Is Terrorism in West Africa the New Normal?

Security officials across West Africa are working to rapidly scale up their intelligence sharing capabilities and tighten border security after an alarming week.

On Sunday militants affiliated with al-Qaeda’s North African branches, AQIM and al Mourabitoun, walked onto the beach at Grand Bassam and opened fire. Within an hour, they had killed 16 civilians and three Ivorian soldiers, as well as wounding 33 people, many of whom are still being treated for their injuries.

The March 13th attack fits into an uncomfortable pattern in which AQIM (al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb) has attempted to extend its sphere of influence across the continent by using lethal force against civilians. “It’s only about two months after the attack in Ouagadougou (Burkina Faso), which was two months after the attack in Bamako (Mali),” notes Carrie Reiling, a Côte d’Ivoire specialist and former Fulbright Scholar, now based at the University of California – Irvine.

AQIM’s aggressive series of recent attacks have focused on “soft targets” across three separate West African countries: Burkina Faso, Mali, and now Côte d’Ivoire. Each of these operations was targeted to inflict maximum civilian casualties and attract high levels of media attention, in line with AQIM’s performative brand of violence. At a time when AQIM is under constant pressure in its usual sphere of operations in the Sahel, the group is seeking to assert itself by projecting an image of violent strength.

Now based in northern Mali, AQIM has its origins in a jihadist group that formed in Algeria in the 1990’s with fierce anti-French sentiment. When AQIM became an Al-Qaeda affiliate in 2006, the group’s second in command said he planned to position his organization as “a bone in the throat of the American and French crusaders and their allies” in North Africa. As Côte d’Ivoire enters three days of national mourning, it is clear that a decade on, the violent extremist network, has set its sights further afield.

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In addition to providing AQIM with an opportunity to attack a former French Colonial Capital, “AQIM likely chose Bassam because it’s one of the leisure places for both Ivoirians and foreigners” said Reiling. Grand Bassam serves as both a symbol of its recent economic growth, and the country’s contemporary and colonial ties to France.

Côte d’Ivoire “is an ally of France, which is playing the dominant counter-terrorism role in the region, and AQIM is likely to looking to broaden the war to weaken the counter-terrorism effort”, said Professor Scott Straus, who specializes in African  politics at the University of Wisconsin – Madison.

In a statement released after the shootings at Grand Bassam, AQIM directly menaced “all countries involved in the French invasion of Mali,” according to a translation from SITE Intelligence, who monitor communications from violent extremist networks. AQIM makes specific reference to going after civilians in “in their places of refuge.”

The realization that Côte d’Ivoire was likely to have been targeted for an AQIM attack because of its solid economic growth and its relationship with France, has put other West African states like Ghana and Senegal on high alert.

In her message to Côte d’Ivoire, Liberia’s President, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf acknowledged that “this attack has implications for the peace and security of the entire Mano River Basin (Côte d’Ivoire, Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia) and generates a sense of foreboding in [the] region.”

That sense of apprehension is particularly strong in Senegal, which has been conducting exercises with specialized units of soldiers for this exact style of attack since January, when French intelligence reports indicated that African states with strong French ties were facing a heightened risk of terrorist activity.

Ghana, which shares a border with Côte d’Ivoire is also particularly is concerned about the “upsurge of terrorist attacks” in West Africa over the last four months. The heads of Ghana’s armed services met with the, president and his national security advisors and concluded that “there is a credible terrorist threat to all countries in the sub-region.”

Moving forward, governments in West Africa are now facing two key challenges as they work to prevent the next Grand Bassam. The first will be negotiating how to heighten security against future attacks without overly securitizing everyday spaces. The second, and most critical challenge will be to avoid alienating the Muslim communities that AQIM is now attempting to recruit from.