Towards the end of his six years as a hostage, Stephen McGowan noticed that something about his kidnappers was changing.
The 42-year-old South African banker was captured in Mali in 2011. Throughout his captivity, he was shuttled between various camps and Islamist groups in the Sahel: two months here, two months there, the stretches punctuated by long, uncomfortable journeys in the back of a 4×4 that would speed across the sand dunes and leave him with agonising back pain.
Six years is a long time, and McGowan got to know the people keeping him prisoner. “You see many of the same people again and again. You form a relationship,” he said, speaking in Johannesburg just a week after his release in early August.
But by the end, McGowan recognised fewer and fewer faces. “More recently, there have been many new faces. Many Tuaregs and Fulani. Six years ago it was mostly Arabs.” The Tuareg and Fulani are ethnic groups from the region; Arabs, in this context, refers to foreign fighters from other parts of the Middle East and North Africa.
For McGowan, this meant only one thing. “It’s obvious it’s because the mujaheddin [jihadis] are getting stronger and taking on new recruits. That’s obvious, you can see it.”
As if to underline his point, on Sunday night suspected Islamist extremists struck again. The target was a Turkish restaurant in Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso.
Gunmen stormed the restaurant, killing at least 18 people and injuring another 12. The attackers barricaded themselves inside the restaurant during a stand-off with security forces that lasted into Monday morning.
The restaurant, Aziz Istanbul, is on Kwame Nkrumah Boulevard, a major thoroughfare. In January 2016, on this same road, a similar attack on the upmarket Cappuccino Restaurant and Splendid Hotel killed 30 people. Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb claimed responsibility for that one.
Burkina Faso is an obvious target for extremist organisations in the region. Not only are its borders relatively porous, but the government is also closely involved in international counterterrorism efforts. Operation Barkhane, the French anti-insurgency operation in the Sahel, has a base in Burkina Faso, and the country just signed up to the G5 Sahel, a new regional military force designed to go after Islamist militants.
“This attack sends a clear message to the Burkina Faso government. It says: ‘We can reach you and we will hit you.’ For me it’s all about Burkina Faso’s membership of the G5,” said Jasmine Opperman, Africa director at the Terrorism Research and Analysis Consortium.
It is also, she says, an attempt to project power and make these groups seem bigger and scarier than they are. High-profile attacks like this one are crucial to their propaganda efforts.
On Monday, just hours after the Burkina Faso attack, another set of gunmen opened fire on a United Nations base in Timbuktu. Seven people were killed. That power was being projected again, with deadly consequences.
The propaganda is not entirely misleading. “McGowan’s testimony of camps being more representative and larger in size is in line with perceptions of al-Qaeda affiliates growing in size, both in terms of numbers of people and in the number of attacks,” said Ryan Cummings, a director at Signal Risk.
Cummings attributes this to greater cohesion in the extremist movement under the banner of the Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal Muslimeen (Group for the Support of Islam and Muslims). “This movement … is dominating the jihadist landscape in the Sahel,” he said.
McGowan is right: extremist groups in the region are getting stronger. It’s now up to the new G5 force to think up new tactics to stop them.