Al Qaeda Is Spreading Across West Africa
Beach attack signals terror group's growing ambition
Côte d’Ivoire has become the latest country in West Africa to suffer a major terror attack. No fewer than 15 civilians and three special forces troops died when six attackers opened fire on the beaches in Grand-Bassam, a seaside town that’s popular with expats.
Thirty-three people were wounded.
Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb claimed responsibility. The Grand-Bassam assault is the latest in long string of attacks linked to Al Qaeda and its affiliates. Far from beaten, the terror group is spreading across West Africa.
On Jan. 15, gunmen opened fire in central Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso. And on Nov. 20 last year, a similar attack took place at the Radisson Blue Hotel in Mali’s capital Bamako. AQIM and various linked groups have also claimed many smaller attacks, mostly in Mali.
Jihadi groups have operated in Mali and neighboring countries for decades. AQIM, West Africa’s local Al Qaeda branch, actually evolved from an Algerian terror group. In 2012, AQIM and associated groups were instrumental in the Islamist takeover of northern Mali, which prompted a French military intervention in 2013.
In contrast to Islamic State, Al Qaeda has always been a decentralized organization. AQIM and its affiliates are a perfect example of this.
AQIM is the “official” Al Qaeda franchise in the region, but it tolerates the existence of several other semi-autonomous terror groups within its sphere of influence — and in some cases AQIM purportedly facilitated their creation.
Case in point — the Macina Liberation Front, which took responsibility for the Radisson Blue attack. Officially dedicated to recreating the Macina Empire, the group is widely believed to be a local front for AQIM. Its leader Hamadou Kouffa has reportedly had great success in mobilizing members of his Pheul/Fulani community.
Another associated group, Ansar Dine is led by Ihad ag Ghali, a Tuareg with a long history of resistance against the Malian state. AQIM has also managed to survive several defections and splinter movements, the most prominent being that of Mokthar Belmokthar. Wrongly proclaimed dead on several occasions, Belmokthar is widely considered to be one of the region’s top terrorist masterminds, with an astonishing number of complex attacks to his credit.
That AQIM and its affiliates have now conducted two high-profile attacks outside Mali within a short period of time is interesting and worrying at the same time — and flies in the face of French efforts to deny terrorist groups the freedom to operate in the region. It almost certainly means that the group’s leadership judges itself to be strong and unified enough to handle the risks and demands associated with striking beyond its traditional area of operations.
Neither Burkina Faso nor Côte d’Ivoire has a significant local jihadi scene nor even great sympathy for AQIM’s cause among the population.
Côte d’Ivoire, a former French colony and home to one of the major deepwater ports in francophone West Africa, is a major logistical hub for France’s military. The rapid intervention in Mali in 2013 was possible only because French forces were already prepositioned in neighboring Côte d’Ivoire.
One attack won’t deny France this advantage, of course. But again in contrast to Islamic State, Al Qaeda’s ideology isn’t primarily geared towards holding territory. While both groups want to reestablish the Caliphate — and Islamic State has claimed to have done so — Al Qaeda sees this as a long-term goal, attainable only after a struggle of a century or more.
In that sense, the recent spate of attacks in West Africa is aimed at exhausting France, the main Western enemy of the Islamists in this particular theater. Without a doubt, AQIM’s leadership is banking on Paris doubling down on its military and diplomatic commitment to the region, thereby opening its military and citizens to even more attacks.
France won’t take this lying down, of course, and its special forces have been quite successful in eliminating Islamist fighters and leaders throughout the Sahel. But the military approach to combating terrorism has limits, as the United States has discovered in Iraq and Afghanistan. Still, so far France has refused to reconsider its approach to its former colonies.
After Ougadougou and Grand-Bassam, one doesn’t have to be a fortune-teller to predict more attacks against French interests in the region. The most likely targets are Niamey, France’s main military hub in Mali’s neighbor Niger — and Dakar, the capital of Senegal and a major economic and political hotspot in the region which is also home to many French nationals. Other high-profile targets could include Chad’s capital N’Djamena and the government of Mauritania.
While France lost four citizens in Grand-Bassam, the majority of the victims were, of course, Ivoirian. Destabilizing the politics and economies of West Africa is beneficial to AQIM, as it relies on weak governments and badly-governed spaces to operate. But France’s intervention in Mali shows that to achieve the complete collapse of order in one of these states, AQIM first needs to eliminate the presence of France and other major powers.