Jihadist insurgency, Civilians' Targeting, and Conflict Dynamics in the Sahel: A Case Study of Burkina Faso


This study addresses a theoretical and empirical puzzle that both counterterrorism practitioners and scholars experience, namely the uncertainty surrounding terrorist attacks against civilians and the logic guiding such attacks. This dissertation offers a case study of Al Qaeda or the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) affiliates operating in Burkina Faso in West Africa's Sahel region. This study addresses the following two research questions: first, why do these so-called jihadist groups target noncombatant civilians?, and second, how have their attacks against civilians impacted the various stakeholders’ responses and the dynamics of the conflicts that fuel the violence? To investigate these questions, the study employs mixed research methods by collecting, carefully triangulating, and analyzing qualitative and quantitative data gathered from various sources: four datasets, jihadists’ statements, semi-structured interviews with 27 key informants, and an online survey with more than 100 respondents from Burkina Faso. Then, it resorts to different analytical techniques to identify trends and patterns in the terrorist attacks against civilians, the targets' characteristics, and the perpetrators' modus operandi and motivations. About the targets of terrorists’ attacks, the data analysis reveals significant variations in the numbers of terrorist incidents and the fatalities when one compares these incidents by target type, by year, and by geographic region. The findings of this case study suggest that there is a strong association between the terrorist targeting of civilians and some factors such as the geographic location, the targets’ profile, the perpetrators’ ideology, or strategic objectives. In most incidents, civilians have been selected and attacked by jihadist militants based on: 1) their being perceived as a threat, 2) their attractiveness, and 3) their accessibility. Violence against civilians by jihadist groups and government counterterrorism forces has also been used as an instrument of social control aiming at setting standards of acceptable conduct and punishing behavioral deviation. Moreover, this case study demonstrates that the perpetrators were motivated by: (i) strategic objectives, including financial profit; (ii) psychological and personal reasons; (iii) ideological-religious reasons based on a military interpretation of the Islamic concept of Jihad, and lastly, (iv) unknown or mixed motives. Furthermore, the study assesses the humanitarian, economic, social, political, and geopolitical impacts of the terrorist crisis and shows how terrorism may damage interpersonal, intergroup, and inter-state relationships without helping its perpetrators achieve their policy goals. The study closes with a critical review of policy options, although further research is needed for establishing an early warning system for civilians’ protection in the Sahel.



Counterterrorism, Jihadism, Sahel, Terrorism, Terrorist targeting of civilians, Violence against civilians