A former Burkina Faso soldier may have participated in Friday's simultaneous attacks by al Qaeda-linked extremists on the army headquarters and heavily-guarded French Embassy in the capital, Ouagadougou.
The simultaneous attacks resulted in the deaths of nine jihadists and seven soldiers at the army headquarters in Ouagadougou. One of the killed soldiers is believed to have been fired from the army after a 2011 mutiny and may actually have been an assailant, a person close to the investigation told the Associated Press.
Many of the attackers were wearing army uniforms, according to witnesses, and some were from Burkina Faso, including two men arrested in connection with the attack, said the official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not permitted to speak to the press.
The attack on the army headquarter was aimed at a conference room, narrowly missing a meeting of top officers, which would have "beheaded" the military leadership, according to Security Minister Clement Sawadogo.
Reporting from Ouagadougou Monday, FRANCE 24’s Catherine Norris Trent noted that investigators were looking into a possible infiltration of the Burkinabe military since the attackers appeared to know their way around the army headquarters.
"They seem to be acting on precise information. They knew which door they could get into, they took a car bomb inside the compound – there, they targeted a building in which a meeting of anti-terror forces from Burkina Faso were supposed to meet and was just changed at the last minute. At least one of the attackers who was killed was wearing a military uniform. So there are serious questions about lapses in security and also about inside information coming from the military here,” said Norris Trent.
French investigators arrived in Ouagadougou over the weekend to assist their Burkinabe colleagues, according to Norris Trent. “We know the French forensic investigators are on the scene, we saw them ourselves working outside the French Embassy on Sunday, taking measurements of the bullet holes, taking photographs,” she explained.
An al Qaeda-linked group based in Mali claimed responsibility Saturday for the dual attacks.
Militant group Jama Nusrat ul-Islam wa Al-Muslimin (JSIM) issued a message late Saturday saying it was behind the attacks, according to the Mauritanian news agency Alakhbar, which often carries claims of responsibility by jihadi groups for attacks in West Africa.
Key suspected figure arrested
A suspected key figure, who could be "one of the brains" behind the attacks, has been arrested, a government source told the AFP Sunday.
There were "very strong suspicions" that "army infiltrators" had passed information to the assailants for the coordinated attacks, according to the source.
The arrested suspect's nationality was not revealed. A second man was also arrested and questioned, but is of lesser interest to investigators, the source said.
Officials haven't commented yet on the claim of responsibility, but Burkina Faso's minister of communications on Saturday said that the assailants could be members of a "sleeping jihadist cell" that has been in Ouagadougou for some time.
Investigators are considering whether the attack on the well-protected French embassy was merely a diversion. That attack resulted in the death of four jihadists who were unable to enter the diplomatic compound, according to security sources.
Retaliation for French military raid
Friday’s attack was the third large-scale attack by jihadists on the tiny West African nation since January 2016.
JSIM, the group that claimed the latest attacks, is believed to have been formed in March 2017 and is a merger of three extremist groups: the al Qaeda-linked al-Mourabitoun, the Malian Ansar Dine group and AQIM (Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb). The group is led by former Malian diplomat-turned jihadist, Iyad Ag Ghali.
According to a videotaped message released the group, Friday’s dual attacks were in retaliation for the killing of one of its leaders in a recent raid by French troops.
Several extremist groups have also vowed to step up the bloodshed in West Africa in response to the recent deployment of the multinational G5 Sahel force. The 5,000-strong force combines troops from Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger, Chad and Mauritania to battle extremism in the region.
Burkina Faso's northern border region near Mali is the home of Ibrahim Malam Dicko, an extremist preacher who has claimed responsibility for recent deadly attacks on troops and civilians. His association, Ansarul Islam, is considered a terrorist group by Burkina Faso's government.
Security break-in jitters Ouagadougou
As residents held special prayers calling for peace, the capital remained on edge Sunday.
Three people tried to break through the security barricades at the presidential palace around 4am Sunday, said army spokesman Col. Jean Luc Diasso. One of the men was killed while trying to grab weapons from security forces, while the other two fled, he said. The three were believed to be robbers, Diasso said, but the event increased the general mood of insecurity.
Later Sunday, security forces fired warning shots near the army joint staff headquarters when people tried to approach the barricades set up to keep residents away from the site of the attacks.
The army released the names of the eight members of the security forces killed in the simultaneous attacks, including a senior officer. State funerals will be held at a later time, according to the government.
This was the third large-scale attack by extremists on Ouagadougou since January 2016 when 30 people were killed at a popular cafe. In August 2017, 18 more people were killed at a Turkish restaurant. Friday's attack targeted the military's headquarters, showing the extremists are going for hard targets.
(FRANCE 24 with AP and AFP)