Three drone strikes last year by the government of Burkina Faso killed scores of civilians, according to a report released Thursday by Human Rights Watch. The attacks, targeting Islamist militants in crowded marketplaces and at a funeral, left at least 60 civilians dead and dozens more injured.
The drone strikes in Burkina Faso and Mali are just the latest in a yearslong string of atrocities carried out as part of Burkina Faso’s counterterrorism campaign against the Al Qaeda-linked Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin, or JNIM, and other Islamist militant groups that operate in the West African Sahel.
“The Burkina Faso military used one of the most accurate weapons in its arsenal to attack large groups of people, causing the loss of numerous civilian lives in violation of the laws of war,” said Ilaria Allegrozzi, senior Sahel researcher at Human Rights Watch, or HRW. “The Burkinabè government should urgently and impartially investigate these apparent war crimes, hold those responsible to account, and provide adequate support for the victims and their families.”
Burkina Faso’s government-controlled media said that all three attacks targeted and killed militants; none mentioned any civilian harm. Last August, for example, Radiodiffusion Télévision du Burkina, Burkina Faso’s government-run national television network, reported a “successful” airstrike on Islamist militants who were “preparing large-scale attacks.” After geolocating the strike site from the video, Human Rights Watch interviewed witnesses to the attack, which occurred during the weekly market day near the northern edge of the Bouro village. Survivors said that members of JNIM, which controls Bouro and the surrounding area, had arrived at the packed marketplace just before the strike.
“The market was full of civilians when the drone hit,” a 25-year-old man told HRW, noting that people travel from “all over” the region to buy and sell animals there. HRW obtained a list of 28 people killed in the attack, compiled by survivors and confirmed by two local authorities, but witnesses said the death toll was far higher. “There were hundreds of people at the market at the time of the strike,” said a 45-year-old man. “We counted 70 dead, but we only identified 28 of them. The other bodies were unrecognizable.”
The Burkinabè Embassy in Washington, D.C., did not respond to repeated requests from The Intercept to speak with the defense attaché or other officials.
“Little or No Concern for Civilian Harm”
The Burkinabè military conducted the strikes with Turkish-made Bayraktar TB2 drones, which it acquired in 2022. At the time, Burkina Faso’s Ministry of Defense and Veterans Affairs defended the use of the country’s “limited financial resources” on drones and helicopters, touting their surveillance capabilities, the increased firepower they would provide, and their potential for “humanitarian actions for the benefit of our population.” Human Rights Watch documented casualties and damage consistent with the type of laser-guided bombs delivered by these drones.
“The Burkina Faso military repeatedly carried out drone strikes in crowded areas with little or no concern for civilian harm,” Allegrozzi said, noting that governments that provide such weapons to Burkina Faso risk complicity in war crimes.
Turkey isn’t alone in its support of the Burkinabè military. The United States has assisted Burkina Faso with counterterrorism aid since the 2000s, providing funds, weapons, equipment, and American advisers, as well as deploying commandos on low-profile combat missions. In that time, however, militant Islamist violence has skyrocketed. Across all of Africa, the State Department counted just 23 casualties from terrorist attacks in 2002 and 2003. Burkina Faso alone saw 6,130 deaths from terrorist attacks between July 2022 and July 2023, according to the Defense Department’s Africa Center for Strategic Studies, a Pentagon research institution.
U.S.-trained Burkinabè military officers have also repeatedly overthrown the government, in 2014, 2015, and twice in 2022. Following military coups, U.S. law generally restricts countries from receiving military aid, but the U.S. has continued to provide training to Burkinabè forces, according to Gen. Michael Langley, the chief of Africa Command, or AFRICOM. Last year, for example, Burkinabè forces took part in Flintlock 2023, an annual exercise sponsored by U.S. Special Operations Command Africa. (Several past Flintlock attendees have overthrown the government, including Lt. Col. Paul-Henri Sandaogo Damiba, who carried out one of the 2022 coups.)
American assistance has continued despite widespread documentation of Burkinabè government atrocities and the “Leahy law,” which prohibits U.S. funding for foreign security forces implicated in gross violations of human rights. “The military has been credibly accused of various instances of human rights abuses and has been implicated in the extrajudicial killings of children by human rights organizations and journalists,” the Pentagon’s Africa Center noted in reference to Burkina Faso last year. A little over a month before Langley told members of the House Armed Services Committee about continued U.S. support for Burkina Faso, Burkinabè soldiers, accompanied by militia, arrested 16 men in the Ekeou village, at least nine of whom were later found executed, according to Human Rights Watch. In April 2023, less than a month after Langley’s admission, the Burkinabè military massacred at least 156 civilians, including 45 children, in the village of Karma. And state-backed militia reportedly killed at least 70 civilians in the Zaongo village last November.
“As some U.S. military assistance still goes to Burkina Faso, under the Leahy law, the U.S. should be determining if human rights violations by members of Burkina’s junta are occurring and if the aid being provided follows U.S. law,” HRW’s Allegrozzi told The Intercept. “Human Rights Watch has repeatedly documented serious abuses perpetrated by Burkinabè security forces, including mass executions and enforced disappearances of hundreds of civilians.”
Neither AFRICOM nor the State Department responded to detailed questions about the extent of U.S. support for Burkina Faso and reports of atrocities by Burkinabè forces.
“People Were Screaming and Running”
In late September 2023, Radiodiffusion Télévision du Burkina reported on a drone strike against supposed motorbike-riding Islamist militants who traveled from Mali to a compound in Burkina Faso’s Bidi village. Locals told Human Rights Watch, however, that the attack hit a funeral for a local woman, attended by more than 100 people, and that there were no fighters at the compound at the time.
“It hit the tent where the old and wise men were sitting and praying for the old woman who died. The explosion was so strong and loud that the ground trembled and I fell,” a 54-year-old farmer who survived the attack told HRW. “People were screaming and running. Everyone was looking for his relatives and friends or fleeing. I saw many bodies on the ground, scattered, some torn into pieces.” Survivors said that 24 civilian men and a boy were killed, and 17 others were injured.
On November 18, another Burkinabè drone strike hit a market in Mali. That evening, Radiodiffusion Télévision du Burkina reported that the Burkinabè military launched attacks on “terrorists,” hitting a “logistics base” for Islamist fighters. The video shows at least three munitions striking a crowded marketplace.
Human Rights Watch used the video and accounts from survivors to identify Boulkessi, Mali — located in an area controlled by Islamist militants — as the site of the attack. Witnesses said that several armed JNIM fighters were present but that the overwhelming majority of those in the marketplace were civilians.
“The market was beginning to fill up with lots of people, only men, mostly civilians. Women are not allowed to go to the market because of the Islamic law imposed by the jihadists,” a 21-year-old survivor told HRW. “At around 10 a.m., I didn’t see anything coming but a bomb that fell on us like an arrow, then another bomb, and a third one … I was wounded in the arm by shrapnel … I helped my comrades get out of the market despite my injury … unfortunately, one of us died along the way – he had been wounded in the stomach.” Survivors provided HRW with a list of the names of seven civilians killed and five wounded in the strike.
Human Rights Watch did not receive a response to its allegations from the government of Burkina Faso.