Hotel Attacks

15 January 2016, Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso

On 15 January, six terrorists from al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) raided and occupied the 147-room, four star Splendid Hotel in Ouagadougou, killing 29 and wounding 56, reports the BBC and CNN. The hotel and nearby restaurants are popular with foreigners. The attack began at 7:30 pm and lasted 15 hours, says the Daily Mail. The victims were made up of more than 15 nationalities, at least 14 of which were foreigners.

French Prime Minister Manuel Valls said on 19 January that three attackers were killed, and three remained at large, the latter of which were being pursued.

It is not clear if the attackers approached the target in two vehicles or on foot, but what is clear is that they first attacked a café-restaurant called Cappuccino across the street from the Splendid Hotel on Avenue Kwame Nkrumah. All six terrorists opened fire on the restaurant’s customers, killing many, eyewitnesses told Reuters. Some customers played dead to escape being shot again as the attackers picked though the wounded and shot survivors, said The Telegraph. Before the gunmen left the Cappuccino, they set it on fire.

The gunmen then crossed the street and set on fire multiple cars and motorcycles in front of the Splendid Hotel. They then stormed the building, shooting hotel patrons as they went.

A waiter hid in a bathroom and heard terrorists come and go from the kitchen area, and there he remained until security forces rescued him the next morning at 6:00 am. American Edward Bunker was in the lobby when he saw a gunman down the street from the hotel, reports CBS. Realizing danger, he retreated to his room and used the hotel’s Wi-Fi to contact associates in Baltimore who told him to lock himself in his bathroom. He stayed there for nine hours before being rescued. Others escaped through the hotel’s side entrances as the attack began.

The attackers trapped more than 100 people in the hotel, turning them into hostages. As with the Cappuccino restaurant, the terrorists set the hotel on fire.

At some point in the chaos, fighting also spread to the Yibi Hotel, a two star property directly across the street from the Splendid Hotel.

Burkina Faso counterterrorism (CT) Commander Evrard Somda arrived on scene with 20 men by 8:30 pm, says Reuters. He set up a perimeter and tried to assess how many terrorists were in the hotel, assumed to be 12 in the early stages of the attack. There were some reports saying that the terrorists fired from the hotel at security forces as they set up their perimeter, which drove them back.

Sixty Burkina Faso police, French Special Forces (approximately nine men, a squad-sized formation,) and apparently one U.S. special operator arrived on scene by about 10:00 pm to help neutralize the attackers and rescue the hostages.

At this juncture, CT forces figured they had to secure each location – the Cappuccino, the Splendid, and the Yibi – but because the bulk of the violence seemed to be ongoing at the Splendid, they decided to secure it first.

Reuters says CT forces went floor-by-floor, room-by-room, all night, rescuing hotel patrons as they went. At least one door had been booby-trapped with a grenade, which injured a Burkina Faso trooper. France24 says that several doors to the upper floors were rigged with explosives. By the morning, it became apparent that the terrorists had escaped the hotel.

CT forces covered firemen responding to the Cappuccino fire, and then they descended upon the Yibi Hotel, finding shell casings, which was evidence that terrorists had attacked the hotel and/or used it as a firing position against security forces and civilians on the street. Some reports say CT forces killed a terrorist hiding there.

Shortly thereafter, says Reuters, CT forces discovered three terrorists at the Bush Taxi restaurant where French SF engaged and killed them.

AQIM issued a statement claiming responsibility for the attack. The Long War Journal reports that it said:

“Your mujahideen brothers in Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb’s Katibat al Murabitoon have broken into a restaurant in the one of the biggest hotels in Burkina Faso and are now holed up in the hotel and clashes are continuing with the enemies of Islam.”

Al-Mourabitoun, previously a rival of AQIM, has now joined this organization as its “special attack brigade,” for lack of a better term. Al-Mourabitoun is particularly aggressive, having carried out the attack on the Radisson Blu hotel in Mali on 20 November 2015, among others.

AQIM released two tweets on the attack, translated by SITE, asserting:

– “Our mujahideen brothers say that it’s revenge against ‪#France & the disbelieving West & to mobile the youth of the Ummah for jihad”

– “In a phone conversation…wt our brothers the immersers in Splendid Hotel… who asserted to us the fall of many dead Crusaders”

The BBC says the terrorists also called the Splendid Hotel “one of the most dangerous dens of global espionage in the west of the African continent.”

The Telegraph reports that AQIM said the attack was carried out to “punish the Cross-worshipers for their crimes against our people in Central Africa, Mali and other lands of the Muslims.”

Contrary to some reporting that said Burkina Faso had never experienced Islamist jihadist terrorism, since fall 2015, there have been several Islamist jihadist attacks in country along the border with Mali. Witnesses said that in one case that the attackers, sporting black Islamist flags, struck in force with as many as 50 fighters. France and the UK issued warnings in 2015 saying Islamist jihadist militants in northern Burkina Faso were out to kidnap foreigners.

Strategically, the attack came as a surprise to many Africa observers, but because of the Islamist jihadist attacks in northern Burkina Faso, it shouldn’t have. Islamist jihadist terrorists in North Africa, be they AQIM or ISIS, have not restricted themselves to a small patch of one country or another. They have continually expanded their operations as evidenced by their actions in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, and Mali.

Why attack Burkina Faso? Some experts think that the rapid spread of ISIS has forced al Qaeda and its affiliates to increase operations, specifically in North Africa, to keep from losing recruits and “brand share” to its more aggressive rivals. Additionally, most of North Africa is embroiled in a low intensity conflict with Islamist jihadists where Western powers are providing host nation support and direct action against them. Otherwise, AQIM provided five reasons for targeting Burkina Faso via social media:

1) to attack the “enemies of Islam,” specifically disbelievers and Christians

2) as revenge against France and “the West” for their CT operations (Westerners were in Ouagadougou at the restaurant and hotel, and France is a major influencer of Burkina Faso)

3) to inspire young Muslims to join Islamist jihad, presumably the AQIM brand

4) to attack what AQIM perceived as a major “spy post,” the Splendid Hotel

5) to punish “Cross-worshipers” for committing crimes (unspecified) against the people of Central Africa, Mali, and Muslims in West Africa general

Regarding AQIM, its attack on Ouagadougou means that this organization has expanded its operations to the whole of Burkina Faso, not just its border areas with Mali. The potential for additional attacks in Burkina Faso are real, and the potential of like attacks in nearby countries is also real. In fact, shortly after the Splendid Hotel attack, France warned Ivory Coast and Senegal that they might face similar violence. Muir Analytics believes that hotels should be considered within the target sets. Additionally, AQIM’s reliance on the capable and coldblooded al-Mourabitoun group as its special strike force throughout the region reinforces these possibilities.

It is not clear yet if there were any pre-attack warnings, but it is customary that Islamist jihadists issue warnings before their attacks. AQIM had issued general threats against France and its allies for the whole of West Africa in fall 2015, but none so far have specifically mentioned Burkina Faso. Analysts are still pursuing this angle.

The tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs) used by the terrorists were incredibly effective. They brought the correct weaponry and the right amount of manpower to overpower and maul these civilian targets. Their dynamic approaches at both the restaurant and the hotel were likewise efficient. They killed with ruthlessness and without hesitation. The amount of devastation here is morbidly apparent. And while some similar Islamist jihadist raids have ended with the suicide of the attackers – like Paris, November 2015 – in this case, the terrorists were nimble enough strike three targets and escape the police perimeter around the hotel. Likewise, half of the attacking force was able to escape the city alive, further demonstrating their effectual TTPs.

The CT capabilities of the police were not up to the task of facing determined Islamist jihadist terrorists, and the Burkina Faso CT commander admitted as much. The police were not able to maintain a perimeter, nor were they able to lock down the several blocks surrounding the target sites, both critical factors in containing and neutralizing a terrorist operation. Neither did they have certain equipment such as door breaching tools, essential to close quarters battle (CQB) operations.

It must be said, however, that Burkina Faso CT forces did indeed send entry teams into the hotel to help French SF clear it. At least one of these troopers was wounded. While a professional evaluation of Burkina Faso’s CQB effectiveness is beyond the scope of this analysis, the Burkina forces that entered the hotel looked as if they exhibited basic CQB efficiency, and they certainly demonstrated bravery.

In all probability, Burkina Faso CT forces will upgrade their capabilities with active shooter and raid response TTPs in the wake of this massacre. CT coordination with neighboring countries and with Western CT forces, (most likely France and probably the U.S.,) is likely to increase as well.

Sources and further reading:

Three Burkina Faso hotel attack suspects still at large, French PM says,” ABC News (Australia), 19 January 2016.

Burkina Faso attack: Leila Alaoui, Amnesty photographer, dies,” BBC, 19 January 2016.

Burkina Faso’s long night of horror in killing spree by militants, Reuters, 18 January 2016.

National Mourning After Burkina Faso ‘Bloodbath’,” Sky News, 17 January 2016.

Burkina Faso attacks: Four Al-Qaeda terrorists – ‘including two women’ – killed after special forces free 126 hostages in hotel siege,” The Telegraph, 16 January 2016.

Terror in Burkina Faso: Al Qaeda jihadists – including two female fighters – are killed after murdering 28 people from 18 different countries as Commandos storm hotel and rescue hostages,” The Daily Mail, 15 January 2016.

Al Qaeda Attacks Hotel in Burkina Faso,” The Long War Journal, 15 January 2016.

Seven killed in Mali, Burkina Faso attacks blamed on jihadists,” i24 News, 9 October 2015.

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