Jihadists target Burkina Faso, West Africa's 'soft underbelly'

Ouagadougou (AFP) - Jihadist strikes on Burkina Faso have shed light on West Africa's Achilles' heel, experts say.

They point to a country whose security apparatus has been battered by the ouster of a dictator with military roots, and where poverty and unemployment provide jihadists with fertile ground for recruitment.

Audacious twin attacks on Friday in the capital Ouagadougou targeting the military headquarters and the embassy of former colonial ruler France, sent shockwaves through the region.

The strike on the military HQ appears to have been aimed at a scheduled meeting of the so-called G5 Sahel -- a French-backed group of five countries fighting jihadism in the volatile Saharan region.

Burkina Faso is the "soft underbelly" of the region, Paul Koalaga, a professor of geopolitics and security expert said.

"Burkina Faso has been fighting terrorists since 2015 -- a commitment that has been strengthened by the G5 Sahel -- and a riposte was just waiting to happen," he said.

The country has been the target of jihadist attacks since 2015.

On August 13 last year, two assailants opened fire on a restaurant on the capital's main avenue, killing 19 people and wounding 21. No one has so far claimed responsibility.

On January 15, 2016, 30 people -- including six Canadians and five Europeans -- were killed in a jihadist attack on a hotel and restaurant in the city centre.

A February 21 attack near the border with Niger left two French soldiers dead and a third injured in an area which is believed to shelter jihadists.

Koalaga said Burkinabe authorities had failed to address the threat, and now are trying "to deflect attention by accusing officials from the old regime" -- a reference to Blaise Compaore, ousted in 2014 in a popular uprising after 27 years of iron-fisted rule.

- Soldiers involved? -

"There are jihadist sleeper cells in African capitals and the radicalisation of youths is spreading, especially in the poor suburbs of Ouagadougou which have very high unemployment rates," he said.

Sources in Ougagadougou said that the attackers were almost all from Burkina Faso.

Eight assailants and eight soldiers were killed and 85 people were injured, according to an updated government toll issued on Tuesday.

Sixty-one of the injured were soldiers and 24 were civilians -- the first time that civilian casualties have been mentioned..

"Burkina Faso's intelligence system fell apart after the fall of Blaise Compaore", Koalaga said.

"In Burkina Faso, the intelligence system did not rest on an institution but on the shoulders of one man, General Gilbert Diendere," said Rinaldo Depagne, a West Africa expert from the International Crisis Group.

Diendere, Compaore's right-hand man, is currently being held and tried for a failed coup in 2015 aimed at bringing his boss back to power.

Depagne said he did not rule out the possibility of some soldiers being involved in the latest attack, an accusation levelled by some Burkinabe authorities.

"We know that some of the 566 soldiers sacked after the (anti-Compaore) riots of 2011 have joined jihadist groups," he said, adding that the dissolution of an ultra-loyalist presidential praetorian guard had fuelled "lots of frustration among soldiers."

The latest attack shows that the militants are changing tack and now targeting troops instead of civilians, said Nicolas Desgrais from the University of Kent in southeastern England, who is an expert on security issues in West Africa.

Depagne said extremist violence in the region had flared since France and Mali launched a crackdown on the jihadist Group to Support Islam and Muslims (GSIM) in Mali's vast lawless desert north.

Koalaga said the GSIM, which claimed Friday's attacks in ouagadougou, staged a revenge strike in Burkina Faso because it was vulnerable.

GSIM said it was a response to the deaths of some of its leaders in a French army raid in northern Mali in February in which 20 jihadists were either killed or captured, according to French military sources.

Depagne, for his part, suggested Ouagadougou would have to negotiate with jihadist groups or risk an "interminable war, as in Somalia which has lasted for 27 years."