The Splendid Hotel Attack

On Friday 15 January, four attackers stormed the Splendid Hotel in Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso. Following an overnight battle with Burkinabe troops and French special forces, the attackers were killed, two of which were reportedly women. The assault on the Splendid Hotel, frequented by foreigners, is first of its kind for the landlocked former French colony of 17 million and may mark a significant change in the security situation in West Africa.

In two statements online al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and al-Mourabitoun, a spin off of AQIM that has since rejoined its parent organization, claimed responsibility for the attack that killed over 20 and injured 150. The former even released an audio file purportedly of a phone call between its media arm, Al-Andalus, and a Hassanniya-speaking attacker during the assault on the Splendid Hotel. In the claim of responsibility, AQIM characterized their terrorist operation as “revenge against France and the disbelieving West”, stating that while the operation was jointly carried out by the groups, it was members of al-Mourabitoun who had stormed the hotel.

Al-Andalous Statement of Responsibility

This is not the first time that AQIM and al-Mourabitoun have carried out a joint attack targeting European civilians in West Africa. In November, the groups jointly stormed the Radisson Blu Hotel in Bamako, the capital of Mali, killing at least 22, before the two attackers were put down by security forces. These attacks and other smaller ones come at a time of instability in western and northern Africa that has allowed jihadist groups in the region to take advantage of the chaos.

After an insurgency led by Tuareg rebels and their Arab allies threatened to overthrow the government of Mali, French troops entered the country in January 2013. Operation Serval, the result of an official request by the Malian interim government, was viewed as a success, having thwarted jihadists and co-opted rebel groups in the country. By the end of July, French and Malian forces seized all major cities, making the operation a model for the deployment of an expeditionary armed force. In the followup to Operation Serval, the French launched Operation Barkhane, deploying 3,000 troops across Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritanian and Niger. Unlike Operation Serval, which was meant to secure territory from groups opposed to the Malian government, the ongoing Operation Barkhane is a wide ranging counter-terrorism mission dealing with an asymmetrical foe that takes advantage of the porous borders of the countries mentioned above and local knowledge of the region.

According to Andrew Lebovich, a vising fellow at the European Council of Foreign Relations and expert on terrorism in West Africa, with French forces spread out for Operation Barkhane and the Malian government struggling to assert its control, AQIM and al-Mourabitoun, among others, have been able to return to a higher tempo of operations and attacks against Western and government interests in the country. Regaining control of areas in central Mali has allowed the jihadist groups to plot and carry out major attacks within the country, and now, in Burkina Faso. The attack in Ouagadougou on the Splendid Hotel is meant to target a regional ally of France involved in Operation Barkhane, spread French troops even thinner and force them to focus their efforts outside of Mali, providing AQIM and al-Mourabitoun with the ability to continue its growth in that country. It is also likely meant to have an impact on the ongoing United Nations peace process, an attempt to find a political solution between Mali’s central government, and the Coordination and Platform rebel alliances. AQIM and its allies rightly fear that any progress by the UN and the parties of the conflict toward a peaceful political solution would diminish their ability to have a robust presence in the country. After an insurgency led by Tuareg rebels and their Arab allies threatened to overthrow the government of Mali, French troops entered the country in January 2013. Operation Serval, the result of an official request by the Malian interim government, was viewed as a success, having thwarted jihadists and co-opted rebel groups in the country. By the end of July, French and Malian forces seized all major cities, making the operation a model for the deployment of an expeditionary armed force. In the followup to Operation Serval, the French launched Operation Barkhane, deploying 3,000 troops across Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritanian and Niger. Unlike Operation Serval, which was meant to secure territory from groups opposed to the Malian government, the ongoing Operation Barkhane is a wide ranging counter-terrorism mission dealing with an asymmetrical foe that takes advantage of the porous borders of the countries mentioned above and local knowledge of the region.

This effort to undermine Burkinabe security, spread French forces and undercut the UN peace process is eased by the political and security situation in Burkina Faso. The country’s new president, Roch Marc Christian Kabore, took power last month after the first free election in decades, a year of violent protests and an attempted coup. With the government’s inability to provide security across the country, including along the northern border with Mali, AQIM and al-Mourabitoun will likely attempt another attack against soft civilian targets in Burkina Faso. Having carried out the attack on the Blue Nile Hotel in Bamako and now what seems from initial reports to be a more complex attack on the Splendid Hotel in Ouagadougou, the next joint AQIM/al-Mourabitoun operation may prove to be even deadlier.

For more, see my interview yesterday with CTV News.

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Author: Alexander Corbeil

Alexander Corbeil is a lead analyst with The SecDev Group and a fellow with The SecDev Foundation focusing on the Syrian conflict and its impact on the Middle East and North Africa. Alexander also writes on Lebanese politics and Hezbollah for Carnegie Endowment's Sada. Bylines at Foreign Affairs, The Globe and Mail and others. You can follow him on Twitter @alex_corbeil.

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