Death of Kirk Woodman highlights growing instability in Sahel region of West Africa

The death of Canadian Kirk Woodman in Burkina Faso has highlighted the growing instability in the Sahel region of West Africa, where Islamist militancy is rapidly on the rise.

Jihadism has strong roots in neighbouring Mali, where Canadian troops are stationed

Security forces deploy to secure the area after an overnight attack on a restaurant in the Burkina Faso capital Ouagadougou on Aug. 14, 2017. The death of Canadian Kirk Woodman, whose body was found Wednesday has highlighted the growing instability in the Sahel region of West Africa. (Hamany Daniex/Reuters)

The death of Canadian Kirk Woodman, who was abducted in Burkina Faso this week and whose body was found late Wednesday with gunshot wounds, has highlighted the growing instability in the Sahel region of West Africa, where Islamist militancy is rapidly on the rise. 

Sandwiched between Niger to the east and Mali to the northwest on the southern tip of the Sahara, landlocked Burkina Faso, which has a history of military coups and droughts, remains impoverished even by standards of the region.

In recent months, the security situation in the country has deteriorated rapidly, forcing the government to declare a state of emergency in several northern provinces.

Northern Burkina Faso is known to be home to a number of Islamist militant groups who are seeking to spread their influence further south into areas where the population is poor, employment is low and policing is minimal.

Since mid-November last year, attacks have been reported almost weekly.

The violence hasn't sprung out of nowhere, according to analysts. There are strong roots of jihadism in neighbouring Mali, where Canadian troops are stationed on a UN peacekeeping mission due to end in July. 

The jihadist violence in Burkina Faso emerged in 2015.  A year later, gunmen stormed a restaurant and laid siege to a hotel in the capital Ouagadougou. Among the victims in that attack were six Quebecers, including four from one family. 

At the time, President Roch Marc Christian Kaboré said his people must unite in the fight against terrorism. 

Kirk Woodman, originally from Halifax, had been working in the mining industry in West Africa for a Vancouver-owned company. (LinkedIn)

But in 2017, armed men opened fire on a crowded restaurant. Two Canadians were among the victims. 

After the latest attack, the government in Ouagadougou said the killing of Woodman was "cowardly" and promised to take "all measures" to find and punish those responsible.

A second Canadian — Edith Blais, 34, from Quebec — and her Italian travelling companion have been missing since Dec. 15.

Héni Nsaibia, the director of the risk consultancy Menastream, told CBC News there could be several factors explaining the upsurge in recent violence.

'A wider project to expand the insurgency'

"Burkina Faso is, first of all, targeted as part of a wider project to expand the insurgency in Western Sahel including Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso," he said.

"An insurgency spread more geographically is more difficult to contain," he explained, adding it could also be a strategy to outflank French counterterrorism forces in the region, and the not-yet-fully operational regional G5 Sahel Force, comprising troops from Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger.

Some of the jihadist groups operating in Burkina Faso have allied themselves to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), others to the so-called Islamic State group. 

These groups are interconnected, despite different proclaimed loyalties.— Risk consultant Héni Nsaibia

Nsaibia said most attacks were driven by the militant groups Ansarul Islam, Jama'ah Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (JNIM), which is also known as Group for the Support of Islam and Muslims, and Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS).

Ansarul Islam and JNIM are Al-Qaeda affiliates. As its name suggests, ISGS is allied to ISIS.

"These groups are interconnected, despite different proclaimed loyalties, and share objectives and adversaries," says Nsaibia.

In December last year, JNIM claimed an attack near the Malian border which killed 10 gendarmes.

Like other Islamist militant groups, such as the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) faction of Boko Haram in northeast Nigeria, those operating in Burkina Faso have sought to get local populations onside.

These locals often feel disillusioned and abandoned by their own government, making them more susceptible to influence. The militants fund their operations through kidnapping, smuggling and cattle trading.

Although the jihadists have mainly targeted the security forces, government officials and local chiefs who oppose them, the risk to foreigners in Burkina Faso remains high, as the insecurity spreads and new areas are targeted.

Militants are implementing Sharia 

According to the U.S.-based non-profit the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ACLED), the increase in militant activity has over time shifted from northern to eastern Burkina Faso.

ACLED has reported that militants have started to implement strict Sharia or Islamic law in some areas, including banning smoking and music, burning down bars and ordering people to stop brewing and drinking traditional beer.

The impact of the upsurge in extremist violence has left many people now in need of direct humanitarian assistance, according to those on the ground.  

The United Nations resident co-ordinator in Burkina Faso, Metsi Makhetha, told CBC News that families were fleeing in fear. 

The violence "has led to a significant displacement of families with more than a 400 per cent increase of IDPs (internally displaced persons) in 2018 — a first for the country," she said.


Anna Cunningham is a senior freelance multimedia journalist. She has reported for the CBC since 2009, based in Mumbai, Paris and Lagos, Nigeria. She is now London-based. Anna was previously staff at the BBC for 10 years. @journo_anna