DAKAR (Reuters) - In a 2013 speech claiming victory over jihadists in Mali who had seized the north a year earlier, French President Francois Hollande said that if it had not been for his nation’s military intervention, “today we would have terrorists here in Bamako”.
Two years on, a rhetorical flourish meant to evoke a fearful but unthinkable scenario has come true as jihadists seeking new hide-outs and bigger targets have spread south from Saharan bases into formerly stable capital cities.
Since November, al Qaeda fighters have twice stormed hotels in the Malian and Burkina capitals, killing dozens of Westerners in mirror image attacks distinguished chiefly by greater sophistication.
Assailants in Ouagadougou planted explosives to slow rescuers and sent an apparently live audio message from the scene entitled: “Message Signed with Blood and Body Parts”.
The remote deserts and savannahs of French-speaking West and Central Africa, once a playground for hikers, motorists and lion hunters, have been effectively out of bounds for Westerners for years due to kidnapping risks.
But plush hotels in big cities were thought to be safe havens.
Often they lodge the very people who are trying to fix the problems of the Sahel - a fragile, poverty-racked region on the fringes of the Sahara where governments are struggling to provide opportunities for a booming youth population.
Burkina’s Splendid Hotel is popular with French troops while Mali’s Radisson Blu was hosting a team trying to implement a flagging U.N.-brokered peace deal in Mali when it was attacked.
But despite billions of Western dollars spent on aid, peacekeeping and counter-terrorism, the red no-go zones on French consular maps have bled southwards from a stronghold in north Mali and into Burkina Faso.
Analysts warn that weak border control and a failure to address some of the root causes that allow such groups to recruit and thrive mean that more strikes should be expected.
“There’s no reason to think Burkina Faso should be the last country hit,” said Cynthia Ohayon, West Africa analyst at International Crisis Group by phone from Ouagadougu.
“If you strike the capital, you are seen to be striking harder and the threat is there for other cities like Dakar and Abidjan,” she said, referring to Senegal and Ivory Coast.
RISK OF REGIONAL ENGULFMENT
France says its 3,500-strong Barkhane Force which superseded the 2013 Serval operation in Mali and has a broader regional mandate has made progress, conducting 150 operations last year.
But Ohayon says France may actually have contributed to the spread of jihadists by driving them out of their former heartland in Mali’s desert north and into Burkina, which is seeking to recover from instability following the ousting of long-ruling leader Blaise Compaore in 2014.
In a sign of their expanding reach, France has warned of kidnap threats in a popular national park straddling Burkina Faso, Benin and Niger which is more than 600 kilometres east of the Malian border.
Two Australians were also kidnapped in northern Burkina Faso on Saturday just a week after a Swiss citizen was seized in Mali’s northern city of Timbuktu.
Security sources say the rise in Western abductions after a period of relative calm may represent a bid by al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) to replenish coffers with ransom money. The also say jihadists are profiting from a growing regional ivory trade.
Mali has called for a rapid intervention force to fight militants and Foreign Minister Abdoulaye Diop warned this week that the region could be “engulfed due to connections or even a link-up between terrorist groups in the Sahel,” referring to Islamic State in Libya to the north and Boko Haram to the east.
Tie-ups are already happening on a limited scale. AQIM has said in recent videos as part of an expanded media campaign that it has joined forces with al Mourabitoun, led by Algerian jihadist Mokhtar Belmokhtar.
Thomas Miles, an independent scholar and Sahel expert, says there is little sign that recruitment in remote areas has ended since the French operation of 2013, although it may have slowed.
“The real arm that AQIM has stockpiled over recent years is not the bullets and the weapons but these baby-faced young men who are virtually raised in these cells and are willing to die,” said Miles, who is writing a book on the region.
Witnesses described one of the Ouagadougou attackers as a young, black African and both Bamako gunmen were also young. They have not been formally identified.
The Malian army complains that a failure to implement a peace deal between the government and secular armed groups signed six months ago has made it harder to fight jihadists since they cannot distinguish between fighters.
The lack of progress has also facilitated the formation of new local jihadist groups such as Mali’s Massina Liberation Front in a country where many are desperate and 60 percent of under 35s are unemployed.
Other groups could be forming elsewhere in the Sahel.
“They won’t be huge militias but so long as they can promise a way out of poverty and weapons they will find recruits among people who don’t feel they have much to live for,” said Miles.
Additional reporting by Marine Pennetier in Paris; Writing by Emma Farge; Editing by Dominic Evans
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