Ivory Coast: The Terrorist Threat
May 1, 2020
May 1, 2020
Why does this matter:
Ivory Coast has been torn by political turmoil on and off since the beginning of the ‘2000s. However, religious extremism did not pose a major threat until 2015, when Islamist militants in Mali attacked closer to the border with Ivory Coast. In 2016, the Ivory Coast suffered the first al Qaeda-led terrorist attack on its soil. Three AQIM gunmen stormed a beach resort east of the capital city Abidjan, killing 19 people. Later, the country assessed that the two most predominant terror groups on its territory were the Malian-based Ansar al-Dine (AAD) and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). These two alongside others merged in 2017 into Jama’a Nusrat ul-Islam wa al-Muslimin’ (JNIM).
The terrorist threat posed to Ivory Coast is believed to come primarily from outside the country. JNIM in neighbouring Mali and Burkina Faso often conduct attacks on both civilian and military targets, approaching the Ivorian border. None of the terrorists involved in al-Qaeda’s March 2016 Grand-Bassam attacks were Ivoirian. More than 80 people were arrested in the weeks following the attack, with the vast majority being Malian. In February 2017, Senegal arrested two suspects in connection to the attack, one of whom came from Mali and the other from Mauritania.
Although Ivorians are unlikely to appeal to the use of regional extremism-motivated violence, support for the foreign terrorist group Hezbollah is documented to be high. Lebanese cultural associations in Ivory Coast largely deny any association with Hezbollah. However, the largest such group (the Al-Ghadir association) is suspected of serving as Hezbollah’s representative in the country. In August 2009, then-leader of Al-Ghadir Imam Abdul Menhem Kobeissi was deported from Côte d’Ivoire after he was sanctioned by the U.S. government for raising money for Hezbollah.
The Ivorian authorities consider that militants from the country’s 2002 and 2010 civil wars need to be monitored to ensure they do not join the cause of violent Islamist groups.
JNIM represents an umbrella organisation, formed in 2017 after the merging of multiple terrorist groups operating across the Sahel, mainly in Mali. Since then JNIM’s insurgency has expanded, reaching Burkina Faso and Niger, while competing with ISIS in the Islamic Maghreb Sahelian branch (ISGS). Breaking down the structure of the organisation, there are two groups that so far posed a threat to the security of Ivory Coast: Al Mourabitoun and Ansar al-Dine.
Al-Mourabitoun is a violent terrorist group that broke off from al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in 2011 but formally rejoined the group in December 2015. In 2017, it further joined JNIM. Led by the well-known Algerian terrorist Mokhtar Belmokhtar, al-Mourabitoun seeks to establish an Islamic state in West Africa. It has claimed responsibility for numerous terror attacks in the Sahel region, including the November 2015 gun and hostage attack in Bamako (Mali).
By the time that AQIM launched the March 2016 attacks in Ivory Coast, al-Mourabitoun and AQIM were formally operating under the same banner. However, the groups are still retaining some degree of autonomy. One of the three gunmen named in the attacks at Grand-Bassam, was a member of AQIM, while the two others were subordinated directly to Al Mourabitoun.
Ansar al-Dine (AAD) was founded in November 2011 by the Malian Tuareg fighter Iyad Ag Ghali, cousin of AQIM senior leader Hamada Ag Hama. Largely formed of Tuareg and northern Malian Berber Arabs, AAD worked closely with AQIM in their joint cause of establishing a sharia-based caliphate in West Africa. Many of the AAD members fought alongside Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi and returned to Mali after his overthrow.
Although AAD is not known to maintain a presence in Ivory Coast, its militants have threatened the country with attacks. In June 2015, the group launched two attacks in southern Mali, close to the border with Ivory Coast. Following the attacks, AAD preacher Ismail Khalil warned that AAD planned to multiply the attacks in Ivory Coast.
In recent years, Ivory Coast has improved domestic and international efforts to combat the growing threat from terrorism. The country has enhanced its border security and supported counterterrorism missions by the African Union, Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), and the United States. It also served as a logistics base for France’s Operation Barkhane in neighbouring Mali, a decision likely to have determined JNIM to step up its efforts to conduct terrorist attacks in the country. Ivory Coast is also part of the international coalition to fight ISIS in Syria, although the Ivorian government did not participate in anti-ISIS airstrikes.
The French military helps Ivorian security forces by sharing intelligence. According to the French Interior Minister, several attacks have been thwarted so far. In October 2019, Ivory Coast started an aerial military bombardment aimed at potential jihadists, close to the Burkinabe border.The operation follows the killing of a guide and the abduction of two French tourists in Pendjari National Park in Benin, near the border with Burkina Faso. Earlier in 2019, the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued warned French tourists not to travel in the Sahel.
Besides customs and police officers, Ivory Coast has over 300 military personnel in charge of monitoring the border. This mission becomes more challenging in the dry season when the rivers recede and crossing over into Ivory Coast becomes easier. Furthermore, the movement of populations between Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso and Mali is very common. Some of the clans are dispersed, with families living across the border. Village festivals are also common, while people making a living from fishing cross the border daily. This increases the risk of Islamist fighters disguising as commuters, with the aim of establishing themselves in the Ivory Coast.
Image: Screen capture of Islamic State video
Ana Maria Baloi is analyst at Grey Dynamics and a MA candidate at Brunel University London, where she studies Intelligence and Security. Her research is focused on China’s policy and strategy towards Africa.
In the last years, Ana has participated at numerous NATO Youth summits and Model United Nations conferences, while working as an intern for the Romanian Senate.