Analysis: Ivory Coast witnesses surge in jihadist activity

Map of jihadist attacks inside Ivory Coast since 2016. Map made by Caleb Weiss for FDD’s Long War Journal.

Since late March of this year, northern Ivory Coast has been subject to a substantial increase in jihadist attacks. This includes the country’s first known instances of improvised explosive devices (IEDs). 

This trend proves a worrying development as jihadist violence in the Sahel, especially in Mali and Burkina Faso, continues to spread southward threatening the littoral West African states. 

Since Mar. 29, Ivory Coast has witnessed at least 9 jihadist strikes within its territory. This number represents a stark increase in attacks as 2020 saw just one assault in June of that year and a presumed jihadist attack in late December. 

These raids came four years after the first reported jihadist assault, the 2016 terrorist attack perpetrated by al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in Grand Bassam. 

The recent spate of attacks inside Ivory Coast have been predominantly located in two northern districts of the country: Savanes and Zanzan. Both districts border southwestern Burkina Faso, where units within al Qaeda’s Group for Support of Islam and Muslims (JNIM) have been increasingly active. 

It is largely from JNIM’s bases in southwestern Burkina Faso where the incursions into Ivorian territory have taken place. Analyst Heni Nsaibia has previously documented that JNIM’s largely Fulani constituent group, Katibat Macina, has had an established base near the Burkinabe border town of Alidougou in the past. 

Likewise, Katibat Macina has also had a base inside Ivorian territory within the Comoe National Park. According to Jeune Afrique, the Comoe National Park had been used by Katibat Macina as a refuge and transit route. 

In May 2020, Ivory Coast and Burkina Faso launched a joint operation to flush the jihadists out of the park, dubbed Operation Comoe, which prompted a series of intense clashes

While the operation was reportedly successful in destroying the aforementioned Alidougou base and the capture of a jihadist leader, this has not stopped the spread of jihadist violence in southwestern Burkina Faso. And not long after the end of the operation, at least 10 soldiers were killed in the aforementioned June assault. 

As a result, militants are still able to move into northern Ivory Coast. 

First use of IEDs

Worrying still, Katibat Macina has begun to transfer tactics used in both Mali and Burkina Faso into northern Ivory Coast. Since April 2021, the country has reported at least four improvised explosive device attacks in its northern districts.

On April 1, for example, a civilian vehicle struck an IED near Kafolo in the northern Savanes district. Meanwhile, on April 12, an Ivorian gendarme vehicle struck another IED just south of Kafolo. 

On May 26, Kafolo was the scene of another IED against an Ivorian military patrol. And on June 12, one soldier and two gendarmes were killed by an IED during a patrol near Tehini in the Zanzan district.

This trend is disturbingly similar to the situations in both Burkina Faso and Niger wherein a slow trickle of initial IEDs eventually gave way to larger and more frequent attacks. 

In fact, the introduction of IEDs in Burkina Faso was used as a metric to gauge that country’s growing insurgency in its northern areas in 2017 and its eastern regions in 2018.

The fact that IEDs are becoming an increasing threat in northern Ivory Coast does not bode well for the country’s trajectory in dealing with a nascent conflict. 

Looking Ahead

The fledgling insurgency inside Ivory Coast remains small and largely contained to its northernmost districts bordering Burkina Faso. However, experts and rights groups have sounded the alarm over potential risks of inflamed tensions in the country, especially around the lasting presidency of Alassane Ouattara or ethnic clashes, which could in turn be beneficial for jihadists. 

It is also possible that a heavy-handed military response, similar to one seen inside Burkina Faso, could lead to increased public discontent and a more fertile recruitment ground for the jihadists. 

Following the June 2020 Kafolo raid, the government of Ivory Coast declared its northern districts a “military zone.” Moreover, France and Ivory Coast recently opened a “counter-terrorism academy” in the West African country. 

Jean-Yves Le Drian, France’s Foreign Minister, said that the academy is to teach the Ivorians “how to fight effectively against terrorist groups that are more mobile than ever… how to prevent them from importing their strategy here.” It is currently unclear if Ivory Coast will undertake any significant change to its strategy against the growing violence. 

Earlier this year, French intelligence reiterated al Qaeda’s desire to expand further into the coastal West African states. While attacks have increased inside Ivory Coast, it is not the only state seeing a rise in jihadist violence. 

In nearby Benin, jihadist violence has also begun to spill over into that country’s northern frontiers. Meanwhile, both Togo and Ghana have also increased security along their northern borders as jihadists, from both al Qaeda and the Islamic State, continue to push southward from the Sahel.  

As such, Ivory Coast, along with most of coastal West Africa, currently exists in a precarious security climate as jihadist attacks continue to increase within its borders. It remains to be seen just how well it will respond to this growing threat. 

List of jihadist attacks inside Ivory Coast since 2016:

March 13, 2016: AQIM gunmen stormed a beach resort at Grand Bassam, killing at least 19 people. AQIM’s statement notes the attack was a joint operation between its Sahara Emirate and its Katibat al-Murabitoon. 

May 2020: Ivory Coast and Burkina Faso launch Operation Comoe against militants belonging to Katibat Macina in each country’s respective borderlands. During the operation, intense clashes between Ivorian state forces and Katibat Macina were reported near the town of Tindalla in the Savanes district. 

June 11, 2020: Suspected jihadists raided a military outpost near the town of Kafolo in the Savanes district, killing at least 10 soldiers. The attack went unclaimed but local officials placed responsibility on Katibat Macina. 

December 30, 2020: Suspected jihadists targeted a patrol near Kodienou in the Zanzan district, killing one gendarme. 

March 29, 2021: Militants suspected of belonging to Katibat Macina attacked an army post near Kafolo killing at least two people. 

March 29, 2021: Not long after the raid in Kafolo, militants attacked an additional army post near the town of Tehini in the neighboring Zanzan district leaving at least one gendarme dead. 

April 1, 2021: Ivory Coast suffered its first reported IED attack when a civilian vehicle was hit not far from Kafolo. 

April 12, 2021: A gendarmerie vehicle was struck by an IED blast just outside of Kafolo. 

May 19, 2021: Suspected jihadists destroyed a customs post near Kamonokaha in the Savanes district. 

May 19, 2021: Shortly after the Kamonokaha attack, another customs post was destroyed in Korohouita on the border with the Valle du Bandama district. 

May 26, 2021: A third IED was detonated on Ivorian troops on patrol near Kafolo, though no one was injured. 

June 7, 2021: Suspected jihadists assaulted the town of Tougbo, a village on the border with Burkina Faso in the Zanzan district. At least one Ivorian soldier was killed in a subsequent skirmish with the militants. 

June 12, 2021: One Ivorian soldier and two gendarmes were killed by an IED during a patrol near the town of Tehini. 

Caleb Weiss is a contributor to FDD's Long War Journal and a senior analyst at the Bridgeway Foundation, where he focuses on the spread of the Islamic State in Central Africa.

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