Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb has claimed credit for the ongoing attack against the Splendid Hotel in Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso. The Mauritanian news outlet Al Akhbar, which has been generally reliable in its reporting on the group in the past, reported the claim, which was confirmed by the North African al Qaeda branch's media arm. Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb said gunmen from Mokhtar Belmokhtar's al-Mourabitoun group, which recently reunited with al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, are involved. Early reports indicate that at this point, some 20 are dead and 15 more are injured. There are also reports that the gunmen are holding hostages inside the hotel, which has been surrounded by security forces. U.S. and French advisers are reportedly at the scene.
Al-Mourabitoun was involved in the Nov. 20 attack on the Radisson Blu in Bamako, Mali, that killed 20 people. But the group has been known to range across the Sahel region from Libya to Mauritania to conduct kidnappings and armed assaults. Belmokhtar's group has conducted operations in Algeria, Niger, Mauritania and Mali. It is thought to have been involved in the kidnapping of a Romanian security officer from a mine in northern Burkina Faso, near the border with Mali, in April 2015. An attack like the one that began Jan. 15 at the Splendid Hotel is well within the group's capability, even though Ouagadougou (like Bamako) was generally considered out of the group's range. These smaller attacks are far more sustainable for Belmokhtar's al-Mourabitoun than the January 2013 much larger raid against a natural gas facility in Ain Amenas, Algeria, in which 29 of the attackers were killed and three captured.
As Stratfor has noted for years, hotels are popular targets for militant organizations. Striking an international hotel in a major city can send the same kind of statement against the West as striking an embassy. The hotels typically targeted are often full of Western business travelers, journalists, diplomats and intelligence officers. Given the clientele, hotels are target-rich environments for militants seeking to kill Westerners and gain international media attention without having to penetrate the extreme security of a hardened target such as a modern embassy.
The government and security forces in Burkina Faso have been wracked by internal unrest, such as the September 2015 confrontation between the military and the presidential guard. Such an atmosphere of internal problems does not help the government's ability to deal with external threats such as al Qaeda.
Like the Bamako attack, this type of high-profile attack against a prominent hotel in a capital city is a way for Belmokhtar and his al Qaeda leaders to draw attention to their group and showcase that the Islamic State does not have a monopoly on terrorism in the jihadist movement. As we noted in our recent assessment of the al Qaeda portion of the jihadist movement, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb is entering 2016 stronger than it was at the beginning of 2015. Belmokhtar and his group can be expected to continue to conduct kidnappings and armed assaults across a wide expanse of the Sahel, both to raise funds and to attract attention and recruits.