COTE D’IVOIRE: Terrorist attack in north underscores expanding threat


An attack on a military and gendarmerie outpost in the northern town of Kafolo, Savannes district that left about a dozen security forces dead and several injured on 11 June marked the second major terrorist incident on Ivorian soil since March 2016. In the previous incident, three Malian Islamist fighters of Islamist non-state armed group (NSAG) al-Mourabitoun conducted a firearms attack in the tourist resort Grand-Bassam on the Gulf of Guinea coast.

Although no group claimed responsibility for the Kafolo attack, anonymous security sources claimed in news reports that Katiba la Macina, an NSAG led by Burkinabe national Amadou Kouffa and allied to Jamaat Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (JNIM), was responsible. They claimed that the attack was in retaliation to a joint counter-terrorism operation which the two countries’ armies launched on 12 May. Politicians with links to the Ivorian government, however, suggested the attack was conducted ‘from within’ the national territory – a clear hint towards involvement by Guillaume Soro, the former president of the National Assembly and leader of the Forces Nouvelles rebel group. Since December 2019, Soro has had an international arrest warrant to his name, accused by the Ouattara administration of plotting a coup.

However, there is little evidence to support he was behind the latest attack, and the Islamist terrorist link is more plausible given the current counter-terrorism operation in the area. Should the Islamist link be confirmed, this will underscore the expanding Islamist terrorist threat in the Sahel and West Africa, despite some recent successes by foreign military forces against the Sahelian militants over the past two years. On 3 June, French special forces killed Abdelmalek Droukdel (also known by his nom de guerre Abu Musab Abdel Wadoud), the leader of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and several of his close associates. Several other senior JNIM commanders have also been killed since 2019, including Yahya Abu Hammam (nom de guerre) – the former leader of AQIM’s West Africa and Sahel branch and the second-in-command of JNIM – who was killed in February 2019.

In parallel, Islamist militant groups in Burkina Faso and Mali have continued to expand their operations southwards, highlighted by the kidnapping of two French nationals in northern Benin in May 2019 from Pendjari National Park, on the border with Burkina Faso. Canadian mining company Semafo, which operates the Boungou mine in south-eastern Burkina Faso – not too far from Pendjari – has also suffered multiple attacks prompting it to halt operations in December 2019.

Amid an unprecedented pandemic, brought by the onset of the novel coronavirus (SARS-Cov2), in conjunction with looming presidential elections scheduled for November, Ivorian authorities face a tough balancing act of priorities.

Despite Operation Comoé, there is a realistic probability Islamist militant sentiment will gain a foothold in the area. Indeed, the border region bears similarities with other areas affected by Islamist militant activities in Sub-Saharan Africa, such as severe poverty and feelings of social and economic exclusion, although significant investments in infrastructure and education have been made in the area under the current administration. Northern Côte d’Ivoire is comparatively poorer than the country’s southern regions and is predominantly inhabited by communities of Islamic confession. While the area also has significant Christian communities who have lived in relative peace with their Muslim counterparts for many years, there are indications of a growing influx of more fundamenalist Islamic thought which has gained a foothold among younger cohorts of society in the peripheries of larger urban areas, such as Korhogo, over the past few years. Furthermore, nationalist Ivorian sentiment advocated by the Front Populaire Ivoirien of former president Laurent Gbagbo – who is due to return to the country this year after being acquitted by the International Criminal Court in 2019 – commonly conflate ‘immigrants’ with ‘Muslims from the north’, and the party has made several references to the current president, Alassane Ouattara – a Muslim originating from what is now known as Burkina Faso – as being a ‘foreigner’. The party still questions his Ivorian nationality as he was born in the French colony formerly known as Upper Volta. Should Gbagbo be allowed back into the country, it is probable that such rhetoric will intensify, as his supporters will be galvanised. Such friction between the north and the south was also evident during national crises of 2002 and 2011.

Given the expanding Islamist terrorist threat throughout the Sahel, and with security forces in countries across the region battling with a series of parallel security and stability risks, such as elections and the COVID-19 pandemic, further attacks are likely in the six-month outlook. Security force and government facilities are likely to be targeted, while low-probability high-impact attacks in major urban areas are also probable.


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