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Talking to jihadists: How three community leaders took a bold step in Burkina Faso

‘We discovered that the jihadists have some moral values.’

Sara Cuevas/TNH

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Growing calls for non-military approaches to Burkina Faso’s jihadist conflict have led the country’s ruling junta to offer support to local communities engaging in dialogue with militant groups to prevent suffering and save lives.

But who are the community leaders involved in these talks, and what kind of discussions are they holding? Are local dialogues a stop-gap measure, or a long-term solution that can stem jihadist attacks that have displaced nearly two million people?

To try and answer these questions, The New Humanitarian conducted rare face-to-face interviews with three influential Burkinabé community leaders who have organised local dialogues and struck pacts with militants over the past two years.

Their stories involve acts of individual courage and leadership. But they also underscore the unpalatable trade-offs that communities are forced into as they seek ways out of the conflict.

Jihadist groups linked to al-Qaeda and the so-called Islamic State began spreading in the West African nation in 2015 – part of a wider push across the Sahel region, which is now home to the one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises.

The idea of negotiating with jihadists – usually framed as fanatics and little else – has long been a global taboo issue. Western nations with military footprints in the Sahel have repeatedly told regional governments not to engage in such talks.

Yet the failures of military operations and foreign interventions have forced communities to take matters into their own hands. Since mid-2020, dozens of local pacts have been struck with militants across Burkina Faso and neighbouring Mali.

The results of the Burkina Faso talks are mixed. Communities must accept to follow the jihadists’ harsh interpretation of sharia law, which falls hardest on women and other marginalised groups. 

Some pacts have also broken down, leading to renewed fighting, while the overall trajectory of the conflict here has only worsened amid increased abuses by militants and local soldiers.

Still, dialogues have resulted in security pledges from jihadists that have helped thousands of displaced people to return home. This enables them to farm and feed their families – especially critical in a year when hunger levels have soared by over 80 percent.

And though the previous government – ousted by soldiers in January – provided no support or recognition to mediators, the current junta is offering them logistical help. It hopes that more dialogues might eventually lead to jihadists laying down their arms.

Community leaders told The New Humanitarian they are pleased the junta is formally recognising their efforts, though they think it would be better if the government negotiates with militants directly. Their testimonies follow below.

Pseudonyms are used for security reasons, while some village and commune names, and certain other details, are also obscured to protect identities.

A letter, a long wait, and a small success: ‘He sat on the sand and turned off his phone’

Burkina Faso’s top jihadist had kept his audience waiting for nearly four hours before arriving at a patch of desert outside the northern town of Nassoumbou. It was July 2021 and the militant, Jafar Dicko, had agreed to talk with weary community leaders.

Carrying a gun and dressed in a headscarf that covered all but his mouth, Dicko – whose brother founded the country’s first homegrown jihadist group – cut an imposing presence. Yet the leader was shy and attentive, according to meeting attendees.

“He sat on the sand and turned off his phone so he could listen to what people were saying,” said Hassan Boly, a community leader who was at the July meeting. “Jafar was modest, he wasn’t giving orders, he didn’t show off,” Boly added.

The first time Nassoumbou’s leaders contacted the jihadists was in 2018 when militants started ramping up attacks. Not knowing who to contact, locals wrote letters and posted them on abandoned mosques in the bush, hoping passing fighters might see them.

Shortly after doing this, the jihadists called the community and accepted a meeting. Yet those talks yielded little as militants refused requests to reopen shuttered schools, and then failed to commit to requests for follow-up talks.

Things changed, however, last July when the militants agreed to meet again. It is unclear what changed their minds, though the discussions coincided with similar dialogue initiatives that had begun in other parts of Burkina Faso.

The July meeting took place around four kilometres outside of Nassoumbou’s main town. Boly led a group of 15 community leaders who were served yogurt and soda by jihadists while they waited for Dicko and his guards to arrive. 

During the meeting, Boly asked the jihadists if they would accept the opening of schools where classes are taught in French. Dicko said such schools weren’t part of the jihadists’ vision, but that whoever wanted to teach their children in Arabic was welcome.

Community leaders also asked Dicko to let people return to Nassoumbou commune so they could rebuild their lives. “The negotiating team begged the jihadists to allow people to go back to grow their crops,” said Boly.

This time the jihadist accepted, though Dicko said Nassoumbou’s main town was out of bounds because residents there had previously joined pro-government militias that have fought against the militants.

Around 70 percent of the commune eventually returned home after the meeting, according to Boly. They were made to follow the jihadists’ strict interpretation of sharia, yet many still felt reassured that the fighters didn’t want to kill them.

“We discovered that the jihadists have some moral values, such as hospitality and consideration,” said Boly, a 65-year-old father of 12 with experience in local politics.  

Conversations with the militants continued after the initial dialogue, though jihadists insisted that talking points be sent in advance and they were rarely willing to deviate from the planned agenda.

For example, on one occasion Boly arranged a meeting to gain permission to access a jihadist-controlled area where he needed to deliver medicine to a man who was looking after his cattle. 

During that encounter, Boly appealed to the jihadists to put down their guns and return home peacefully. But the jihadists said this topic hadn’t been scheduled and, as a result, they couldn’t talk about it.

Still, Boly doesn’t believe such subjects are completely off the table. “Jafar can change one day,” the community leader said. “If some people with negotiating skills would continuously talk to him, [he] could change.”

A friendly encounter and a fragile truce: ‘How is your brother? How is your child?’

Community leader Ali Barry said ad hoc communication with jihadists began in his northern commune back in 2019. At the time, Barry would receive chaotic phone calls from fighters introducing themselves as "people from the bush”.

Sometimes, the militants would ask him if the community had seen their lost cows; other times, they would complain that people were felling trees in areas controlled by the fighters. Barry would then connect the jihadists with leaders in the relevant area.

However, by the end of 2019, the situation was deteriorating. Jihadists were stealing people’s crops and thousands were fleeing to safer towns. Barry and other community leaders therefore decided that they needed to meet the jihadists face-to-face. 

At the beginning of 2020, the northern commune created a negotiating team that included traditional leaders and fighters who had joined anti-jihadist militias. Local authorities, however, were left out, for fear they would interfere negatively.

Arranging a meeting wasn’t easy. Several agreed dates were cancelled, and the militants kept changing their mind on where to hold the talks. “Maybe they thought we wanted to set a trap against them,” Barry reflected of the delays.

Finally, in June 2020, the negotiating team met with around 15 jihadists. Some fighters looked weak and were struggling to hold their weapons, Barry recalled. “It was like you were watching a movie,” he said.

Barry told the jihadists that his community wanted to find a way to save lives and coexist peacefully. He added that direct contact was preferable than communicating through third-party messengers.

“We have a saying in our language: ‘When you talk to each other while being far from each other, it’s like you are throwing stones at each other’,” said Barry, who is 47 and is also involved in local politics.

The jihadists said little during the meeting, which lasted just 10 minutes. And yet, according to Barry, the talks initiated several months of relative calm as militants suddenly became “more helpful and forgiving”.

Subsequent phone discussions also made life that little bit more bearable. When a neighbouring commune was attacked one day and government offices were looted, the community called the jihadists to complain. Three days later everything was returned.

More face-to-face meetings were also held into 2021, with discussions becoming longer and deeper. At one meeting, the community asked for access restrictions on a local market to be removed, and for jihadists to stop forcibly marrying local women.

The jihadists didn’t concede to all the community’s requests, however. Leaders from one village in the commune asked for permission to return to homes they had previously fled, but the jihadists refused outright without explaining why.

Nor did Barry sense any remorse from the jihadists for the pain they had inflicted on people. “The terrorists don’t think what they are doing is wrong,” he said. “They think they are claiming something that is their right.”

Still, everyone would shake hands after meetings and congratulate one another for making the time to talk. And the jihadists would even inquire about people they knew back home. “How is your brother? How is your child?” Barry recalled them asking.

That familiarity is what struck the local leader most about the talks. When militants first spread in his commune in 2015, residents had assumed they were from neighbouring countries like Mali – which has battled extremist violence since 2012.

That perception changed as residents received calls from relatives who had joined the militants, while the face-to-face meetings made things even clearer. At one dialogue, Barry said he even recognised a teenager whose circumcision he had attended.

“You expect to see foreigners, some people that you don’t know,” said the community leader. “[But] seeing young people fighting as jihadists tells me that our communities are fragile.”

The talks proved fragile too. In November 2021, jihadists demanded the army leave the main town in Barry’s commune, arguing that they would assume control of security. When the army refused, fighting resumed throughout the commune and residents fled.

The New Humanitarian has been unable to reach Barry in recent months to find out exactly how these clashes affected the local talks. Still, the community leader had always doubted the ceasefire would last.

He said neighbouring communes had no such pacts in place, which made it hard to sustain any kind of peace in the wider area. “If your neighbour’s house is burning, you must prepare [for the fire to spread],” Barry said.

Mixed feelings and an old acquaintance: ‘They never clearly stated what they wanted’

It was early morning in March 2020 when Adama Diallo decided he was tired of waiting for jihadists to respond to his request for a meeting. So the 58-year-old hopped onto his motorbike and drove into the bush in the direction of a militant base.

Diallo was hoping to find an old acquaintance – Amadou Badini – who had become the leader of an al-Qaeda-aligned group based on the border with Mali. He hoped the leader would allow his community back to the northern commune they had fled in 2019.

Nearly 20 years his elder, Diallo grew up with Badini’s parents. He watched their son become radicalised by the preaching of Malam Dicko (the brother of Jafar Dicko), who was killed in 2017.

Diallo had last seen Badini in 2015 and sensed a character shift. He was chastising Muslims who didn’t pray and people who smoked. “I was worried about the country when I met Badini and his friends [then]. I knew later they’d have guns,” said Diallo.

Driving into the bush that morning in March, Diallo, who has 13 children, wasn’t sure what to expect of his old contact. After securing a meeting – following a night spent sleeping at the militant base – things went more smoothly than he had suspected.

Seated under a tree in a remote patch of desert several kilometres away from the base, Badini was receptive. He said solutions were better found through dialogue. Both men agreed to meet again, though with more people present.

The next discussion was held a few weeks later. This time, 30 jihadists sat across from 23 community leaders, according to videos of the four-and-a-half-hour meeting seen by The New Humanitarian.

Jokes were cacked while the jihadists served tea. “I heard that whoever has your tea will join you, but I don’t want to join and live in the bush,” Diallo told the militants. “I want to be in a car with air conditioning.”

During discussions, the jihadists answered questions about why they wouldn’t reopen public schools and opposed democracy. They said democracy is “doing what pleases you, not what pleases God”, Diallo recalled.

Everyone took turns speaking, including Badini, who told community leaders they could return to the commune to cultivate their fields, herd their cattle, and run their businesses.

But Badini set conditions: people had to live by strict sharia law, with men cutting their pants and women wearing veils; and nobody was allowed to return to the commune’s main town where the army had a base that the jihadists wanted isolated.

Diallo walked away from the meeting with mixed emotions. On one hand, he was reassured that the jihadists didn’t want his community dead. But he and others were frustrated to hear that their main town was off limits.

Diallo also felt that his jihadist interlocutors were lost and unsure what they were really fighting for. “They never clearly stated what they wanted,” he said. “For example, they never said if they wanted to [occupy] part of the country.”

Still, the benefits of the dialogue were realised as thousands of people returned to their villages. And going forward, Diallo intended to use Badini’s relatives and friends to convince the militant to let people return to the commune’s main town.

”We are planning to send more important people from the community to beg Badini to let us go back,” he said. “At least, after speaking with them, we got to know that they will not kill us.”

Edited by Philip Kleinfeld. 

Illustrations by Sara Cuevas. 

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