In late December 2016, armed assailants launched an attack on a military outpost near the settlement of Nassoumbou in the Soum province of Burkina Faso’s northeastern Sahel region. Twelve members of Burkina Faso’s counterterrorism unit were killed in the attack. Local Burkinabé forces immediately attributed the incursion to Islamist extremists, who in the past 18 months have been cited as being responsible for a spate of attacks along Burkina Faso’s border with insurgent-embattled Mali.
The authorities’ suspicions appeared to be confirmed when a group identifying itself as Ansarul Islam claimed responsibility for the Nassoumbou attack via a communiqué posted on social media a few days later. Following the incident, Ansarul Islam has either claimed or been blamed for dozens of attacks targeting the state, security forces, and civilians in the Sahel region, with the provinces of Soum and Ouadalan, which border Mali, worst affected.
Ansarul Islam was allegedly founded by its self-proclaimed leader, Malam Ibrahim Dicko, a prominent scholar from the northern town of Djibo who rose to prominence for preaching radical Islam and memorialising the ancient kingdom of Djeelgodji – a powerful Fulani empire that the militant leader vowed to resurrect. Following his proselytisation in Burkina Faso’s Soum province, it is rumoured that Dicko travelled to northern Mali, where he met and trained alongside Amadou Koufa, the purported leader of the al-Qaeda–aligned and Fulani-dominant Macina Liberation Front (MLF) militant group. Akin to its Burkinabé counterpart, Koufa’s MLF also seeks the resurrection of an antiquated Fulani empire that once presided over central and southern Mali. A social media post from the same account that claimed the Nassoumbou attack seemed to further reinforce the strategic relationship between Dicko and Koufa – and, by extension, between Ansarul Islam and the MLF – when it released a statement on behalf of both militant leaders.
Dicko’s leadership of Ansarul Islam appears to have been short-lived. According to Burkinabé military sources, Dicko, along with 20 other Ansarul Islam militants, was killed in an April 2017 air raid in the Foulsare forest, which is said to serve as the group’s operational and logistical base. Although security forces could not produce the material evidence of Dicko’s death, this did not prevent the French Defence Ministry from confirming the militant leader’s demise during a communiqué released in late June.
Reinforcing the claims of France and its Sahel-based military partners was a communiqué released by Ansarul Islam itself. Via its purported Facebook page, the group announced that it had appointed a new leader. The statement, which declared the little-known Jafar Dicko to be its new emir, also inferred that Ibrahim Dicko may have been permanently ejected from his erstwhile leadership role.
How Ibrahim Dicko’s death and Ansarul Islam’s associated change of leadership will affect the movement’s trajectory is unclear. In the weeks leading up to Dicko’s supposed death, claims from both pro-al-Qaeda and pro-ISIS social media accounts suggested that Ibrahim Dicko and his movement were on the precipice of pledging allegiance to ISIS. Under the group’s bayat, or oath, Dicko would have pledged fidelity either directly to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi – making Ansarul Islam an independent ISIS proxy in Burkina Faso – or to Abu al-Sahrawi, the former emir of the al-Qaeda–affiliated al-Mourabitoun movement, which in turn pledged allegiance to ISIS in May 2015.
Given a dearth of verifiable information on Ansarul Islam, its composition, and its ideological leanings, it remains difficult to assess the motivations for the group’s rumoured allegiance to ISIS in its al-Qaeda–dominated operational theatre. A possible hypothesis could lie with Dicko’s suspected ties to al-Sahrawi. Claims by Burkinabé intelligence cite Dicko as a former member of the Movement of Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), a breakaway faction of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb for which al-Sahrawi once served as a spokesman. Consequently, any relationship that had been established between the two erstwhile MUJAO members may have been reignited by the creation and leadership of their respective Islamist militant movements.
The potential existence of synergies between Dicko and al-Sahrawi may also be reflected in the geographical dispersion of militant activity in northern Burkina Faso. While Ansarul Islam has undoubtedly emerged as the most active Islamist extremist movement in the region, al-Sahrawi’s Islamic State in Greater Sahara movement has conspicuously conducted at least two attacks in the bordering Ouadalan province. Although neither Dicko nor al-Sahrawi has ever suggested any collaboration between their jihadi outfits, their sharing of an operational zone could infer that some form of relationship existed, albeit clandestinely.
Despite these murmurings, which were also relayed by Mauritania’s al-Akhbar agency, there have been no reports of any pledge by Ansarul Islam to a transnational Islamist network. Instead, Ansarul Islam has continued to operate as an independent entity, centring its operations along Burkina Faso’s border with Mali, where it has persisted to wage acts of violence with increasing frequency. The group’s pre-eminence in this regard could be viewed as one of the motivating factors for the founding and launch of the French-backed G5 Sahel joint force, whose initial mandate will be to counter terrorism in a triborder area incorporating the territories of Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger. That mission could pose an existential threat to Ansarul Islam’s violent longevity.