Is Ivory Coast attack the new normal?

The attacks that killed 16 people yesterday at a beach resort in Cote d’Ivoire were shocking and brutal, but not entirely unexpected.

Security experts had been warning that al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) was a growing threat outside its traditional stronghold in northern Mali. The group, and its affiliate al-Mourabitoun, claimed responsibility for attacks that killed 30 people in Burkina Faso’s capital, Ouagadougou, in January, and 21 people in the Malian capital, Bamako, in November.

In a comprehensive briefing last month, IRIN found the two attacks likely to be the beginning of a trend that would continue in 2016.

See: Briefing: The new jihadist strategy in the Sahel  

Authorities in Cote d’Ivoire were well aware of the threat and had prevented several attacks recently, said William Assanvo of the Institute for Security Studies, a South African think tank. But there’s only so much they can do to prevent attacks that do not require sophisticated planning and are relatively easy to carry out.

“You can’t have security personnel everywhere at every time,” he said on the phone from the Senegalese capital, Dakar.

In a statement posted to social media in Arabic, Spanish, French and English, AQIM said three of its members “were able to storm the tourist resort” in Grand Bassam in south-eastern Cote d’Ivoire, according to the SITE Intelligence Group, which monitors extremist groups.

The Ivorian government said six gunmen killed 14 civilians and two soldiers at the popular resort area, a UNESCO World Heritage Site about 40 km east of Abidjan, the country’s largest city and commercial capital. The United States and France have offered to help with the investigation.

The best bet to prevent future attacks is better intelligence gathering, Assanvo said. But he warned that such attacks are likely to reoccur in the region as AQIM aims to expand its influence outside of northern Mali.

“Now the threat is permanent,” he said.

Here are some key take-aways from IRIN’s in-depth look at the recent spread of AQIM and its affiliates in West Africa:

  • Militant groups are working together. The Burkina Faso attack was carried out by a group called al-Mourabitoun, which had pledged allegiance to AQIM.
  • AQIM has changed tactics from attempting to hold territory in Mali to flexing its muscles regionally and attacking countries collaborating with the West, particularly the US and France, which have military operations in West Africa. Ivory Coast is a strong ally of France and home to a logistical base for French forces.
  • AQIM has its roots in an insurrection against the French-backed military of Algeria, which annulled the election victory of the Islamic Salvation Front in 1992. Militants later took shelter in northern Mali, where the government had little control.
  • In addition to using an extreme interpretation of Islam to motivate its recruits, AQIM taps into discontent amongst poor, local communities resentful of rich and corrupt political leaders, and distrustful of Western countries.
  • Leaders of Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Chad and Burkina Faso have formed the G5, a regional organisation to strengthen cooperation on development and security in the Sahel. But they have been criticized for prioritizing border security over the provision of social services, the lack of which is thought to fuel militancy.