Al-Qaida Militants Target Westerners In West Africa

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First Mali, now Burkina Faso. West Africa has become the latest target for Al Qaeda, and it's mostly Westerners the militants have killed.

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Transcript

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

It's been a week since the deadly attack by suspected extremists in Burkina Faso claimed at least 30 lives, mostly foreigners. The regional al-Qaida franchise says it was behind the raid. There was a similar siege in nearby Mali two months ago and as NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton reports, other West African nations fear they might be next.

OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON, BYLINE: The modus operandi of the gunmen at the Splendid Hotel and Cappuccino Cafe in Burkina Faso's capital, Ouagadougou, mirrored the storming of the Radisson Blu hotel in the Malian capital, Bamako, in November. Both times, al-Qaida-affiliated militants selected targets to inflict maximum damage and death in West Africa. Westerners were singled out.

ALASSANE BAGUIAN: When I first got the gunshot, I didn't know that I still alive. I was thinking that, you know, I'm a dead man.

QUIST-ARCTON: Waiting for another checkup, survivor Alassane Baguian spoke from his hospital bed in Ouagadougou. The 33-year-old Burkinabe-American, who lives in New Jersey, told reporters he was back home for talks on the future of Burkina Faso, his troubled home country emerging from two years of political turbulence. That discussion was rudely interrupted.

BAGUIAN: Two people came and they shot the door (imitating gunshot sounds). Yeah. And when I stand up, one bullet crossed me here and I fall. And the guy saw me, he came with his gun, and (imitating gunshot sounds) he shot me by the leg. He shot everywhere.

QUIST-ARCTON: The assailants sprayed the restaurant with bullets, set fire to cars and motorbikes, then stormed the hotel opposite, firing on people in the street, including those who tried to escape. Lying in a pool of blood, Baguian managed a desperate call to the American Embassy.

BAGUIAN: The first France forces and American forces, they became through the back. And they said OK, get out, get out, get out.

QUIST-ARCTON: An al-Qaida-linked extremist franchise called Al-Mourabitoun claimed responsibility. A web post said the deadly assault was revenge on infidels, especially France, the former colonial power in both Burkina Faso and Mali.

ANDREW LEBOVICH: There's been a shift in the region in how people are targeted and the kind of attacks that militant groups are engaged in, especially since the French intervention in Mali in 2013.

QUIST-ARCTON: Andrew Lebovich is a doctoral student in African history at Columbia University. He's referring to when French commandos led an offensive to end the occupation of northern Mali by radical Islamist groups three years ago. Lebovich monitors the rise of Islamist militancy in West Africa.

LEBOVICH: These are the first organized, devastating, really large-scale attacks on foreign or foreign-linked targets in the region. These attacks are aimed at disruption, throwing some of these states and the security apparatuses off-balance to show that these groups can attack in the heart of these countries themselves.

QUIST-ARCTON: Lebovich describes complex dynamics of supremacy rivalry and shifting alliances among Islamist militants in West Africa, including al-Qaida and ISIS-inspired fighters. He says the threat to the unstable region has existed for some time now, but warns other West African countries to become more vigilant.

LEBOVICH: The context of expanding activities from jihadist groups to create spaces in which they could operate.

QUIST-ARCTON: Lying on his hospital bed in Ouagadougou, New Jersey resident Alassane Baguian reflected on staying alive.

BAGUIAN: Nowhere in this world is safe anymore because those people, what they want - they want us to be scared. They want us to talk about them. They want us to not be able to sit outside, to not be able to go to the hotel no more.

QUIST-ARCTON: And if we do that, says Baguian, it means the terrorists win and we lose. Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.