Over the past year, the rapid encroachment of Sahel-based Islamist militant groups on the borders of West African coastal states has prompted widespread concern that previously unaffected locales are now under threat. Based on the geographic dispersal of regional militant actors and their current capabilities and intent, EXX Africa assesses the possible scenarios and likely locations for a terrorist attack in these coastal hubs.
Since 2015, a rapid expansion of Islamist militant activity in West Africa and the Sahel has corresponded with an unprecedented level of violence across the region. In particular, high-impact terrorist attacks in major urban centres in Mali, Burkina Faso, and Côte d’Ivoire have become more frequent, pointing to both an increased capability and reach on the part of regional militant organisations. As the violence encroaches on the borders of West African coastal states, concerns abound that the terrorist threat may spill-over into these previously unaffected locales.
The Primary Threat Actors
Who they are and where they operate
With the exception of Nigeria, no militant groups have demonstrated a significant operational presence in West African coastal states. However, since 2015, the number and geographic distribution of Islamist militant groups operating in West Africa and the Sahel region have increased at a rapid pace, extending the risk to these regions.
The primary hub of militant activity in the Sahel stretches from north-eastern Mali and western Niger, to south-eastern Burkina Faso, encompassing the border areas between the three states. Groups operating here include the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS), and an Islamist militant coalition, Jama’at Nusrat al Islam wal Muslimeen (JNIM). JNIM includes several regional groups, including Ansar Dine, the Sahara-based branch of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), and Al Mourabitoun (See MALI: UNRELENTING SOUTHWARD EXPANSION OF ISLAMIST MILITANCY IN THE SAHEL).
Despite numerous international counter-terrorism efforts, militants in the Sahel have intensified their activities over the past five years. The number of militancy-related violent incidents across the region reached a peak in 2018, when 465 incidents were recorded, compared to 90 in 2016. In addition, French and UN military operations in Mali have pushed many militants beyond their established areas of operation in the north-east of the country, into previously unaffected areas. For instance, 2018 saw a surge of militant attacks connected to both JNIM and ISGS in south-eastern Burkina Faso, in close proximity to the country’s borders with Ghana, Benin, and Togo (See BURKINA FASO: COUNTERING THE SPREAD OF ISLAMIST MILITANCY).
A second regional hub of militant activity is in north-eastern Nigeria, and the border areas between Niger, Chad, Nigeria, and Cameroon. The primary groups operating in this region are Boko Haram and its offshoot, the Islamic State in West Africa Province (ISWAP). Boko Haram and ISWAP’s activities remain focused on north-eastern Nigeria and across its border, where they are conducting an insurgency against the Nigerian military. However, Boko Haram has previously threatened to enter into northern Benin through its porous north-eastern border with Nigeria although thus far there have been no incidents in Benin associated with the group (See SPECIAL REPORT: THE RETURN OF BOKO HARAM IN AND BEYOND NIGERIA?).
Militant groups operating in West Africa and the Sahel have varying degrees of capability. The majority of attacks orchestrated by these groups occur in outlying areas where they either conduct direct assaults on villages and pastoral camps during which they kill high numbers of civilians and loot as many goods as possible, or conduct raids or improvised explosive device (IED) attacks against army positions and patrols.
However, several groups have also demonstrated the capability to conduct complex coordinated assaults in regional urban hubs. For example, on 2 March 2018 JNIM conducted an attack in Ougoudougou, the capital of Burkina Faso, simultaneously targeting the Burkinabe national army headquarters, the French Embassy, and the French Institute, killing 30 people. Such attacks have included the use of suicide vests and vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices (VBIEDs) (See BURKINA FASO: SIDELINED SECURITY SERVICES SEEK COLLABORATION WITH ARMED MILITANTS).
This increase in the geographic spread, as well as the volume and intensity of violence in the past two years, is in large part a product of greater cooperation and coordination between regional militant groups which has facilitated the formation of militant coalitions. In addition, the capability of militant groups to conduct operations across national borders has been bolstered through close connections to regional criminal activity, including the smuggling of arms and ammunition.
Attacks in West African urban centres remain driven in large part by resistance to foreign military intervention in Mali, especially ongoing French counter-terrorism operations. Islamist groups in the Sahel have also proclaimed their intent to carry out attacks on targets linked to those countries participating in the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilisation Mission in Mali (MINUSMA). This includes most states in the West Africa and the Sahel region, as well as a high number of Western countries. Correspondingly, the vast majority of militant attacks across the region have targeted international and local forces engaged in peacekeeping and counter-insurgency operations.
However, attacks in major urban centres have overwhelmingly targeted sites associated with the presence of high numbers of Western civilians, such as popular restaurants and hotels, as well as embassies. Areas where French nationals routinely congregate, including French government and military facilities, are especially likely to be targeted in such attacks. However, all Westerners are ostensibly under threat, as indicated by previous attacks on sites where large numbers of foreign nationals from a variety of Western states are present. While no attacks have yet taken place in West Africa against large malls or shopping complexes, these are also likely to constitute primary targets due to the typically high number of Western expats frequenting such locations.
Anatomy of a militant attack
Taking into account the historical modus operandi of militant groups in West Africa, as well as their current capabilities, the most likely form of attack in any of the large urban centres in West African coastal states is an assault by multiple gunmen on a prominent restaurant, hotel, foreign embassy, beach resort, or shopping complex.
Most previous attacks have involved groups of between two and ten attackers armed with assault rifles and wearing suicide vests. In some cases, assailants wore the official uniforms of state security forces, both delaying the reaction of victims in the target area, as well as complicating efforts by first responders to positively identify threats. As demonstrated in Burkina Faso in March 2018, such an attack may also consist of multiple groups of gunmen targeting disparate locations simultaneously.
In a number of major attacks in urban centres in Mali and Burkina Faso, militants have also employed IEDs/VBIEDs as precursors to an assault by multiple gunmen. In some instances, IEDs/VBIEDs employed against secondary targets have also been used to draw the attention of security forces and emergency services away from the primary site of an assault, increasing the overall lethality of an attack. However, with limited presence in the West African coastal states, militants are less likely to be able to manufacture or transport VBIEDs as easily as in the Sahel.
Top Ten West African Cities at Risk
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(1) Abidjan and (2) San Pedro (Côte d’Ivoire)
One previous terrorist attack has been recorded in Cote d’Ivoire: On 13 March 2016, three gunmen carried out an attack on a beach hotel in Grande-Bassam (30km east of Abidjan), killing 19 people (See AL-QAEDA ATTACKS COTE D’IVOIRE). AQIM and Al Mourabitoun jointly claimed responsibility for the attack. Côte d’Ivoire has since increased internal security measures in urban centres, including a greater police presence around vulnerable sites such as prominent hotels. Nonetheless, due to Côte d’Ivoire’s role as a close security partner of France and host to a French military base, militant groups retain a high intent to target the country. Indicative of this, on 8 November 2018, Iyad Ag Ghali, the leader of Ansar Dine, called for attacks against Côte d’Ivoire specifically. One month later, on 6 December 2018, security forces in Mali reportedly apprehended a militant cell which was planning to conduct an attack in Côte d’Ivoire, targeting New Year’s celebrations (See COTE D’IVOIRE: NEW YEAR’S EVE TERROR PLOT INDICATES RISING THREAT OF JIHADISM).
(3) Cotonou and (4) Porto Novo (Benin)
Benin shares over 2,000km with four countries, three of which (Burkina Faso, Niger, and Nigeria) host the above militant groups. In particular, reports of cross-border militant activity in southern Burkina Faso have increased over the past two years, with local residents in northern Benin alleging that Islamist fighters have visited their communities periodically. In early 2019, several incidents indicated a possible escalation of militant activity in the border region. Notably, in May 2019, two French tourists were kidnapped in the Pendjari National Park in northern Benin. While no group claimed responsibility, the victims were rescued days later in a French military operation in northern Burkina Faso, suggesting that militants were involved (See BENIN: POLITICAL UPHEAVAL AND ISLAMIST MILITANCY WILL NOT DERAIL ECONOMIC SUCCESS). In addition, there is some evidence that terrorist cells are present in Benin; in May 2018, 42 people were arrested during counter-terrorism operations. Militant intent to target the coastal country is likely to stem from Benin’s contribution to the UN MINUSMA operation in Mali/Burkina Faso. Benin was also one of the countries specifically mentioned in Ag Ghali’s video last year.
(5) Lomé (Togo)
As with Benin, over the past year Togo has seen an increasing amount of militant activity on the country’s northern border with Burkina Faso. In April 2018, authorities reported that more than 20 militants had entered the country from Burkina Faso, bringing with them notable sums of cash. Thereafter, in response to the growing threat on their borders, Togo, Benin, Burkina Faso, and Ghana conducted a joint security operation in May 2018 in which over 200 people were arrested, many of which on terrorism charges. Additionally, in February 2019, five people, including a Spanish priest, were reportedly killed by Islamist militants during two separate attacks on the border between Togo and Burkina Faso. Togo is also a major contributor to the UN MINUSMA operation in Mali/Burkina Faso, driving intent to target the country. The security response to the threat by the government has focused on increasing military operations in the porous border area, which is likely to have a limited impact on mitigating the risk of an attack in Lomé.
(6) Dakar and (7) St. Louis (Senegal)
Senegal remains one of the foremost contributors to the UN MINUSMA operation in Mali/Burkina Faso, and as such constitutes a potential target for regional militant organisations. Senegal is also a military partner to France and hosts a French military presence at Léopold Sédar Senghor International Airport in Dakar. Direct intent to target the state is also evident, as Senegal was one of the countries mentioned in Ag Ghali’s video last year. Militant cells have been previously dismantled in both St. Louis and Dakar, both of which host high numbers of Western expatriates. Most recently, in July 2018 a Senegalese court sentenced 14 people to prison on charges of belonging to AQIM and Boko Haram. However, since 2016 Senegal has significantly bolstered security measures in major urban centres, including the provision of additional protection for international airports, prominent hotels, and popular tourist sites. While these measures have not been applied consistently, it is likely that they will constrain the ability of militants to carry out attacks in either city (See TERROR THREAT IN DAKAR, SENEGAL).
(8) Accra and (9) Sekondi-Takoradi (Ghana)
As with Benin and Togo, Ghana’s northern border is under threat from militants operating in southern Burkina Faso. Over the past year, Ghanaian security forces have implemented measures to address possible threats, including joint border security operations with neighbouring countries and renewed counter-terrorism training for the Ghanaian police. However, in May 2018, 13 people were arrested in Ghana on terrorism charges, suggesting that militant networks are already operating within the country. Both Accra and Sekondi-Takoradi host a high number of Western tourists and residents, providing a range of target opportunities for militant groups. Intent to target Ghana derives primarily from the country’s ongoing contribution to the UN MINUSMA operation in Mali/Burkina Faso. The country was also specifically named in Ag Ghali’s video last year (See GHANA: TERRORISM THREAT RESURFACES AS ISLAMIST MILITANCY GAINS A FOOTHOLD). The port of Tema has also faced numerous attack scares over the past year, although the viability of such reports has often been questionable and more likely derived from organised crime (See GHANA: SUSPECTED TERRORISM SCARE TO DRIVE DISRUPTION IN TEMA PORT AREA).
(10) Lagos (Nigeria)
While militant activity has focused on the north-east of the country, Boko Haram’s presence extends to Nigeria’s commercial capital. Since 2015, Nigerian security forces have reported multiple police raids targeting Boko Haram militants in the city. Most recently, in December 2018 a prominent Boko Haram leader reportedly responsible for planning several major bombings in the capital, Abuja, was arrested in Lagos. Nonetheless, only one militant attack has taken place in Lagos in the past five years, and it remains likely that Boko Haram will continue to focus the bulk of its efforts further inland and across the border into Niger and Chad. Attacks targeting Western foreign nationals are more likely to take place in Abuja, where multiple IED/VBIED attacks have taken place since 2011 (See NIGERIA: ISLAMIST MILITANTS PREPARE NEW OFFENSIVE TO CAPTURE TERRITORY IN NORTHEAST).