In Burkina Faso, living with risk of terror is new reality

NEWYou can now listen to Fox News articles!

Gaetan Santomenna lost his wife, his 9-year-old son and his mother the night jihadists attacked his cafe in Burkina Faso's capital before striking a nearby hotel.

Now a year and a half later, he's reopening doors to the popular restaurant as a sign of resistance to the growing extremism in this West African country.

"Being afraid does not help you escape danger. You aren't safe anywhere. That's the madness," he said, shortly before the Cappuccino Cafe was due to open to the public again Thursday.

"I owe it to my children, to my family, to all those who have left us," Santomenna said. "To accept defeat would be to not pay homage to them."

Three Islamic extremists opened fire on the cafe the night of Jan. 15, 2016, killing 30 people of 11 nationalities. It was the first attack of its kind in Burkina Faso, which previously had been spared the kind of violence directed at expatriate targets in neighboring Mali.

The cafe reopens Thursday night at the exact time — 7:30 p.m. — that gunfire rang out there. The cafe now features bulletproof windows and other heightened security measures, but security analysts say the capital, Ouagadougou, remains vulnerable with growing extremism in the country's far north.

This week the U.S. State Department issued a warning to Americans urging them to avoid Burkina Faso's volatile north because of "persistent security threats including terrorism."

The region is now the home of a local preacher, Ibrahim Malam Dicko, who radicalized and has claimed recent deadly attacks against troops and civilians. His association, Ansarul Islam, is now considered a terrorist group by Burkina Faso's government.

Nearly a dozen attacks have left at least 33 people dead in the region since January, officials say. Scores of schools have closed after teachers received threats telling them to teach about the Quran and Islam or leave. One teacher and a villager were killed early this year by Dicko's men, underscoring that the region risks falling outside the government's control.

Burkina Faso, along with four other countries, is now pursuing U.N. Security Council authorization for military action by a regional force against extremist groups in Africa's vast Sahel. The United States opposes a French-drafted resolution on the issue.

The three attackers in the 2016 massacre in Ouagadougou were of foreign origin, according to al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, which claimed responsibility in the aftermath along with the jihadist group known as Al Mourabitoun. But the terror threat in Burkina Faso is increasingly homegrown, experts say.

Lamoussa Robgo, coordinator of "Equal Access," a non-governmental organization working to tackle religious extremism and violence, said the transformation of Dicko's association into a terror group means that extremism is taking hold in Burkina Faso, where more than 60 percent of the country is Muslim.

"This was foreseeable in the sense that religious extremism began to increase in recent years among certain Muslims, notably with the creation of a mosque with help from associations in Qatar and also with the return of people who had studied the Quran in Mali with extremist preachers," Rogbo said.

A recent report by International Crisis Group also cited the danger of foreign influence: "Burkinabe scholars and preachers trained in the Gulf sometimes return home promoting practices and ideas far removed from the realities of peaceful coexistence in Burkina," it said.

In recent weeks, French forces backed by Burkinabe and Malian forces launched operations to end the attacks. But the extremists are becoming harder to identify.

"Terrorists are no longer recruited from foreigners because they are easily detected," said Capt. Guy Ye, spokesman for the gendarmerie.

Activists are trying to get out their anti-extremism message through radio programs in local languages, urging people to reject those who want to use religion to commit criminal acts.

"We have received many messages of resilience, encouragement and hope. But it's a long-term struggle," Rogbo said.

Meanwhile, Santomenna was lighting his cafe's neon sign Thursday, with 80 percent of his workers having returned.

Among them is Clement Ouedraogo, a waiter still haunted by those who did not survive the attack. He especially remembers the owner's young son.

"I could see the boy fighting for his life but I could not reach him because of the smoke and blood on the floor," Ouedraogo recalled. It took security forces hours to arrive.

"I hope now that our security forces have trained well to deal with terrorism because we no longer want to see this kind of trial and error," he said.