The artist who was killed by jihadists - and what she was trying to tell the world

Family and colleagues pay tribute to a talented young photographer, shot dead by four heavily-armed thugs in an al-Qaeda attack on a popular café in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso

Adam Withnall
Thursday 21 January 2016 18:11
Leila Alaoui used her photography to express the power of refugees, marginalised traditional communities and women's rights activists
Leila Alaoui used her photography to express the power of refugees, marginalised traditional communities and women's rights activists

Scores of women were among the crowd saying goodbye to an artist and human rights campaigner whose death has sent shockwaves rippling across Africa.

French-Moroccan photographer Leila Alaoui was among the 28 people from 18 different nationalities who were killed in the al-Qaeda attack on the Cappuccino Café in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso's capital.

That so many women were among the estimated 1,000 people who attended her funeral in Marrakech, in defiance of local norms, is testament to Ms Alaoui’s rare ability to break down barriers between opposing worlds.

Born in France, brought up in Morocco and trained in photography in New York, Ms Alaoui’s friends and family say she was fascinated by the idea of passing through the borders put up by people between countries, races, religions and genders.

The 33-year-old was working for Amnesty International on a major project exploring women’s rights in Africa when she was killed by jihadists from the al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) group.

Shot twice in the leg and chest, Ms Alaoui had recovered to a stable condition after surgery and was able to speak to her parents before, as a medical evacuation was being prepared, she suffered a fatal heart attack.


Getting my portrait taken by a Syrian boy in a tented refugee settlement in the Bekaa Valley, Lebanon.

A photo posted by Leila Alaoui (@leilaalaoui) on


Never had that many people posing in front of my camera! #india

A photo posted by Leila Alaoui (@leilaalaoui) on


#rencontresarles #arles #photography

A photo posted by Leila Alaoui (@leilaalaoui) on

Her death, announced in a statement from Amnesty on Monday morning, saw the death toll from that attack rise to 30, as well as scores wounded.

Ms Alaoui had been parked outside the Cappuccino Café with Amnesty employee and driver Mahamadi Ouedraogo, a father of four who was also killed.

After attacking the café, a popular destination among foreigners in the city, the gunmen took hostages in a nearby luxury hotel. The siege was broken on Saturday morning with the assistance of French anti-terror experts, and all four gunmen were shot dead.

"The Moroccans" by Leila Alaoui

Posted by Leila Alaoui on Sunday, 8 November 2015

As she died in a hospital in Burkina Faso, 3,000 miles away in Paris an exhibition of her last completed work The Moroccans was coming to the end of its showing at the prestigious Maison Européenne de la Photographie.

The exhibition featured life-size portraits of people from different communities across Morocco, and Ms Alaoui said the project was designed to counter the “tired exoticisation” of North Africa and the Arab world.

Speaking to The Independent after attending Ms Alaoui’s funeral on Wednesday, her cousin Yalda Alaoui said the artist was fast “becoming an icon” in her home country.

Crowds attend Leila Alaoui's funeral in the Imam Souhaili Cemetery in Marrakech, 20 January 2016 (supplied)

“She was representing Arab women in the art world, a visionary when it came to topics like immigration and women’s rights,” Yalda says.

“Demonstrations happened in her name today in Morocco and over 2100 articles were written about her. The French parliament observed a minute of silence for her today too.

“However all this will not bring me back my closest cousin, who was like a sister to me. We were very similar, both physically and mentally.”

Yalda Alaoui (left) said her cousin Leila (right) was 'like a sister to me'
Yalda (left) now works in finance London, but says she and her artist cousin were 'very similar physically and mentally'

Amnesty told The Independent Ms Alaoui was commissioned for a series of exemplary photos of women working towards the empowerment women and girls in Burkina Faso, which was to be exhibited for International Women’s Day on 8 March.

The charity sent this newspaper two photographs taken by Ms Alaoui in her last days, which are included below.

The organisation was drawn to the artist because of the way she brought out the inner strength of marginalised communities in previous works.

Slam artist Malika Ouattara, known as 'Malika La Slammeuse', photographed by Leila Alaoui in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso on 13 January (Supplied)
Martine Kabore, who works at a shelter for young girls who have experienced forced marriage, early pregnancy and sexual violence, photographed by Leila Alaoui in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, on 13 January (Supplied)

The message of the My Body My Rights campaign she was working on was to be one that showed the individuals not as victims but as inspiring women and girls, within a broader campaign of empowerment and positive change.

Amnesty International’s director in Burkina Faso, Yves Traore, said: “Leila was an extraordinary young woman. We wanted to work with her because of her talent, and her passion for helping women, girls and marginalised people tell their own stories and claim their rights.

“As a strong woman herself, she wanted to show women as authors of their own destiny, not as victims. We are all devastated by her loss.”

That impression of Ms Alaoui as a “strong woman” is one repeated by her cousin Yalda.


Photoshoot #India

A photo posted by Leila Alaoui (@leilaalaoui) on

“She was extremely strong and after the attack never doubted she would survive, despite her being badly wounded by a Kalashnikov,” she says.

“In her hospital bed she kept asking about her driver – no one told her he had actually died – and wasn't so concerned about herself. She kept telling her parents she would be fine.”

While based in Morocco, Ms Alaoui also worked on projects designed to help refugees trying to or thinking about making the dangerous Mediterranean crossing to Europe.

And prior to the major European refugee crisis of the past two years, Ms Alaoui worked with the UNHCR and the Danish Refugee Council to raise awareness of the plight of asylum-seekers in Lebanon.

In 2013, she said she had already been working on documenting issues of migration, refugees and cultural diversity for six years.

Of her subjects, she explained at the time: “"I don't want to show them vulnerable and miserable. When someone looks at you, you just see a person that is just human and real, strong, beautiful. I don't want to have a condescending approach.”

In the statement declaring its responsibility for the Ouagadougou attacks, AQIM described it as “a drop in the sea of global jihad” and said it comes “within a series of operations to cleanse the land of Islam and Muslims from the dens of global espionage”, according to a translation published by SITE Intelligence Group.

It was the group's first attack in Burkina Faso, and Amnesty said Ouagadougou was not deemed a high risk destination for its employees. In Ms Alaoui, the group has killed a woman who spent most of her adult life reaching out to and raising awareness of the plight of marginalised Muslims.

Yalda described Wednesday as “a hard but beautiful day”. “There was so much love and so many people came to the cemetery,” she says.

“She is the proof jihadists kill anyone, Muslim or not. They do not and cannot represent Islam.”

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