Terrorism in Burkina Faso Must Come to an End

By Ambassador Callista L. Gingrich

On February 25, as Catholics celebrated Mass and Muslims gathered for morning prayers in Burkina Faso, terrorists launched two attacks against a Catholic Church and a Mosque in the West African nation.

In Essakane village, located in the northeast Oudalan province, at least 15 members of the Diocese of Dori’s Catholic community were massacred. In the rural eastern town of Natiaboani, dozens of Muslims were brutally shot and killed.

Though at the time of this writing, no group has claimed responsibility for these virulent attacks, Vatican News reported that the killings “are the latest in a long string of atrocities committed by Islamist terrorist groups linked to the so-called Islamic State and al-Qaeda in the vast Sahel region which also includes Mali and Niger, where terrorism has increased by over 2,000 percent in the last 16 years causing the displacement of millions of people.”

As headlines focus on Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine entering its third year and the ongoing devastation perpetrated by the Israel-Gaza conflict, the international community must not lose sight of “one of the world’s most-neglected crises” that is unfolding in Burkina Faso.

In a recent interview with The Pillar, John Pontifex, head of press and public affairs at the U.K. office of the pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), said, “not long ago Burkina Faso was considered an example of religious co-existence.”

But now, the trajectory of Burkina Faso’s future has taken a tragic turn as terrorism permeates its borders.

In Africa’s Sahel region, Burkina Faso is the primary theater of jihadist terror with an estimated 40 percent to 50 percent of the country controlled by terrorist organizations. According to the Global Terrorism Index, 43 percent of global terrorism deaths occur in Africa’s Sahel region, with 73 percent of deaths in the region occurring in Burkina Faso and Mali.

The current wave of violent extremism in Burkina Faso and throughout the region can be traced back to Libya’s collapse in 2011, which led to terrorism erupting across the Sahel. Particularly in neighboring Mali, Islamists seized the country’s northern territory in 2012 and an ongoing jihadist insurgency ensued. By 2016, armed Islamist violence had spread into Burkina Faso, with groups affiliated with al-Qaeda and the Islamic State surfacing and carrying out major attacks.

Tragically, in Burkina Faso, with Muslims making up just over 60 percent and Christians composing about a quarter of its population, worshippers are being increasingly targeted for their beliefs. Terrorists have carried out numerous atrocities against people of faith, including killing Christians for wearing crucifixes, kidnapping or killing clergy members and imams, and destroying churches and mosques.

As Bishop Birfuoré, who chairs the Joint Bishops’ Conference of Burkina Faso and Niger, said, “The terrorists want to eradicate this society and all who do not profess the same brand of Islam, including Muslims, which means that the terrorism is now aimed at society as a whole.”

Terrorism is most strongly affecting the northern and eastern parts of Burkina Faso. The ongoing violence has displaced more than 2 million people, left nearly 5 million people in need of humanitarian assistance, stunted the growth of young children due to hunger, and led to food insecurity in the north and the east.  Towns have been deserted, thousands of schools and medical centers have been shuttered, and parishes have been abandoned.

Further, the political instability within the country is not serving to mitigate the widespread crisis. In 2022, Burkina Faso endured two military coups. Now, the country’s military junta is proving to be ineffective at eradicating terrorism while violence by pro-government forces pushes Burkina Faso further away from becoming a more democratic, prosperous, and peaceful nation.

Despite the dire circumstances, there is still hope for a future in Burkina Faso that is shaped by religious tolerance rather than extremism.

According to the most recent U.S. Department of State Report on International Religious Freedom, “Members of the Burkinabe Muslim Community Organization, the Catholic Archdiocese of Ouagadougou, and the Federation of Evangelical Churches continues to state that despite an increase in religiously motivated attacks, religious tolerance remains a common value, citing numerous examples of families of mixed faiths and religious leaders attending each other’s holidays and celebrations.”

In the wake of the latest terrorist attacks against places of worship, the international community must call for an end to religious extremism and senseless violence in Burkina Faso.