23 Dead After Al-Qaeda Storms West African Hotel: "It Was Like A Scene From A Movie"

Back in September, we brought you “Meanwhile, In Burkina Faso: Images From A West African Military Coup.”

In it, we documented renewed turmoil in the landlocked country which is Africa’s fourth-largest gold producer.

In October of 2014, President Blaise Compaoré stepped down after nearly three decades as President. On Thursday, October 30 of that year, Compaoré sought to pass legislation that would have paved the way for a new 5-year term. Here's how WSJ describes what happened next: "That ambition was thwarted by tens of thousands of his compatriots, who swarmed the streets of the capital Ouagadougou. They set fire to the parliament building where the vote had been scheduled to take place, among other government offices. They tore through hotels and shops seen as pro-regime. Up to 30 people were killed in rioting."

Ultimately, Compaoré abdicated.

Eleven months later, the country was set to hold free elections, an event that would have marked a turning point for Burkina Faso's burgeoning democracy. Instead, General Gilbert Diendere (a former chief military adviser for Compaoré) seized power in a military coup. The move coincided with a government committee's decision to disband the presidential guard, an elite group of Compaoré loyalists.

The locals were not happy.

A week later, Diendere pulled a "just kidding" and returned power to interim president Michel Kafando whom the presidential elite had arrested during the coup. 

"It was a mistake," Diendere said of the decision to seize power. "We knew the people were not in favour of it. That is why we have given up," he added. 

Two months later, Burkina Faso witnessed its first democratic power change in five-and-a-half decades when the country elected Roch Marc Christian Kabore president.

Fast forward to Friday and it's still readily apparent that the security situation in Burkina Faso remains precarious. In a seige that marked the second attack on a hotel in a West African capital since November, al-Qaeda militants stormed the "Splendid" Hotel in Ouagadougou.

Nearly two dozen were killed in the assault and the three gunmen - members of AQIM or, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb - initially took some 126 people hostage. The militants also conducted "operations" at the nearby Restaurant Cappuccino where ten bodies were found in the wake of the chaos.

Here are some images from the scene where some folks set things on fire:

 

Ultimately, security forces aided by French SpecOps stormed the Splendid, killed the three gunmen - described by Burkina Faso's security minister as "an Arab and three black Africans - and freed the hostages, 33 of which were injured. "Clashes ended after a period of sustained gunfire and explosions that appeared to focus on the Restaurant Cappuccino early on Saturday," a witness told Reuters. "The Splendid Hotel is popular with Westerners and French soldiers based in Burkina Faso." One hostage said the attackers were targeting "white people."

The operation was reportedly held up by a series of booby traps. "What's making our job more difficult is that they've rigged the access to the upper floors," a Burkinabe officer, said on Saturday. Here's an account from The Telegraph:

Gunfire ramped up early on Saturday morning as gendarme and military forces fought to take back the building which had been blackened by a fire during the assault.

 

The security forces took control of the Splendid Hotel and were searching nearby hotels to be sure no other extremists were hiding. The search

continued even after security forces found and killed a fourth extremist at the Hotel Yibi, the president said.

 

Cars and motorbikes were burned, and overturned chairs and shards of glass lay scattered near the hotel. Onlookers were kept far away from the fighting that continued into daylight.

 

The harrowing attack was launched by the same extremists behind a similar siege at an upscale hotel in Bamako, Mali in November that left 20 dead.

 

Dozens of French forces arrived overnight from neighbouring Mali to aid in the rescue. One U.S. military member was embedded with French forces at the scene, and the United States was working to help provide France with surveillance and reconnaissance help, according to a U.S. senior defence official.

"French special forces helped Burkina Faso’s army in the operation," Bloomberg adds, noting that "among the victims were people from 18 countries." The militant death toll is now up to four. "Four of the militants, including two women, are dead." You're reminded that Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb is led by a one-eyed former Algerian soldier named Mokhtar Belmokhtar.

Here's Bloomberg again, with some context for Friday's attack

The attack showed al-Qaeda’s growing ability to strike far from its traditional field of operations in northern Mali where it’s been fighting government troops, French soldiers and United Nations peacekeepers, backed by U.S. intelligence officials and special forces. President Francois Hollande has sent soldiers and fighter planes to former French colonies in Africa to repel the Islamists, whose attacks intensified in the semi-arid Sahel region with arms looted from Libya following the collapse of Muammar Qaddafi’s government in 2011.

The latest attack came a day after al-Qaeda-linked militants in Somalia claimed to have killed 63 Kenyan soldiers in the southwest of the Horn of Africa country and two days after Islamic State said it carried out a gun-and-suicide bomb assault in central Jakarta, Indonesia.

As they did when they attacked the Radisson Blu in Mali, the militants said their latest raid was done in response to French intervention in the region that has led to the death of Muslims, according to a statement it sent to Mauritania’s al-Akhbar newspaper on Friday. AQIM disavowed Islamic State last week, saying the group’s caliphate in Syria is illegal and strays from the tenets of Islam.

 

“We killed 30 of the crusaders,” one of the attackers in Ouagadougou said in a recorded message sent to the newspaper. Al-Qaeda “will fight against France until the last drop of blood.”

That of course suggests that France will continue to a be a top target for jihadists whether they swear allegiance to Ayman al Zawahiri or Bakr al-Baghdadi. Indeed, France might well become a kind of proving ground where al-Qaeda and ISIS battle for jihadist supremacy in a kind of perpetual terror one-upmanship. 

As for Burkina Faso, the attack came at a rather inauspicious time. Here's Cynthia Ohayon, Burkina Faso analyst for the Brussels-based International Crisis Group: 

“The new government was appointed three days ago; the president took office two weeks ago. There was a wave of optimism and this attack has dealt a huge blow to that." 

We close with two eyewitness accounts.

*  *  *

Via BBC

Edward Bunker, an American health worker for an NGO, was staying at the hotel. He spent the night hunkered down in his room and was rescued in the early hours of Saturday morning:

"At about 19:30 on Friday the fire alarm went off. I went out of the room and saw other guests milling about, and no one seemed to be really concerned. So I went back to my room to get ready to leave for the airport.

I went downstairs to settle the bill around 20:30 and it was like a scene out of a movie with smoke, gunfire noise, explosions - but all outside of the walls. And a very, very empty and dark lobby.

I saw someone carrying a gun just outside the hotel and a burning car across the street. and that was my 'oh sh**' moment. I hid near the pool for about five minutes and figured I might just want to plan to spend the night down there.

Some cooks and kitchen staff walked by, and I made some inquires as best as I could in French. They said I should go back to my room. That was probably the best piece of advice I got that night.

I turned on the news to see what was happening.

I ended up spending the night in my bathroom with my computer and - luckily - a good wifi connection. I was able to get in touch with family and friends and crucially also a security consultant from my organisation as well as the US embassy.

It was amazing how quickly the night passed and I was thankful to have the internet for the whole time. In fact, it was a great distraction to catch up on emails and pretend it was a normal working day.