The COVID-19 pandemic has captured headlines across the world this year. As the health crisis is likely to dominate the news cycle for a large part of 2020, questions have emerged about how global terrorist organisations may benefit.
By Karolina Nachel, Senior Intelligence Analyst, MS Risk
In particular, focus has increased on the African continent, where a number of countries, notably in the Sahel region, are already struggling to cope with a jihadist insurgency. In Burkina Faso, the security situation has significantly deteriorated in recent years as terrorist groups with links to al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (IS) group have launched major attacks, spreading their influence and areas of operation from the northern border regions with Mali to the eastern frontiers with Niger and in the west, increasingly threatening the wider West African region.
This ongoing conflict has placed the Burkinabè government under strain as it tries to cope with increasing attacks and has resulted in a major humanitarian crisis in Burkina Faso, while jihadist groups have sought to gain from rising tensions amongst the local communities as a means of recruitment as they further pursue their goals in the region.
As of 28 May, Burkina Faso has confirmed 845 COVID-19 cases and 53 related deaths and the pandemic is now threatening to further destabilise the country, which has poor health infrastructure, limited resources to combat the virus, and which is also struggling to deal with other crises, notably humanitarian brought on by the militant insurgency. Measures implemented to curb the spread of COVID-19 are likely to further exacerbate the country’s food, economic and security challenges, which in turn are likely to be utilised by militant groups.
Impact of COVID-19 in Burkina Faso
Countries across the Sahel region were quick to react to the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic on the African continent, closing borders, restricting air travel and declaring state of emergencies. In Burkina Faso, the first confirmed case was reported in Ouagadougou on 9 March and in the months that have followed, the country has seen outbreaks reported in 22 of its districts. Days after Burkina Faso confirmed its first case, local authorities began implementing restrictions to curb the spread of the outbreak, including imposing a curfew, closing airports, borders, schools, restaurants, churches and mosques, and putting in place a quarantine on the affected areas.
While as of 4 May, Burkinabè authorities have announced that the ban on travel between cities will be lifted, a nightly curfew remains in place, land and air borders are closed to all but freight. While the use of face masks is mandatory in public places nationwide, very few people wear them, with the police disclosing that it has been difficult to enforce the law as it does not accurately define what a mask or public place are. Once borders reopen, expats arriving from overseas will need to undergo a 14-day quarantine period on arrival in Burkina Faso, a measure that has already been imposed, with designated quarantine zones including major hotels.
The measures implemented by Burkinabè authorities, while aimed at curbing the spread of COVID-19, are also likely to worsen the country’s food, economic and security challenges.
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Burkina Faso was already under a state of emergency, imposed on 31 December 2018 due to the jihadist insurgency, which has increasingly been threatening security across the country since 2015. With militants launching attacks on local communities, educational institutions, local government officials and security forces, the Burkinabè government has struggled to contain the violence. Continued attacks have resulted in thousands fleeing their homes. On 2 April, the United Nations estimated that around 800 000 people have been internally displaced due to the ongoing violence, warning that approximately 1 million people will be displaced by May. It also forecasted that the number of people affected by food insecurity will more than triple by June, from 680 000 to more than 2.1 million.
The COVID-19 pandemic is likely to further impact food insecurity and malnutrition. During the restrictive measures, food markets across the country were shut, leaving many communities with limited access to purchase basic commodities. Food prices have also increased due to border closures and due to food workers struggling to continue to carry out their daily activities, which in turn has seen their livelihoods threatened. The agricultural season is also likely to be impacted.
International organizations have also warned that the COVID-19 pandemic will worsen access to healthcare in Burkina Faso. With ongoing violence, it has increasingly become difficult for people to reach healthcare services as the current security situation has resulted in a number of health facilities across the country to either close or to operate at a minimal capacity. Furthermore, mobile health units and NGO’s have stopped operating in remote areas due to the heightened security risks.
Militant Activity in Burkina Faso
Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, jihadist groups operating in Burkina Faso have continued to launch attacks with relative ease despite restrictive measures on movement and curfews in place to curb the spread of the virus. Between 9 March – the day of the first confirmed COVID-19 case in the country – and 29 May, at least 41 terror-related incidents and 29 violent crime-related incidents have been reported in Burkina Faso.
Recent attacks include a gendarmerie patrol being targeted in an IED attack in Gomboro on 29 March, an attack on a military patrol in Boucle du Mouhoun region on 3 April, as well as two attacks in Sollé, Loroum province on 10 and 11 April and an ambush on security forces in Djibo on 11 April.
The incidents recorded during this period have continued to see local forces being targeted as well as the local populations.
Jihadists have also continued their efforts to integrate themselves into the local communities as they try to further fuel divisions between the local populations and the Burkinabè government. In One instance, in mid-April, militants hijacked an NGO truck that was carrying food in the area of Fada N’Gourma. The militants later distributed the food to the local populations of several villages in the area. Posing as humanitarians, the militants have attempted to rally around local citizens, demonstrating that they are able to provide basic necessities during uncertain times. Incidents like this one are likely to further fuel resent towards the government, with many amongst the local populations feeling that the Burkinabè government has been unable in recent years to guarantee the safety of its citizens and that now during the pandemic, it is unable to provide basic necessities, including foo
Further causing tensions towards the government are recent allegations of human rights abuses being carried out by local security forces.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) has reported that an incident occurred in Djibo on 9 April, in which 31 unarmed men were detained and then executed shortly after a counter-insurgency operation. Reports also emerged on 14 May that twelve people arrested on suspicion of terror offences were found dead in their cells in Fada N’Gourma. HRW has previously reported on human rights abuses that occurred in various villages in the Sahel region in 2019. While the authorities have promised to carry out investigations into the incident, distrust in the security forces amongst the local populations is likely to be benefitted by militants, who are increasingly willing to step in and provide their own means of security to protect the citizens.
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A growing rivalry has also emerged between al-Qaeda and IS in the region, as both terrorist groups seek to gain ground while competing for resources and recruitment.
In May, reports emerged that clashes had erupted between both groups in Burkina Faso and in neighboring Mali. On 7 May, IS reported that al-Qaeda’s Sahel affiliate, Jamaat Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (JNIM) had launched attacks on IS positions in the two countries. It noted that since April, JNIM had been amassing large forces to target IS militants on a number of occasions, stating that JNIM militants have blocked fuel supplies from reaching IS militants while locals suspected of supporting IS have been detained. IS alleges that these attacks come as regional and French forces increase their anti-terrorism operations in the region. Further fighting between the two groups is likely to have a severe impact on the local populations, resulting in more displacements and overall insecurity.
Impact on Natural Resources Sector
The mining sector has been severely disrupted by the COVID-19 crisis in Burkina Faso. The exploration sector has largely suspended as expatriate geologists and other technical personnel have been unable to travel to Burkina Faso to carry out activities. In addition, regional land border restrictions and different national lockdown measures across West Africa have disrupted the ability to reallocate equipment and personnel from nearby countries. The steadily increasing pace of militant incidents in the rural north and east of the country mean that these areas – already evaluated as security red zones by the international community – are showing no signs of improving soon.
Producing gold mines find themselves in the position of having difficulties in rotating personnel from mine sites. Consumables are largely getting through for resupply and sustaining of operations but personnel in the field cannot operate indefinitely.
The natural resources sector was rocked by the deliberate and fatal ambush on a mining convoy in November 2019 and is still grappling with the security management challenges it is facing.
The COVID-19 crisis is diluting available security resources to manage the elevated terrorist risk faced by industry at present and the ability to respond to any future crisis event. Government forces have the three issues of delivering counter-insurgency operations domestically, meeting military commitments as part of the G5 in nearby Mali and supporting COVID-19 security controls with a strong focus on major cities and border control.
Companies should be using the period of restriction to ensure careful planning and positioning to enable safe operations as COVID-19 restrictions ease and commercial activity gathers speed. This needs to include an informed understanding of what militants and criminals may seek to do in future. The old military adage of “fail to plan; plan to fail” has never had more relevance to this situation.
As COVID-19 cases and related deaths continue to rise across the globe, it is vital that other ongoing crises and insurgencies are not forgotten. In Burkina Faso, the pandemic threatens to further destabilise the West African country, which has already been impacted by the ongoing jihadist insurgency.
Insecurity over the past five years has resulted in thousands fleeing their homes, in turn creating a humanitarian crisis that was already affected the country prior to the arrival of COVID-19. Limited resources and access to health clinics will hamper the fight to curb the outbreak, while measures implemented to contain it will further impact the country’s economy.
As Burkinabè authorities begin to look towards lifting strict measures imposed to curb the spread of COVID-19, previous measures, notably the state of emergency, will remain in place until at least 12 January 2021. Further restrictions may also be implemented over the coming months and will be dependent on the evolution of the virus.
Cooperation between the national government and the international community are therefore seen as vital to both limiting the further spread of COVID-19 as well as countering the threat that jihadist organisations continue to pose. Continued regional and international cooperation coupled with measures to address underlying issues, notably insecurity, will be vital to stabilizing the country.Companies choosing to operate in Burkina Faso have been increasingly having to modify their procedures and ways of working as they come to realise how the emerging insurgency can impact them directly or indirectly.
This same appreciation cycle is now required for COVID-19. Business has a duty of care to employees, contractors, shareholders and the communities that they work in to ensure that they understand their threat environment, maintain proportionate controls for mitigation and validate through regular risk assessments and a compliance programme. All operations need to be underpinned with effective crisis management plans to remain nimble in the uncertain future. The ability to live and work alongside the risks spilling from twin insurgency insecurity and health pandemic crises – and to do so responsibly – will mean commercial success over failure.