How a Coup in Burkina Faso Could Damage the US War on Terror

The West has poured hundreds of millions of dollars of military aid into Africa's Sahel region, but violent extremism is only getting worse. VICE World News went to the front line to find out why.

CENTRE-NORD, Burkina Faso — The soldiers stood at attention in the cool of the morning, wearing mismatched uniforms and rifles slung across their chests. A dingy smog hung in the air—a mix of exhaust from the bullet-pockmarked Land Cruisers idling behind them and orange dust of the earth. These were young men, yet their eyes belied their youth. They looked tired.

For nearly a decade, the Army of Burkina Faso has waged a violent war against extremists linked with al Qaeda and ISIS. The country’s military leaders recently gave VICE World News rare access to embed with their troops on the front lines of their fight. It was one of the first times in years that Western journalists had been allowed to see Burkinabè forces in action, an invitation made even more rare by the fact that, less than two months before, they’d overthrown the government in a coup d'etat.


In January, a group of mutinous soldiers led by Burkinabè commander Lt-Col Paul-Henri Sandaogo Damiba, who was originally trained by United States soldiers, arrested President Roch Marc Christian Kaboré and claimed control of the country on national television. The takeover is only the latest in a string of at least 11 successful and failed coup attempts that have swept across West Africa since 2008. 

Coup leaders in Burkina Faso say they took over the country as a last resort to reclaim the nation’s territory from terrorist groups. They say the efforts of the previous government, and the international coalition dedicated to securing the Sahel, have failed completely, making Burkina Faso the most dangerous it’s ever been. 

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African special forces prepare to enter a training facility during this year’s Flintlock event. The scenario is that a terrorist cell has captured a school and is keeping students hostage. The troops are tasked with freeing them and gathering evidence of what’s taken place there.


A Burkinabè soldier shoots off the lock on a building in an abandoned village near Ouanobian.

Yet the coup could be derailing attempts to combat terrorist groups that have so destabilised the country, because its illegality has cost the country vital international support. 

Military takeovers can effectively roll back decades of work in building democratic institutions. In many cases, the people forcefully taking charge of a country pose their own threats to the civilians they claim to protect. Even though the US ignored systemic human rights abuses committed by Burkina Faso’s previous rulers while still receiving aid – last year the Burkinabè military killed more civilians than violent extremists – the coup in Burkina Faso has already alienated some of the world’s most powerful military nations. 


A team leader in the Burkinabè army radios to his commander during an operation in a village near Ouanobian. Photo: Michael Anthony Adams.

Since January’s military takeover, the US, where it is illegal to support a government that came to power by force, has pulled huge amounts of aid to the country. The Millennium Challenge Corporation, a US foreign aid agency, froze $450 million dollars of aid to the country plus another $160 million in military aid was frozen from. The African Union and the Economic Community of West African States  suspended Burkina Faso from their councils, stopping short of issuing sanctions and the country has been disinvited from US military training exercises like “Flintlock” — the largest US-led counter terrorism training in Africa.


Special Forces dress as extremist fighters during simulated military operations in this year’s Flintlock training exercises in the Ivory Coast. Photo: Roberto Daza.

VICE News attended this year’s Flintlock training in the Ivory Coast, where special forces from the US, Europe and UK came to train commandos from countries around West and Central Africa. Burkina Faso’s troops, and even the man who led January’s coup d’etat have attended the training multiple times, but their invite was revoked. 


Ghanian special forces check the body of a fake militant who they killed during a simulated raid on a weapons cache. Photo: Roberto Daza.


African special forces prepare to enter a training facility during this year’s Flintlock event. The scenario is that a terrorist cell has captured a school and is keeping students hostage. The troops are tasked with freeing them and gathering evidence of what’s taken place there. Photo: Joe Hill.

“The decisions that the junta made are really unfortunate because they don't add to the security environment,” US Navy Rear Admiral Milton Sands, who commands all of special operations forces in Africa, told VICE World News. “They create opportunities for violent extremist organisations.”

When the US cuts off military support, it creates opportunities for others to move in. The vacuum left in Burkina Faso could open the door for Russia’s influence to grow. Desperate nations often hire mercenaries, and there is a fear that outfits such as the Wagner Group, a paramilitary group directly linked with the Kremlin, and which has been accused of committing war crimes around the world, could step in. 


Since the start of America’s so-called “War on Terror” in 2001, the Sahel desert has been considered a high level threat due to its lawlessness. This vast, arid region, which stretches across Sub-Saharan Africa, has become a breeding ground for well-financed bands of violent extremist groups and their efforts to recruit, train, and arm new members. 

But despite nearly 2 decades of foreign intervention, the terrorist threat in the region has grown exponentially. Civilian deaths are at record levels, and millions of people are displaced. Even General Stephen J. Townsend, the leader of the United States Africa Command , admitted that US efforts to secure the Sahel are failing. Townsend says that, to avoid the humiliation like in Afghanistan, there must be local partners willing to lead the fight against extremists.


Burkinabè soldiers rest in the late afternoon heat while maintenance workers repair an electrical site destroyed by militants. Photo: Michael Anthony Adams.

Burkina Faso’s new junta sees itself as the most capable force to succeed in that mission. Its main objectives in power are to reclaim territory from violent extremists and help displaced civilians return to their homes, a message well received by the Burkinabè public. More than 1,000 people took to the streets in the nation’s capital to celebrate the coup. Many citizens said they would choose strong military leadership to take on these Islamist terrorist groups over democratically elected officials, who they view as weak.


A Burkinabè soldier stands guard while electrical workers repair an electrical pole that provides power to the northern cities Dori and Gorom-Gorom. Photo: Joe Hill.

Regardless of the terrorists, it appears violence in Burkina Faso is set to continue. Fatimata Sibide’s brother and father were both arrested by the Burkinabè military after the coup. She told VICE World News: “If you arrest all the fathers of families, kill some and imprison others, who will take care of their children? Because when they grow up and find that their parents were killed unjustly. They will be worse than the terrorists.”