Sahara Emirate” of AQIM, according to a statement sent to Al Jazeera. Last August, Al Murabitoon attacked a hotel in the central Malian town of Sevare, killing 12.
The attack in Bamako heralded the reintegration of Al Murabitoon into AQIM. On Dec. 4, AQIM’s Al Andalus Media released an audio statement from Abdelmalek Droukdel, the emir of AQIM, announcing the merger of Al Murabitoon into its ranks. The same statement also said that the Bamako attack was the first joint assault carried out by the two.
Al Murabitoon is led by Mokhtar Belmokhtar, a veteran African jihadist who is openly loyal to Ayman al Zawahiri and has denounced the Islamic State. Belmokhtar was originally a commander in AQIM before splitting with the group over personal disagreements with Droukdel and other leaders. Belmokhtar and his followers have been behind several spectacular attacks in West Africa over the past several years, including the January 2013 suicide assault on the In Amenas gas facility in southeastern Algeria, and the May 2013 suicide assaults in Niger which targeted a military barracks and uranium mine.