Islamic State claims first attacks inside Benin

Through its weekly Al-Naba newsletter earlier this week, the Islamic State officially claimed its first two operations inside Benin. The attacks now join the chorus of strikes committed inside the littoral West African country by its main regional competitor, al Qaeda’s Group for Support of Islam and Muslims (JNIM).

On Thursday, the Islamic State retroactively took credit for two assaults inside Benin’s northern Alibori Department, which borders both Burkina Faso and Niger. In its first claim, the Islamic State said its men were responsible for an ambush on Beninese troops near the town of Alfa Kawoura on July 1, reportedly killing four soldiers. This incident does not seem to correlate to any known reported attack. 

However, in its second claim, it stated its men carried out the July 2 attack in Benin’s northern Parc W that killed two Beninese soldiers. The jihadist group also released a graphic photo showing the two killed troops. For both assaults, the Islamic State said its Sahel Province, which is more colloquially known as the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS), were responsible. 

Including the uncorroborated Islamic State claim, Benin has now suffered at least 19 jihadist attacks since 2019. This number, however, could be higher. The vast majority have been committed by JNIM. 

ISGS has previously used Benin’s northern areas as a transit route between the Sahel and Nigeria and as a safe-haven for its operations in southwestern Niger. That the Islamic State has now conducted – and later officially claimed – attacks inside Benin demonstrates it has decided to operationalize its presence in the country. 

ISGS thus joins its rival in JNIM in conducting attacks inside littoral West Africa. JNIM has conducted dozens of raids and assaults across the Ivory Coast, Togo, and Benin, killing over 100 people, as violence continues to push further south largely out of Burkina Faso though it also recruits locally across the littoral states. 

Much like the Islamic State, JNIM also formerly used the littoral countries as rear bases and staging grounds prior to changing its posture in the countries into conducting offensive operations. 

The attack claims come as Benin has publicly sought foreign assistance in its fight against jihadist violence within its borders. Last week, Benin confirmed that it was in talks with Rwanda to provide logistical and advisory support in its military operations. 

Rwanda currently has troops deployed in northern Mozambique, where it has helped the southern African country combat the local Islamic State wing, and inside the Central African Republic

Though the military dimension is indeed important, this move nevertheless carries many implications as a military-only policy and heavy-handed approach for its northern regions may risk inflaming the conflicts in Benin. This includes both jihadist violence and the area’s communal violence and banditry as non-jihadis may be lumped into the same category in such a heavy-handed strategy. 

It is clear, however, that Benin, much like its regional neighbors in Togo and Ivory Coast, must enact comprehensive strategies that help both stymie the flow of jihadist attacks into their countries and improve societal conditions that detract local jihadist recruitment and more indigenous jihadi efforts across littoral West Africa. 

That the Islamic State now joins al Qaeda in publicly attacking Benin further highlights this necessity. 

Caleb Weiss is a research analyst at 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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