On 2 March, attacks on the Burkina Faso army headquarters and the French Embassy claimed at least 16 lives.

A Christian pastor and three members of his family have been kidnapped in Burkina Faso’s north-eastern province of Soum, two weeks after the kidnapping of another Christian leader and his wife.

Pierre Boena, a pastor with an Assembly of God church, was kidnapped during the evening of Sunday 3 June in his village of Bilhore, local sources told World Watch Monitor. Three members of his family – his son, his daughter-in-law and his granddaughter – were also abducted.

The circumstances of the kidnapping are not yet known, but Islamist militants are known to be active in the region.

Previously, on 20 May, a catechist at the parish of Arbinda (40km from Bilhore), was kidnapped, along with his wife, who tried to resist the attack.

The village of Bilhore is just 100km from Djibo, where an Australian couple were kidnapped 18 months ago. Ken and Jocelyn Elliott, had run a 120-bed clinic for 40 years until their abduction in January 2016. Jocelyn was released a month later, but her husband remains in captivity.

The kidnapping of the two Christian clerics have created an atmosphere of anxiety among Christian communities in the land-locked Sahel nation, seen as a model of tolerance in a troubled region.

The country’s 20 million inhabitants – predominantly Muslim (around 60%), but also with significant numbers of Christians (over 20%, the vast majority of whom are Catholics) and followers of indigenous beliefs (15%) – have long enjoyed peaceful co-existence.

Until recently, attacks carried out by Islamist militants only targeted military personnel and civil servants in the region, leaving civilians generally untroubled.

On 14 May, the prefect (chief administrator) of Oursi, in the northern province of Oudalan, was killed by unknown assailants, who also burned down his home.

Suspected Islamist militants have also set fire to schools and warned the teachers to stop teaching the French language (and instead teach only Arabic and Islamic lessons) in northern Burkina.

Since the beginning of 2017, one headteacher, as well as several other teachers and students, have been killed, while 216 schools have been closed down, leaving more than 24,000 children without education.

Many fear that the ongoing violence will create a humanitarian crisis in the affected regions, as several villages have already been emptied of their inhabitants. More than 15,000 people have fled to other areas for their safety, according to state media.

A new dynamic

The country had long been spared by terrorist attacks, particularly in comparison to neighbouring Mali, but it has now become part of the wars of the Sahel, warned the International Crisis Group in March.

Since 2015, northern Burkina Faso, which borders troubled Mali, had experienced 80 increasingly frequent and lethal attacks, the think-tank said.

Ouagadougou, the capital, has seen a series of attacks over the last three years.

On 2 March, attacks on the Burkina Faso army headquarters and the French Embassy claimed 16 lives, including nine assailants, according to the official death toll, though ICG said more than 30 were killed and 85 others wounded.

The attacks were claimed the following day (on 3 March) by the Group to Support Muslims and Islam, known by its Arabic acronym JNIM, responsible for deadly attacks in neighbouring Mali and Niger. Three suspected terrorists involved in the attack were killed by security forces in a night raid in Ouagadougou on 22 May.

Previously, on 13 August 2017, 19 people were killed and 25 others injured when suspected jihadists opened fire on a Turkish restaurant in central Ouagadougou.

Eighteen months earlier, in January 2016, 30 people were killed in attacks on two hotels and a cafe not far from the Turkish restaurant, claimed by Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).

Six of the victims were on a humanitarian trip prompted by their Christian faith, while a seventh was a US missionary who, with his wife, had been running an orphanage and women’s refuge in the West African country since 2011. The dead included four Canadians from the same family who had gone there over their Christmas break to do aid work in schools and orphanages.

The escalation of Islamist violence in Burkina Faso is part of a general increase in violence across the Sahel, according to ICG, which also pointed out the weakness of the country’s security apparatus since the departure of former President Blaise Compaoré in October 2014.