The State Department added the Burkinabe jihadist group Ansaroul Islam, which is tied to al Qaeda’s network in Mali, to the US government’s list of specially designated global terrorist organizations today. State noted that Ansaroul Islam has “launched numerous attacks in northern Burkina Faso near the border with Mali.” While State’s announcement did not mention it, Ansaroul Islam is closely associated with al Qaeda’s network in Mali.
Ansaroul Islam (AI) was formed in 2016 in the forests of Mondoro, Mali by Boureima Dicko (also known as Ibrahim Dicko), a radical Burkinabe imam. Dicko initially tried to link up with Ansar Dine, an al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) front group in 2013, but was arrested by French forces and was later released in 2015. Ibrahim died early last year, but was replaced by his brother Jafar.
Shortly thereafter, Jafar joined Ansar Dine’s Katibat Macina (also known as the Macina Liberation Front) in southern Mali before starting AI. According to a defector from the group, Macina’s leader, Amadou Kouffa, played a large role in the creation of Ansaroul Islam.
AI conducted its first ever attack in Dec. 2016 in the northern Burkina Faso town of Nassoumbou, which left at least 12 soldiers dead. The assault, the largest to date in Burkina Faso, was aided by members of Katibat Macina and another Ansar Dine unit, Katibat Serma. AI has taken part in many assaults in central Mali alongside the two units, as well. State noted this assault in its designation of AI as a terrorist organization.
AI has received considerable support and training from Katibat Macina as well as Katibat Serma. In March 2017, Ansar Dine and its battalions, AQIM in the Sahara, and Al Murabitoon merged to form the Group for Support of Islam and Muslims (JNIM). It is unclear exactly what AI’s role is within the jihadist conglomerate, but JNIM still assists the Burkinabe group. The aforementioned defector said that AI maintains “ideological, operational and logistical links” with JNIM.
These ties can be seen in JNIM’s own propaganda. In 2017, JNIM claimed six attacks in northern Burkina Faso, all of which were blamed on Ansaroul Islam in local reporting. Starting in Aug. 2017, northern Burkina Faso began seeing the use of improvised explosive devices (IEDs). Most of these were blamed on Ansaroul Islam, however, JNIM claimed credit for one IED blast on Dec. 2, 2017 near Nassoumbou. It is most likely that JNIM has transferred the knowledge and capabilities for IEDs to Ansaroul Islam.
JNIM and its predecessor groups have long operated in Burkina Faso, conducting kidnapping operations and high-profile terrorist attacks in the capital Ouagadougou. Ansaroul Islam represents a new front in which al Qaeda can operate and spread its ideology in Burkina Faso.
Ansaroul Islam and JNIM share most of the blame for the rise in jihadist violence in northern Burkina Faso over the last year. These assaults have steadily risen since Dec. 2016 and show no sign of slowing anytime soon. State responses to these attacks have also further alienated the local population, which helps in jihadist recruitment.