West Africa: Coastal Countries Under Latent Jihadist Threat

   The pressure exerted by the ‘Barkhane’ operation and the army has been containing Islamic groups. But ever since the attack on Grand-Bassam in the Ivory Coast, the danger remains widespread across the region.

On March 13th, 2016, a small commando of three men died on Grand-Bassam’s beach, but the authorities were far from stunned. The attack, in which nineteen people fell under the bursts of al-Qaeda’s minions in Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), sounded like a chronicle of an announced drama. Incomparable, and inevitable. A few weeks earlier, a French diplomat from the region claimed that ‘the question is not whether there will ever be an attack on the Ivory Coast or Senegal, but rather when it will hit’. Three years later, his predictions were partially realized; the announced attack did take place, but West Africa’s coastal states, lining from Senegal to Benin, were somehow spared. Particularly due to pressure exerted by a 4500-soldier body from the ‘Barkhane’ operation and by the armies of the region, the jihadist groups, which developed in northern Mali extended their actions to the centre of this country, in Niger and Burkina Faso. They also pose a constant and diffuse threat to countries of Guinea’s Gulf.  Since Grand-Bassam, no attack has targeted the Ivory Coast. However, the risk is now embedded in the daily lives of many. If these measures seemed initially intended to reassure clients rather than to prevent attacks from suicide candidates, it is now impossible to enter a mall in Abidjan without submitting thorough security checks. 

         In early December 2018, Malian authorities arrested four jihadists in the Sikasso, the region bordering the Ivory Coast and Burkina Faso. They were reportedly planning attacks on the capitals of these three countries. In the Ivory Coast, army headquarters and a hotel were reportedly targeted for an attack planned for end of year festivities. Another country friend to Paris, Togo, with soldiers actively participating in the UN mission in Mali, has also become a target. According to officials from intelligence services from the region, before Grand-Bassam, a large hotel in Lome, the capital, had temporarily entered the sights of the sponsors of the attack. In April, around 20 suspected jihadists were arrested in Togo and sent back to Burkina Faso. The men reportedly crossed the border to flee Operation Otapuanu (‘lighting’), launched in March by the Burkinabe army in the country’s East and Central-East. During his visit, Oumarou Diallo, aka Diaw Oumarou, a Katiba leader, was arrested when attempting to flee to Togo. Following his interrogation, the Burkinabe Ministry of Security said it was ‘actively looking for 247 individuals involved in a terrorist enterprise’. The jihadist has reported ramifications within southern neighbours of Burkina Faso. 

         The operation has sparked new disseminations. Ouagadougou had warned Beninese authorities that jihadists had infiltrated the North of the territory to escape soldiers. Are kidnappers of Laurent Lassimouillas and Patrick Picque (the two Frenchmen kidnapped in Pendjari park), and assassins of their guide, Fiacre Gdébdji, to be sought for within the ranks? It is too early to tell. Anyhow, the concern that insecurity has spread from Niger and Burkina Faso to the South has now crystallized. According to the African Centre for Security and Intelligence Studies, jihadists have made numerous incursions in Ghana for the past four months. The country’s intelligence services even suspect them to be willing to take action against churches North of the territory. Consequently, border controls have been strengthened. 

         This expansionist strategy has been validated by the highest leaders of the two competing jihadist organisations. In his latest video appearance in late April, leader of the Islamic State (IS) group Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi urged the Emir of ISIS for the Great Sahara and for Abu Walid Al-Sahrawi to step up attacks against France and its African allies. When looking at al-Qaida, its emphasis has constantly been placed on recruitments within the Fulani community, present throughout West Africa and part of Central Africa. In a video released on November 8th, main figure of jihad in Mali, Iyad Ag Ghali; Algerian DjaKatiba Macina and chief Amadou Koufa, have all called to ‘continue jihad’ well beyond current combat land, mentioning Senegal, Bening, the Ivory Coast, Ghana and Cameroon. In 2017, Ag Ghali had already declared that the fight should be extended to new spaces. 

         According to several observers, the rivalry observed between IS affiliates and al-Qaeda is much less significant in the Sahel than it is in the Levant. A reliable source told LeMonde that collaborations have been observed locally. The latter have been facilitated by the fact that many jihadist figures in the region were initially part of Gao and even found themselves within the ranks of the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (Mujao), back when northern Mali was under the control of armed Islamists. 

In a note entitled: ‘The Jihadist Threat: The Gulf of Guinea’, Antonin Tisseron explained that targeted countries have become aware of the danger but that “cooperation remains hampered by a culture of mistrust between states, between the administrations of the same state, and within the same administration.” Another reason for concern is, according to associate researcher at Thomas Moore Institute: ‘ […] that in the Ivory Coast, power is often focused on the 2020 election deadline. In Togo, the opposition has been mobilised since 2017 against the regime in place and a Constitution reform. Finally, in Guinea, Alpha Condé faces social discontent and active opposition…with two risks, that of the instrumentalisation of the terrorist threat and the disorganisation of the security apparatus’. 

        Denial, temptation to use terrorist threats against its opponents and the indistinct repression depicted in the region are the best allies of jihadist groups.

Anne-Sophie Neyra