Islamic Preacher's Violent Turn Shows Threat to West Africa

  • Burkina Faso follows Mali as target of Islamist militants
  • Five West African nations plan joint force to halt attacks

Before Ibrahim Malam Dicko became Burkina Faso’s first-ever Islamist militant leader, his sermons were so popular that listeners thronged to the radio station that broadcast them to obtain the recordings.

Today, the mosque in northern Djibo province where the slight, unimposing man used to preach is closed, and the mud-brick walls of his village’s school are riddled with bullet holes. Hundreds of people have fled the area as soldiers in military trucks hunt the West African nation’s most wanted man, who’s known simply as Malam, or teacher.

Mosque where Ibrahim Malam Dicko used to preach in Djibo.

Photographer: Simon Gongo/Bloomberg

Dicko’s transformation from popular preacher to an advocate of Islamist violence has dented Burkina Faso’s reputation for religious tolerance and mirrors a wider trend in West Africa. While attacks were rare a decade ago, militant strikes in Ivory Coast, Mali, Chad and Niger have killed hundreds of people in the past few years. In the latest incident, gunmen opened fire at a resort that’s popular with foreigners on the outskirts of the Malian capital, Bamako, on Sunday, killing four guests and a member of the security forces.

Further afield, the insurgency by the Boko Haram Islamist movement in Nigeria has claimed thousands of lives since 2009, while Senegal and Niger have started arresting Muslim preachers seen as shifting toward fundamentalist versions of Islam.

‘Combat for Islam’

“Burkina Faso is a strong model of tolerance but cracks have started to appear,” Cynthia Ohayon, an analyst for the International Crisis Group, said by phone from Dakar, Senegal. “Malam was challenging the authority of religious leaders and traditional chiefs, and he called for equality in a province that has what is essentially a caste system.”

The sudden rise of his group, Ansaroul Islam, or “combat for Islam,” has sparked fears Burkina Faso is following the path of neighboring Mali, a country that’s been on the brink of collapse since militants overran the north in 2012. Burkina Faso and Mali are among five countries in West Africa’s Sahel region planning to set up a joint military force to fight militants. The European Union this month said it will contribute 50 million euros ($56 million) to the force.

Read more on diplomatic fight over funding regional force

“The growing spillover of instability in Mali into its neighbors demonstrates the need for enhanced regional cooperation,” United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said in a report last week.

A Malian Islamist organization claimed responsibility for a January 2016 attack on a luxury hotel in Burkina Faso’s capital, Ouagadougou, that left almost 30 people dead, in a stark warning that the country was no longer shielded from the unrest across the border. When gunmen opened fire on a military post in the town of Nassoumbou a year later, killing 12 soldiers, it became clear that militants were now within its borders.

Dicko, 50, married the daughter of the head of Djibo’s main mosque and used his sermons to criticize local customs that put pressure on people to pay religious leaders and organize lavish ceremonies, Issa Dicko, who’s not related to the preacher, said in an interview in Djibo, about 200 kilometers (125 miles) north of the capital, Ouagadougou. Malam was seen as a considerate man who wanted to help the community, he said.

“We used to have all-day weddings and drawn-out birth ceremonies,” he said. “Malam’s sermons put an end to the nighttime festivities. He managed to instill sobriety in our celebrations.”

Hardening Message

As Dicko’s influence spread, his message hardened -- so much so that other Muslim organizations began to complain. In 2013, after meeting the leader of an Islamist group in Mali, Dicko was arrested and jailed in Bamako. Two years later, he returned to Burkina Faso.

The opening salvo in his militant offensive came in December, when he claimed responsibility for the attack in Nassoumbou, about 30 kilometers (19 miles) from the border with Mali. In January, assassinations of government officials began, while armed men visited 10 schools to tell teachers to switch to teaching in Arabic. In March, gunmen on motorbikes shot dead a teacher. This month five people were killed in one night, including a married couple and their child. All schools in the area have since closed.

“They can surprise us any moment,” said Abdoulaye Tamboura, who lives in Soboule, a village near Djibo that’s been abandoned by most of its residents.

Burkina Faso authorities say they have the situation under control. Security Minister Simon Compaore told reporters in March that the army killed an Ansaroul Islam leader, a cousin of Malam. He declined to give the number of troops deployed to the area.

The threat that Malam posed may have been overlooked by the intelligence services amid political upheaval that followed the ouster of former President Blaise Compaore in 2014, according to Ohayon of the International Crisis Group.

“Because Malam’s movement is very much implanted in the region, they have an edge over the security forces,” she said. “There is a strong sense that the state has never really done much for the north. The government must acknowledge that this is a long-term problem and that strengthening its military presence isn’t enough -- they need to establish trust.”

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