Burkina Faso’s 9/11

Talk about a rough welcome to your new job. At least George W Bush had eight and a half months to get his act, such as it was, together before the 9/11 attacks. Marc Roch Kaboré was sworn in as President of Burkina Faso on December 29th. After a couple of weeks of behind-the-scenes wrangling, his cabinet was announced last week and the members sworn in on Tuesday. Then, almost before the new ministers had a chance to find out where the bathroom was in their office suites, three young men, probably from Mali, walked into two restaurants in downtown Ouagadougou and shot more than a dozen people. They then retreated to a hotel across the street, killing some more folks along the way including the policemen guarding the hotel. Ultimately, by the time French Special Forces troops were called in and managed to clear the hotel and kill the attackers, 29 people were dead and over 50 were in the hospital. On the same day, probably as a diversionary move, a police post in the north of the country was attacked, killing one gendarme and severely wounding another, and a couple of elderly Australian doctors who had been working in the region since the 1970s were kidnapped.

Burkina Faso is a country that prides itself on unity and domestic peace. A popular uprising drove President Blaise Compaoré from power in October 2014 after he announced an attempt to amend the constitution to prolong his hold on power. The popular rebellion was noisy and somewhat destructive – the National Assembly building was burned and looted, as was the home of President Compaoré’s brother François, blamed for much of the more sleazy economic chicanery of the Compaoré years. There was some firing on the crowds by Burkinabè soldiers, but most of the shots were intentional misses. Plenty of soldiers said publicly that they couldn’t bring themselves to fire on their fellow citizens, even when they were under direct orders to do so. Two dozen people died in the uprising. This is in sharp contrast to what happened in neighboring Ivory Coast in similar circumstances in 2010, where thousands died as President Gbagbo tried to cling to power. Instead of digging into the presidential palace and defying the demonstrators, Compaoré agreed to step down and go into exile when he realized he had lost the confidence of his people.

A few months ago, in September 2015, one of Compaoré’s close comrades during his years in power, General Gilbert Diendéré, commander of the Presidential Security Regiment (RSP), launched a coup. It had become clear that the election commission was not going to permit the former ruling party, the CDP, to participate meaningfully in the 2015 elections, and the transitional government was determined to eliminate Diendéré’s power center by dissolving the RSP and turning over the security of top government officials to a special police unit. Diendéré’s men took control of the presidential palace and main military camp and arrested the president and prime minister, but people all over the country reacted with fury. Once again, enormous demonstrations filled the streets of Burkina’s cities. Once again, some soldiers were willing to shoot at demonstrators, and a dozen or so died – one quite near my house. But for the most part, the military refrained from massacring the citizenry and the citizens, for their part, refrained from ripping the country apart – though once again, some strategic locations got sacked to make political points. This time, it was Diendéré’s own home in his native village that was looted by a crowd made up mostly of his relatives. Once again, as the consensus of Burkina’s people became clear, armed men bowed to the popular will, the rest of the army backed the popular uprising, and General Diendéré and his men surrendered.

This unity is now under attack. Indeed, this must have been one of the goals of the attackers. Burkina Faso has managed to preserve a sense of common citizenship and tolerance between ethnic and religious groups much better than many neighboring countries. When I was living in Africa in the 1980s, it was unremarkable that Muslims, Christians, and followers of traditional religions would live side by side in peace. Now, more and more, the religious communities are digging into their own regions and defying each other. In the Central African Republic, a minority Muslim community was besieged in a neighborhood of the capital by Catholic militias until the Pope came and intervened personally to calm the situation. In Nigeria, Muslim fundamentalist rebels in the north routinely assault Christian communities, killing, kidnapping, raping and looting. In Guinea in recent years there have been several episodes of inter-ethnic and inter-religious rioting than have caused much damage and many deaths. Here’s a nice editorial from Burkina24 news and one from LeFaso.net on the question of national unity, for those of you who read French.

Burkina Faso’s unity is thus, now, sadly, exceptional. And so the young men came down from Mali, a place that has had ethnic warfare and Islamic extremism for many years. And they have had some success in turning Burkinabè against one another. There are a few people here who practice a particularly fundamentalist version of Islam. The Saudi government has built a very nice mosque in the center of town where the leadership tells the faithful that they should live more like the followers of the prophet Mohammed are believed to have lived (historians may disagree, but too bad for them; like religious conservatives in the US and elsewhere, the Salafists seek to recreate an imagined past instead of the past that really existed.) Women run around town with black robes and masks on, men wear long shirts down to their knees and big bushy beards. And now, other Burkinabè are harassing those people, pulling off their masks and berating the guys with the big beards. I saw a shouting match last night between two motorcycle riders, one a long-shirt-wearing guy with a heavily-veiled woman riding behind and the other a fashionably-dressed young man. The government’s (brand-new) Internal Security Minister had to go on TV last night to appeal to people to stop doing these sorts of things. Even fundamentalists have rights and you can’t assume that just because somebody is concealing their face that they have some criminal intent. Or so the minister says. I point with some surprise and pride to George W. Bush’s repeated remarks after 9/11 that America was not at war with Muslims generally and that Islam is a religion of peace. His statements were somewhat contradicted by the behavior of federal law enforcement, though, as they rounded up hundreds of American Muslims on little or no evidence – in fact, only one, Zaccarias Moussawi, was ever convicted of terrorist-related offenses. But at least our government said the right things then and the Burkina Faso government is saying the right things now.

People are scared here, just like in America after 9/11. The evening of the attack, I was coming home and stopped at my local maqis to have a pint before bed, and the proprietor told me I’d better get off the streets for everybody’s safety. A reasonable precaution, because the situation was unclear and there was a concern that not all the attackers had been accounted for. However, the following day, traffic was very light and as I reported in my previous post, tense military guards on every conceivable point of interest. That evening, as I was walking home, two people separately warned me that terrorists would get me if I didn’t watch out. I went for dinner at my friend Djibril’s house, as I usually do on Sunday, and he was also concerned that if I rode my bike down there I might be a target. A good general rule of personal security in a foreign country is that if the locals are scared, you should be too. I think, though, that there is pretty high level of paranoia here. I don’t think the danger is any higher today than it was on Thursday; indeed, it is lower since those three guys are dead, anyway.

The government has not reacted very effectively to the crisis, again, much like our experience in 2001. President Kaboré showed up at the site of the attacks as soon as the shooting was over and made some moving remarks about how Burkinabè stand together against terrorism and the attackers were cowards.

Parenthetically, why do we always insist on calling terrorists cowards? Yes, they are evil shits. These evil shits killed a little girl, nine years old, in front of her mother. Then, they killed the mother. But cowards, no. They knew they were going to die. They were there to die. Dying was the objective, along with taking as many people as they could with them.

But to return to my point, President Kaboré said the proper head-of-state sorts of things. He visited the injured in the hospital. He has valiantly upheld the “condoler-in-chief” mantle in the style of Bill Clinton (who was way better at it than Bush). But (also brand new) Prime Minister Paul Thieba has not had anything to say in public. He is responsible for framing the government’s response to this crisis. He was going to address parliament yesterday, but then the speech was delayed, and finally it was postponed sine die. They don’t know what to say. Many of the details of the attack are still unclear to the public, and perhaps to the government as well. But here is what is known or believed as of now:

Just like on 9/11, the police response was courageous but poorly-coordinated. The attack began just after 1930. A few cops, guarding nearby buildings, responded quickly, but didn’t have any ammunition, as it turns out. Good to know, for future reference. The main headquarters for the Gendarmerie, the national military police force that would normally be responsible for dealing with this sort of thing, is less than a kilometer away from the attack. However, hearing the firing, the Gendarmes apparently assumed that this was another coup and locked down their base (the Gendarmerie HQ was a principal strongpoint of the forces opposed to the Diendéré coup in September and they fought off a five-day siege by RSP troops). They didn’t grok what was going on for at least half an hour and so the actual anti-terrorism unit didn’t arrive at the scene until 2015, almost three-quarters of an hour after the first shots. Meanwhile, a pickup truck load or two of city cops showed up. They did what the Columbine, Colorado police did during the mass shooting at that city’s high school: they secured the area and made civilians get out of the way, assisted people who were able to get out of the hotel on their own, and made sure the terrorists stayed inside. They did protect ambulances taking wounded away from the restaurants that had been attacked, though, apparently. Meanwhile, the terrorists were roaming around the hotel shooting intermittently – it is unknown how many people died in the hotel during this time, in part because they also set fires and some of the bodies were burned. We now know in the US that in active shooter situations, the first cops on the scene need to engage the shooters in a gun battle in order to prevent them from killing more innocent people. But here, the Burkinabè decided to wait for the specialists. The government, somebody in the government, called the French and asked for a special elite unit based in Mali to come. This unit participated in the counter-attack against the terrorists who had seized the Radisson Hotel in Bamako in November. It is about an hour’s flight from Bamako to Ouaga, and so it was that as I was walking home from my local bar about 2145, I saw two military transport planes with their lights out landing at the airport. In the meantime, the gendarmes, including some armored vehicles, were on the scene and were able to evacuate people from neighboring buildings and protect firemen putting out the fires the bad guys had started while engaging the terrorists in exchanges of fire. Another couple of hours passed before the French guys were in position. During this time, apparently, an American drone piloted by one of the Air Force guys we aren’t supposed to know about at the military airbase was scouting the hotel, trying to identify where the terrorists were. Then, the French and the Burkinabè gendarmes went in about 0100 and cleared the hotel, room by room, evacuating wounded and hunting down the attackers. LeFaso.net also says that American soldiers entered the hotel; unclear if this is true – white guys, anyway. There are pictures of somebody in what could be an American uniform on the roof of the hotel the following morning. At this point, the story becomes even less clear, since during the fighting in the hotel troops out on the street reported receiving fire from one of the restaurants that had been targeted earlier, across the street from the hotel. A Gendarmerie armored vehicle fired into the restaurant (with a 20mm autocannon – hope nobody we care about was standing downrange). LeFaso is reporting that these were the terrorists from the hotel who had succeeded in fleeing back across the street. If true, this would be a dramatic tactical failure on the part of the defense forces – I’m more inclined to believe that somebody heard ammunition exploding in the fire or some such and thought he was being fired on. The Burkinabè soldiers are not completely inexperienced in combat, and the French are top professionals at this sort of thing. I think it highly unlikely that, once involved in a building clearance operation, they would have let any attackers get around behind them and move to a different building. Firefighters had already been into both restaurants to rescue wounded and it was pretty unlikely that terrorists would have been hiding there and would have refrained from firing on the firefighters when they came in. There was also some firing at another hotel down the street, where at least one person was wounded. A number of people were arrested at the scene although two (described as “light-skinned”) were released almost at once. Some people were taken to the central military prison though no further details have been released. Presumably, if they had captured some actual jihadis, they would have had them on TV at once. Three bodies of young African men were shown on TV the other day and I’d be willing to bet that they were the only attackers.

Discerning readers will note the large number of weasel words and educated guessing in the preceding paragraph. There is (still) no definitive story of what happened and nobody in the government is talking. This fact is contributing to the fear that people are feeling. I try to resist panic but it is difficult in the absence of any official information at all. People keep repeating the same rumors, or, for variety, making up new ones. Again, this is all very reminiscent of the days after 9/11 in the US. First, there were persistent rumors that there were more planes in the air headed for other targets. Then, every plane in the country was grounded. Then, it was something else, maybe they were going to bomb the Golden Gate Bridge. The government tried to help by coming up with the color code alert system (“today’s threat level is Mauve”) but nobody was particularly convinced. It took more than a year after 9/11 before the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks was formed, over the strenuous objections of the government, and another year and a half before they came out with a report, widely praised, but still incomplete and unsatisfactory for many serious observers. Hopefully, we’ll find out faster what happened here, but I’m not counting on absolute clarity any time soon.

I am hoping that whatever the Burkina government decides to do to further secure their country against terrorist attack doesn’t destroy what makes Burkina Faso special. We are a terrible example in this regard. The United States has shredded its constitution, tortured innocent people, held them incommunicado in “black site” prisons, pretended that it had the authority to lock up American citizens on American soil without trial or even charges, vacuumed up communications by its own citizens and other folks around the world, coerced companies into cooperating with its electronic intelligence demands, ignored even the very compliant court set up to grant warrants for wiretapping, and generally misbehaved behind an impenetrable curtain of secrecy since 9/11. All the controls on our intelligence and police activity put in place after the excesses of the 1950s and 1960s were swept away in an instant because a bunch of Saudi (mostly) kids with box-cutters managed to kill several thousand Americans. Now that a couple of Malian kids with Kalashnikovs have managed to kill two dozen people here, Burkinabè, remember: foreign terrorists are not an existential threat to your country or ours. The only people who can destroy Burkina Faso are Burkinabè. There are a lot of things about America that are worth imitating, but our reaction to terrorist attacks is not one of them.

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