OUAGADOUGOU, Burkina Faso — It was about 7:30 p.m. when the meeting began on the fourth floor of the Splendid Hotel here on Jan. 15 in this capital city. Fourteen people were gathered to discuss the launching of a humanitarian association, with a Burkina government minister present. Phones were put in silent mode. While the minister was standing and talking, detonations from outside immediately interrupted him, and the room hushed for fear of being targeted.
“I quickly understood it was not a military coup because they would have targeted the national TV and radio and not a hotel,” said Al Assane Baguian, 33, a survivor of the jihadist attack in Ouagadougou that occurred less than a month ago, killing 30 people of many different nationalities, including Burkinabé. Al Assane Baguian, an American who lives in Burkina Faso, suffers from a gunshot wound to his leg and has since returned to the United States for surgery. His reference to a possible coup harks back to a failed attempt at one by military personnel last fall in Burkina Faso.
Al Assane Baguian recently provided details of the jihadist assault, which lasted at least eight hours, that Friday night in a central part of the city, not far from the international airport and Ouagadougou’s Roman Catholic cathedral. The mayhem that disrupted a typically relaxed evening is still vivid in the minds of everyone who lives here. Why the counterassault took so long to get underway reveals the stunning security gaps in the government, even though French and American military units are stationed in the capital or right outside it.
Until now, Burkina Faso, situated in West Africa, has been spared from large-scale terrorist attacks, but the one in January was the first major death assault claimed by Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM, in the country. The attack targeted the heart of the capital, where the majority of people were killed in Cafe Cappuccino, mostly frequented by foreigners and upper-class Burkinabé.
Minor raids along Burkina Faso’s border with Mali have been registered in the last few months, but the attack in Ouagadougou is the second such siege in a hotel in the region by the Al Qaeda affiliate and another group led by the international terrorist Mokhtar Belmokhtar.
These groups struck a hotel in Bamako, the capital of Mali, in November, gunning down 20 people over 12 hours, all of which reflects how some countries in West Africa do not have strong-enough security systems in place to counter armed terrorists. The attacks in Mali and Burkina Faso within two months also reveal how much these countries depend on outsiders — French and US commandos in both instances — to fend off such aggressive assaults. The United Nations had also sent first-responders from its peacekeeping mission in Mali to the Bamako hotel, where the two killers died in the counteroffensive.
Back in Ouagadougou on the night of Jan. 15, everyone in the hotel meeting room, Al Assane Baguian said, fell to the ground and crawled on the floor toward an outside corridor, searching for exits before deciding to go back to the room, where everyone huddled under a table while awaiting rescue. Fifteen minutes after the first shots had been fired from outside, close to Cafe Cappuccino, across the street from the hotel on Avenue Kwame Nkrumah, Al Assane Baguian managed to call his wife, a Burkina military officer, to inform her about the situation and to ask for help.
Ten minutes later, at around 8 p.m., he and another Burkinabé, also an American national, reached the American embassy in the capital on their cellphones. At the same time, a few more shots rang out, and “they were now shooting inside the hotel,” Al Assane Baguian recalled, referring to the assailants.
“I returned to lock the door,” he said, of the meeting room, and “that is when they shot at the glass door and shot and wounded me in my leg. My brother, who came to rescue me, had been wounded above the eye. I saw two attackers. They stayed in the corridor and shot from there in our direction, wounding five persons. Then they entered the meeting room and remained there half an hour. One of them took a bottle of water and drank it, while the other was illuminating us with a flashlight. At around 8:30 p.m., they left the room, shooting a last round in the corridor. Why did they not kill us while they had the opportunity?”
The reason the attackers did not kill everyone in the room suggests that their main focus, some people in the capital say, was to annihilate people in Cafe Cappuccino, a known stomping ground for expatriates in Ouagadougou. Meanwhile, the counterassault by the Burkina police and military got off to a weak start as they waited for American and French military support.
At around 10:30 p.m., three hours after the first signs of an attack, Al Assane Baguian received a message from an American official telling him they were nearby, with other Burkina and French forces, and that rescue was arriving. But Al Assane Baguian and the people hunkered down in the meeting room were not released by American and French forces until about 2:30 a.m., seven hours after the jihadists initially struck.
Why did the Burkina Faso police wait for the American and French military to retake the hotel?
“A special Burkinabé gendarmerie unit with some 15 individuals were out there 30 minutes after the attack to evaluate the situation,” said a national security force official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, given the sensitivity of the information. “We were ready to counterattack at around 10 p.m., but we received the order to wait because some hostages from the Splendid Hotel said they had seen 10 or more attackers, whereas our men had seen three shooters. At that time, the authorities decided to coordinate our forces with American and French troops.”
Around midnight, the French reinforcements arrived all the way from northern Mali, in Gao, where they were taking part in a mission as part of Operation Barkhane, a counterterrorist network based in the Sahel region of Africa. Launched in 2014 by the French army, Barkhane, named after a type of sand dune, is grouped among five Sahelian countries, including Burkina Faso, to fight the armed Islamists extremists threaded throughout the area.
The other reason that the Burkina police and military forces waited for foreign reinforcements before beginning an assault was the significant lack of equipment and troops the Burkina troops had to lead a counterattack. The country recently voted in a new president, Roch Marc Kaboré, in its first democratic election in decades, having pushed out the former president and strongman, Blaise Compaoré, in a populist movement in 2014. A transition government was installed to ready the nation of 17 million for its presidential vote on Nov. 29, which went relatively well.
But some analysts and journalists who report on the region have suggested that the Qaeda attack took advantage of a vulnerable time for Burkina Faso, given that Kaboré took office in late December and most of the government ministries, including defense, were not filled by mid-January.
“When the hostages of the Splendid Hotel informed us near 10 p.m. they had seen several jihadists, we did not have the means to verify or react. We do not have the proper resources,” said another member of the Burkina security forces. “We do not have glasses for night vision, for example, or even weapons for firearms and snipers.”
While waiting for reinforcements about 200 yards from the hotel, the Burkina forces were desperately seeking information on the Internet about the layout of the hotel while a French military official was trying to find a bulletproof vest so he could accompany two armored vehicles and a fire truck approaching Cafe Cappuccino to rescue the survivors. There, a fire raged outside from car bombs ignited by the jihadists, choking the restaurant with smoke.
When the counterassault finally started at around 1:30 a.m. at the hotel, more than 10 armed Americans in military uniforms and many more French soldiers approached the building by walking behind it.
“The hotel is compartmentalized into two buildings,” an official of the Burkina forces said. “The Americans went to one side, the French on the other.” In addition, a drone was used for reconnaissance above the hotel before the intervention occurred.
At 2:35 a.m., Al Assane Baguian said of unfolding events at the time: “I heard a deafening noise. The security forces were detonating one of the walls of the room where we were sheltered. One of the American soldiers came up to me, saying, It is me you were on the phone with” in communications with Americans near the hotel hours earlier in the attack.
The long hours of waiting to be rescued were over. But how the assault was handled has raised questions about huge weaknesses in Burkina Faso security services, as the wounds of people who survived — a minimum of 71 people — linger.
Since the attack, President Kaboré has repeated that security would be a top priority of his government. The new Minister of Territorial Administration and Security, Simon Compaoré, is to present guidelines from his office. For Burkinabé, the challenge of security remains uppermost in their minds.
The Splendid Hotel and Taxi Brousse, another cafe on Avenue Kwame Nkrumah, where the three attackers were actually killed, have reopened. The scene is riddled with bullet marks.
Nabila El Hadad is a freelance journalist and photographer who has reported for French, Swiss and other national and private radio, TV and documentary sites from the Middle East, North Africa, West Africa, Ukraine and France. In Burkina Faso, where she is currently based, she reported on the coup in September 2015 and the national elections in November 2015 for Jeune Afrique as a photographer. She also worked as a photographer for Agence France Presse (AFP) during the 2015 presidential campaign in Burkina Faso and covered the 2016 jihadist attack on Ouagadougou for French public radio and TV. Her photographs of the attack were published by AFP and by Reuters. She is currently working on a photo essay about women working in a granite quarry in Ouagadougou.
El Hadad studied international trade and journalism at the Institute of Political Studies of Aix-en-Provence in France.