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The jihadist offensive in West Africa

The terrorist attacks in Ouagadougou (capital of Burkina Faso) and Grand Bassam (tourist region of Ivory Coast) have shown that all West African countries are at risk of terrorism. Extremist groups of jihadist matrix, both the major ones (AQIM- Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, and Daesh) and the minor ones (Macina Liberation Front, Ansar Dine, etc) may operate anywhere. This is the result of the rivalry between AQIM and Daesh.

The attacks in Ouagadougou and Grand Bassam had been preceded by that of Bamako (capital of Mali), which took place on 22 November 2015. Also in that case the jihadists’ target was a hotel (the Radisson Blu Hotel) which was hosting many foreigners, and where the overall number killed in the attack was 22. Nevertheless the tragic Bamako event did not raise much astonishment, as it had occurred in a country that was painfully emerging from a phase of instability, which started in January 2012, during which many events occurred: the Tuareg rebellion, a coup d’etat and the loss of control of the northern regions, due to the action of jihadist groups. Basically, Mali had already been the theatre, for some time, of terrorist operations, to the point that the number of Western tourists in the country had dramatically decreased.

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The Ouagadougou attack instead, was a kind of wake-up call. Although Burkina Faso was emerging from a phase of instability which began when President Blaise Compaore was outsted in October 2014, the country was still considered reasonably safe from terrorism, at least in the central areas, until the 15 January attack at the Splendid Hotel and Café Cappuccino, in which 30 people were killed.
As far as the Grand Bassam events are concerned, it must be pointed out that the authorities of Ivory Coast did not overlook warning signs. They feared an attack and had taken preventive measures, inter alia, the strengthening of the defences of sensitive targets even of those not directly linked to institutions, such as some hotels of Abidjan, the main city in the country. However, Ivory Coast authorities mostly focused on the main towns, such as Abidjan and the capital Yamoussoukro, which they considered as the most likely targets of terrorist attacks, while they overlooked Grand Bassam, which is quite close to Abidjan.

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According to the French press, the hoteliers of Grand Bassam feared an attack in the town, and expected the worst when they realised that authorities did not consider Grand Bassam as a possible terrorist target. Unfortunately their fears became reality on 13 March, when a group of armed men fired on beach-goers at three different hotels of the town, killing 18 people. That was Ivory Coast’s first terrorist attack of jihadist matrix.

 AQMI  against Daesh

The tragic events that occurred in Ivory Coast, despite the measures taken by the authorities, and the increase in the radius of action of extremist formations are, in the first place, the result of the growing rivalry between the two major transnational organisations, AQIM and Daesh (also known as Islamic State). The first, is linked to  the Al Qaeda network and has been active for years in the Sahel, while the second  has only recently showed up on the  African scene. However, Daesh is increasing its  consensus among the extremists in the region, while AQIM is losing ground. Branches of AQIM have switched to Daesh, which has established its stronghold in Sirte (Libya) and it has a strong presence in Egypt (through the Wilayat Sinai group) and Nigeria (with Boko Haram), while AQMI through its several branches continues to operate in a larger number of countries. Against  the media and military offensive of Daesh, AQMI, since late 2015, has increased its attacks  against targets which are more likely to attract media attention in order to reaffirm its presence. Daesh, which is currently under pressure both in Egypt and Nigeria, and to a lesser extent in Libya, seems to be affected by the initiative of its rivals, but one cannot rule out a campaign of spectacular terrorist actions carried out by those who refer to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

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An  alarming factor to security forces is that attacks are increasingly accomplished by people belonging to different ethnic groups of sub-Saharan Africa: Malinké, Bambara, Peul, Songhai, Mossi etc. This means that terrorist groups have recruited  extremists who speak one or more of the local languages and therefore are able to mix in with the civilian population while they prepare their attacks. In fact, both  AQIM and Daesh’s leaderships are in the hands of people of Arab or Berber origin (the Tuareg are a Berber branch). The MLF’s leader is a Malinké. Boko Haram, which is a group mainly active in Nigeria, Cameroon, Niger and Chad, is still led  by a sub-Saharan (Abubakar Shekau), though  it is increasingly taking orders from Daesh, with which it is affiliated.
Another element to consider is the growing influence of fundamentalist Islamic movements in the region, even in countries like Senegal, considered until now immune from fundamentalism thanks to a strong religious tradition. The very fact that at the beginning of 2016, a debate on whether women should or should not have the veil imposed (a hypothesis which was however rejected by the local Muslim leaders) shows that foreign criteria and customs are slowly affecting the local ones. This factor, along with widespread poverty and lack of social and economic opportunities, favours  the recruitment of people by jihadist groups.

Next targets

On 14 April, the Ivorian media outlets spread a security document released by the secret services reporting about a man said to be the brain behind the terrorist attack at the Grand Bassam Hotel in Ivory Coast. He confirmed, during interrogation by Ivorian security agencies, that Ghana and Togo have been marked for terror strikes.

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The alert states in part that the choice of Ghana by the terrorists is to ‘take away the perception that only francophone countries are the target’. Ghana, in particular, would be the first non-francophone country to be attacked by extremists (excluding Nigeria, but that’s another story). On 15 March the information site Mondafrique included also Benin and Senegal among possible targets. Only time will tell if the security forces of the countries throughout the world will be able to halt the terrorist offensive.

Andrea Carbonari

 

 

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