SIM Report: Militant activity in northern Benin and Togo underscore expanding Sahelian threat

SIM Report: Central & West Africa, Issue 15

BENIN & TOGO: Militant activity in northern regions underscore expanding Sahelian threat

Since November 2021, security forces in Togo and Benin have been specifically targeted by gunmen presumed to be Islamist militants based in Burkina Faso for the first time. And the frequency of attacks is increasing, signalling a mounting terrorism threat in this border region.

Recent events: 

8 to 9 November 2021 : Togolese security forces repel and attempted attack on a security outpost in Sanloaga, Kpendjal prefecture; no casualties were reported among the Togolese security forces.

2 December 2021: Within a few hours, militants targeted one security outpost in Atacora department and one security patrol in Alibori, leaving at least two security force personnel dead.

10 December 2021 : Four Beninese soldiers were injured after their armoured personnel carrier struck a roadside IED In Porga, Atacora.

6 January 2022: Two Beninese soldiers died after their vehicle struck an IED in Pendjari National Park.

These attack incidents are consistent with a broader sub-regional trend seen over the past four years, whereby affiliates to al-Qaeda and Islamic State are expanding their operational zones from northern areas in Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger, by establishing local cells in border areas where they exploit inter-communal tensions and animosity.

AN ANTICIPATED THREAT 

Indications that northern areas of both Benin and Togo were under an escalating threat have been mounting over the past two years and a half at least. Militants have been increasingly active and visible in Burkina Faso’s south and there are anecdotal, although non-negligible, reports of sightings of both al-Qaeda and Islamic State-affiliated militants moving across the border in Benin’s Alibori and Atacora. While JNIM and Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) have cooperated in Sahelian operations in the past, the groups have been at war since 2020, and appear to control Alibori (ISGS) and Atacora (JNIM) separately. There are also indications that Fulani militants based in western Nigeria are also expanding their zone of influence into Benin’s Bourgou department, south of Alibori. To a large extent, the activities are concentrated in and around vast national parks in all three countries. The first major terrorism incident in Benin occurred in May 2019, when two French tourists were kidnapped for ransom and one park ranger was killed by gunmen loyal to al-Qaeda’s regional affiliate, JNIM. A strikingly similar incident occurred in April last year, when two Spaniards and an Irish national were executed across the border in Burkina Faso’s Pama reserve; JNIM claimed responsibility for both incidents.

LOCAL DYNAMICS OF A BROADER REGIONAL TREND 

A similar trend is apparent in Côte d’Ivoire, where gunmen struck a joint police-military outpost in Kafolo in June 2020, which marked the second insurgent attack in-country since al-Mourabitoun targeted the tourist resort Grand Bassam in a marauding terrorist firearms attack four years prior. While Burkinabe and Ivorian security forces have increased deployment to their shared border area, the number of attacks – albeit much smaller in scale – have continued to increase since. Similar indicators are also present near Côte d’Ivoire’s border in southern Mali.

Across the western Sahel, northern areas of littoral states share many common features. These include higher rates of poverty than in the south, increasing marginalisation (actual and perceived), inter-communal friction, and resentment towards their central governments. As seen in both Burkina Faso and Mali, militant groups like JNIM have been apt at capitalising on such sentiments, partly explaining the rapid security deterioration in Burkina Faso over the past five years. Nevertheless, although attacks in Benin, Togo, and Côte d’Ivoire remain comparatively sporadic and concentrated in small areas, the growing presence of NSAGs there signals a rising threat of further incidents over the coming year. 

In the case of Benin, intelligence reports have confirmed that JNIM and ISGS are expanding their operational footprint near the country’s national parks and borders with Burkina Faso and Niger. Furthermore, inter-communal friction has worsened on multiple levels. Primarily this stems from land disputes and competition for natural resources, pitting sedentary farmer communities against cattle herders. Such conflicts are reportedly magnified between settled cattle herders and other communities. Furthermore, the tensions are complicated by a rising level of ethnicisation, with local communities frequently accusing Fulani herders of stoking violence. In parallel, Fulani nationalism is growing, not only in Benin but across the Sahel.

JNIM, in particular, has managed to exploit similar tensions in Burkina Faso and Mali, where ethnic self-defence groups have emerged as a result, and are increasingly targeting Fulani communities but also other communities believed to be key recruitment pools for JNIM. Similar efforts are likely already underway in Benin, where the promotion and increased investments in the country’s national parks, such as Pendjari, as eco-tourism destinations has caused local resentment. On one hand, this is because of a stronger demarcation of the park’s territory, which has disrupted some historical cross-border transhumance routes. On the other, it is alleged that increased securitisation and abuse by private security contractors patrolling the parks explains this growing friction. While NSAGs continue to be primarily based in Burkina Faso’s south and south-east, mainly using Benin and Togo for finance through activities such as smuggling petrol and motorcycles, the risk that these groups may seek to establish a greater presence south of the border cannot be discounted, making the likelihood of further and potentially more deadly attacks over the coming year high.

ASSESSMENT

Two sectors are primarily affected by the growing militant activity in the region. The first is tourism. Tour operators offering safaris and eco-tourism in northern Benin and Togo are likely to see a dip in demand, particularly as Western governments may amend their travel advisories and recommend against non-essential travel to these areas over the next few months. The likelihood of this will increase if more attacks are reported during this timeframe. Such notices will also further undermine demand, already severely dented by travel restrictions imposed during the COVID-19 pandemic, and plans to expand the local industry. Although tourism in Benin constituted no more than 2.4 per cent of GDP in 2020, down from 2.7 per cent the previous year, it remains an important source of foreign exchange and an integral part in the government’s long-term diversification plans. In Togo, tourism accounted for 3.3 per cent of GDP in 2020, down from 7.7 per cent in 2019.

The second sector is transport and logistics. Transport operators and supply chains may be at a heightened risk of disruption due to increased vehicle inspections or, worse, targeted attacks on trucks using some of the key roads in the north. Both Benin and Togo are important trade gateways for landlocked Burkina Faso and Niger, hosting two of West Africa’s largest ports.

The coming three to six months will be critical to assess the severity of the expanding threat in this border area. Organisations with interests in the two countries’ northern region should increase their monitoring of events and adjust operations and strategies accordingly.

WANT TO READ MORE ANALYSIS IN THIS LATEST SIM EDITION...

DR CONGO: Corruption allegations against ex-president’s camp signal mounting compliance and sanctions risks, and elevates political uncertainty

Open-Source Intelligence Review