With militancy firmly entrenched across northern and eastern Burkina Faso, militants are incentivized to expand their presence to spread the message of jihad, gain new recruits, and over-stretch counterinsurgency efforts.
The rapid proliferation of militancy across Burkina Faso to its southern borders have created fears of spillover, further heightened by a warning by Burkinabe authorities to Ghana, Togo, and Benin. This porous southern border remains vulnerable due to existing criminal and smuggling routes.
Benin and Togo are particularly at risk of militant attacks due to their border with Burkina Faso’s Est Region, where jihadists are entrenched and highly active. The risks are comparatively lower to Ghana and Ivory Coast due to the relative stability of the border regions in Burkina Faso and Mali.
The likely trajectory will be smaller-scale militant attacks targeting border communities and security forces, as well as enforcing jihadist ideology and way of life on the villages. They are also likely to exploit economic, inter-communal, and inter-religious conflicts to create instability and fuel recruitment.
Togo, Benin, and Ghana have already intensified security measures at the border in response to this elevated threat of militant spillover and can be expected to continue maintaining a reinforced presence in the coming months, with the potential for international assistance.
Mali has seen sustained levels of militancy, as approximately 583 suspected militant attacks recorded in all of 2018 and similar patterns expected with about 365 attacks between January to July 2019.
Both Burkina Faso and western Niger have witnessed an uptick in militancy levels during the same period. To illustrate, 321 attacks were reported in Burkina Faso between January to July 2019, as compared to 194 in the entirety of 2018.
Similarly, 56 attacks were reported in Tillaberi, Tahoua, and Niamey regions of western Niger in between January and July 2019, a significant uptick from the 34 attacks recorded in 2018.
Burkina Faso’s Est Region has displayed pervasive entrenchment of militancy since September 2018, with 98 suspected militant incidents over that time period. In fact, 149 suspected militant incidents have been recorded from July 2018 to July 2019 in Burkinabe regions that lie on the southern border, namely Cascades, Centre-Est, Centre-Ouest, Centre-Sud, Sud-Ouest, and Est Regions.
Reports from April indicate that the intelligence forces of Burkina Faso warned Ghana, Togo, and Benin of the threat of militant infiltration after security forces captured a local militant leader in Est Region and found evidence that he was in contact with suspected militants in the three countries.
Assessments & Forecast
Advantages of militant encroachment coupled with viable avenues of infiltration make the threat of southward expansion credible
The fears of jihadist attacks in Ghana, Ivory Coast, Togo, and Benin are not new, with Ghana’s immigration services issuing a memo in 2016 about possible encroachment into Ghana and Togo. However, the rapid proliferation of militancy across Burkina Faso over the past year, coupled with a direct Burkinabe warning in April, has put this threat into a new light. With militancy largely entrenched across northern and eastern Burkina Faso, jihadists are able to widen their attention on consolidating power across their current operational theater and to expand their geographical reach. Expanding territory accomplishes the militants’ primary ideology of spreading the message of jihad while also providing them with new recruits, and serves to over-extend security forces and counter-militancy efforts. Another incentive to open a new front of militancy in a previously untouched country is that it could give the militants heightened attention, further putting countries next to jihadist-entrenched regions at risk.
Given the current militant entrenchment across the Sahel, the countries bordering Burkina Faso’s southern boundary are most at risk, whereas it is less the case to the north and west. Although Algeria was once al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb’s (AQIM) primary base of operations, the center of gravity has since shifted to Mali. This is further evidenced by the lack of notable jihadist activity in Algeria in recent years. Thus, militants and weapons are more likely to move south from Algeria to Mali rather than vice versa. In Mauritania, following a string of high-profile attacks until 2011, the country has largely deterred large-scale jihadist encroachment through firm state control, conventional counter-militancy efforts, and a tacit permissiveness toward soft radical preachings. Moreover, documents from 2010 indicate that AQIM proposed a truce with the Mauritanian government in exchange for millions of dollars, though its implementation was never confirmed. Altogether, these efforts diminish the likelihood of militant activity expanding to the north or west from Mali.
On the other hand, Burkina Faso’s porous southern border and the fact that all of its southern neighbors are coastal countries makes southward expansion an attractive target. Jihadists in West Africa have been confined to land-locked states until now and, as such, they might be incentivized to expand to coastal states for access to strategic infrastructure. The presence of cross-border smuggling and bandit groups further makes the threat of militant infiltration plausible. The expansion of militancy in Burkina Faso suggests a symbiotic relationship between banditry and jihadism with militants providing bandits with advanced weaponry and hard cash in exchange for access to manpower and logistical support. Given that smuggling and bandit networks straddle the border between Burkina Faso, Mali, Ghana, and the Ivory Coast, it is possible co-opting these routes will provide the militants with an avenue to infiltrate Ghana and Ivory Coast. Similarly, the entrenched criminality in the forests between Burkina Faso, Togo, and Benin is going to be conducive to militancy expansion since the existing smuggling routes will help the militants bypass border patrol. The advantages of militant encroachment in these countries, and the isolated instances of militancy in Benin and Ivory Coast, make the possibility of militant infiltration into these countries a credible threat.
Threat of militant infiltration higher in Benin, Togo due to shared borders with Burkina Faso’s Est Region
The proximity of Benin and Togo to Burkina Faso’s militant-entrenched Est Region makes the risk of spillover particularly high. The porous border enables the militants to carry out cross-border operations. FORECAST: This suggests that, as the militants attempt to expand southward from Burkina Faso, they are likely to focus their attention on northern Benin and Togo, particularly on the W-Arly-Pendjari ecological complex in Benin that extends into Burkina Faso and Niger and has long been a hub of smuggling and criminal activities. The Islamic State in the Greater Sahara’s (ISGS) abduction of two French tourists from Pendarji National Park in northern Benin on May 3, who were later rescued in northern Burkina Faso by security forces, exemplifies this threat.
Moreover, the risk of infiltration into Benin is somewhat heightened by its current political turmoil. In Burkina Faso, the weakened security apparatus after the fall of former President Blaise Compaore was extremely conducive to the infiltration and proliferation of militancy. The recent political strife in Benin during its legislative elections in April and the overall systematic elimination of opposition parties and leaders since then led to widespread unrest. To an extent, this has compromised the stability of the country and local grievances are heightened. This is liable to disenfranchise citizens from the government in the long-term, making them more susceptible to radicalization. The largely Fulani demographic of northeastern Benin further makes this possibility likely given that the militants are likely to attempt to find common cause and have previously used ethnic identity as a recruitment tactic in Mali and Burkina Faso.
In contrast, the threat to Ghana is comparatively lower than Benin and Togo because it borders regions in Burkina Faso that have not shown pervasive militant entrenchment. However, Centre-Sud Region, which shares a border with Ghana, has recorded two suspected militant attacks in July, bringing the tally of total purported militant attacks in the region to three. These attacks continue to suggest that militants are slowly attempting to expand across all regions of Burkina Faso, including those in the south that are distant from the origins of the threat at the border with Mali, and consequently, Ghana’s borders continue to remain at risk. That said, Ghana’s relative political stability and the history of religious tolerance make militant encroachment in the country more difficult than Togo and Benin.
While the relative stability in southwestern Burkina Faso and southeastern Mali makes the risk of militant spillover into Ivory Coast relatively low, the previous al-Qaeda attacks recorded in the region, as well as the economic importance of both Ghana and Ivory Coast, suggests that it remains a target. In this context, the AQIM attack in Grand Bassam, Ivory Coast in 2016 as well the dismantling of a jihadist cell in Mali’s Sikasso Region in December 2018 that allegedly intended to carry out attacks in three West African cities, including Abidjan, indicates that militants have aspirations in Ivory Coast.
High probability of cross-border incursions and small-scale attacks, efforts to impose jihadist ideology
FORECAST: The relative nascency of this threat indicates that while militants might have a presence in these countries, they are unlikely to be entrenched yet. As such, they are unlikely to possess the capability or the logistical network to launch large-scale attacks. Consequently, the precedent set in Burkina Faso indicates a heightened likelihood of smaller-scale attacks against security forces and government infrastructure in border communities to dislodge state presence as militants attempt to entrench themselves in the coming months. That said, while the possibility of large-scale attacks remains relatively lower, it cannot be completely discounted as jihadists might attempt to conduct a high-profile attack to announce their presence.
However, the patterns of the spread of militancy in Burkina Faso suggests that the militants are inclined towards establishing their foothold into an area before undertaking large-scale or attention-grabbing attacks. In fact, militant attacks in Burkina Faso’s Est Region began at least a year before the al-Qaeda front Jamaat Nusrat al-Islam waal Muslimeen (JNIM) claimed their first attack therein. The delay in announcing their presence was in all probability a strategic move to allow the militants ample time to establish themselves before drawing attention to their activities and eliciting a security response. FORECAST: Thus, militant activity for the immediate future is likely to be confined to village incursions and small-scale attacks to entrench jihadism in the border regions.
Reports of suspected militants carrying out cross-border incursions in Togo and Benin and asking locals to stop selling alcohol not only emphasize the credibility of the threat of jihadism in these countries but also provide insight into the likely modus operandi the militants are liable to adopt. FORECAST: As such, in line with their proliferation across central Mali and Burkina Faso, the militants are liable to attempt to enforce their way of life in bordering villages as part of their efforts to integrate themselves into the community. JNIM’s primary modus operandi in their expansion of targeting Western symbols and practices suggests that their efforts will include the burning and targeting of schools and bars. They are liable to start preaching in mosques and enforce a ban on alcohol, prostitution, and any other activity perceived to be Western or non-Islamic. These efforts are aimed at persuading and, if that fails, forcing the locals to adhere to the group’s ideological understanding of Islam. These attempts to impose jihadist ideology are particularly dangerous because once the ideology takes root and the locals are radicalized, even complex security operations are often insufficient to dislodge the threat.
FORECAST: Along with destroying Western symbols, militants are also likely to continue targeting the government and infrastructure as well as village leaders and clerics. Eliminating local leadership, both state and communal, serves to destabilize the area and create a leadership vacuum, which in turn facilitates radicalization and militant recruitment. Similarly, the targeting of the state or security services is motivated both by jihadist anti-government ideology and in a bid to weaken state presence and consequently, fray the connections between the state and the people by slowly disenfranchising them.
Heightened likelihood of militants aggravating existing inter-communal, inter-religious conflicts to fuel recruitment, create instability
One of the primary tools exploited by jihadists worldwide is aggravating inter-community strife and either capitalize on a sense of marginalization, or create a perception of it. In Burkina Faso, exploitation by the local religious leaders who were perceived to be enriching themselves at the expense of locals provided Malam Ibrahim Dicko, the founder of the home-grown jihadist group Ansarul Islam, with the means to radicalize his followers. Militants tend to find common cause with one side of the conflict while actively working against and targeting the other side, destabilizing the area further. The Fulani ethnic group are a case in point. Militants first tapped into their feelings of abandonment and then radicalized them. This created the perception of Fulanis filling militant ranks, which caused them to be targeted by other communities and security forces alike, further heightening their perception of marginalization. This has resulted in a vicious cycle of marginalization, radicalization, and persecution in both Mali and Burkina Faso. The resultant insecurity with ethnic self-defense groups perpetrating large-scale attacks that have extremely high casualty counts and prompt violent reprisals is extremely beneficial to the militants’ agenda because it weakens state security apparatus and undermines local confidence in the government.
FORECAST: Following this precedent, militants are liable to exploit local grievances, stemming from economic exclusion and poverty, to foster feelings of disenfranchisement and abandonment. To that end, the areas around Benin’s borders with Burkina Faso are mired in steep poverty and lack basic services like electricity. Militants could possibly attempt to recruit them by providing them with basic necessities while fueling anti-government sentiment. Similarly, the protected status of W-Arly-Pendjari ecological complex has incited conflicts over control of land and caused widespread displacement. The militants were quick to seize upon these grievances, which contributed to pervasive militant entrenchment in Burkina Faso’s Est Region. It is likely that, as militants aim to expand into Benin, they will capitalize on these feelings to facilitate infiltration by providing the disenfranchised with an alternative.
FORECAST: Militants are also liable to foster inter-religious strife to their advantage. To illustrate, the recent spate of attacks targeting Christians in Burkina Faso and Niger have already created fear within Ghana’s Christian majority. Ghana has always had peaceful inter-religious relations but the Christians’ concerns that their churches are at risk has the potential to create tensions between the religious communities, which the militants might attempt to exploit. It is possible that this turn in the militants’ strategy to target Christians was motivated in a bid to further cause divisions within communities. Should they continue to target Christians, the resultant threat perception in these countries has the potential to result in actual marginalization of Muslims. Lastly, similar to their encroachment across Burkina Faso and Mali, militants will likely attempt to exacerbate existing inter-communal conflicts between rival ethnic groups.
Security operations at the border to be intensified with heightened potential for cross-border cooperation
Following Burkinabe intelligence’s warning, Benin launched “Operation Djidjoho” and deployed 1,000 soldiers along its northeastern borders in April to identify and neutralize infiltrators. Togolese authorities also carried out intensive counter-militancy operations and reportedly apprehended about 20 suspected jihadists, said to be fleeing from Burkina Faso. FORECAST: Despite these intensified security measures at their borders, existing smuggling routes, the dense landscape around some of these borders, and the poor demarcation, will make it difficult to completely deter cross-border militant incursions. Moreover, given that the borders in much of these areas were imposed on top of communities, people have family on both sides and in both countries, and so it would be difficult for security forces to completely close off the border. Regardless of these limitations, the intensified border deployments are expected to continue. Should further instances of militancy be reported in these West African countries, elevating the perception of the threat of militant spillover, security measures are likely to be fortified with additional troop deployment and stricter checkpoints at the border. In the event of confirmed imminence of large-scale militant encroachment in any of these countries, the authorities may close their borders with Burkina Faso.
FORECAST: There is increased potential for international cooperation as they figure out how to adequately combat the jihadist threat. That the threat of militancy comes from Burkina Faso’s borders suggests that the countries will likely collaborate with the Burkinabe authorities to contain the threat. Additionally, as the severity of the threat increases, international actors can be expected to take an interest in the situation, particularly in Ghana and Ivory Coast, and potentially lend their military expertise in the form of on-ground training or logistical and intelligence support. To that end, international forces that maintain a presence in the Sahel, such as the French Barkhane forces, might expand their theater of operations into these countries to deter the jihadist threat. However, until militancy spillover is confirmed, international presence in these countries remains a distant possibility. That said, the recent expansion of French forces into northern Burkina Faso could possibly be a precursor to intensified French operations across Burkina Faso. Should that happen, given the potential threat of spillover, the forces might focus their attention on border-adjacent regions to contain the militancy.
FORECAST: Apart from the government and the security forces, the local population in these countries are also likely to heighten their vigilance. Alarmed by the recent targeting of churches and Christians by militants in Burkina Faso and Niger, the Christian populations in Benin, Ghana, and the Ivory Coast are liable to enact stringent preventive measures. To that point, a major church in Accra, Ghana banned backpacks as part of its new security directives, while churches in Ghana’s Upper East Region bordering Burkina Faso are reportedly evaluating security proposals such as the installation of body scanners at entrances as a safeguard against possible militant attacks.
However, given that this is new ground for both security services and civil society, they are likely to struggle to come up with an adequate response to combat this potential threat. As such, there is potential for these preventative measures to border on overzealousness and instead fuel feelings of marginalization and abandonment. That said, it is possible that the preemptive measures adopted could possibly deter large-scale militant encroachment. Despite overt signs of radicality, the Burkinabe government took no preventive measures against Malam Dicko, the founder of Ansarul Islam, or to stop the cross-border movement from Mali when the jihadist threat was at its peak there. This likely made the spread of militancy much easier because the foundations were already set. However, these countries have taken the threat of militancy seriously. As such, by taking proactive measures to deter the spread of militancy into their own territory, these countries are already in a better position to combat this threat than Burkina Faso was.
We advise against all travel to the border region between Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso, given the extreme risks of militancy, ethnic conflict, and violent crime.
Avoid all travel to northern and central Mali, including Timbuktu, Kidal, Gao, Mopti, and northern Segou region, given the threat from militant and rebel groups operating in the area, as well as ongoing ethnic tensions and intercommunal violence.
Avoid all travel to northern and eastern Burkina Faso, particularly Sahel, Est, Centre-Est, Nord, Centre-Nord, and Boucle du Mouhoun regions due to the ongoing threat of militancy and violent crime. Avoid nonessential travel to outlying areas of the southern and western regions due to the increased risk of attacks.
We advise against all travel to Niger’s Tillaberi and Tahoua Regions in the west along the borders of Mali and Burkina Faso, with the exception of Niamey, due to the ongoing risk of militancy.
Avoid nonessential travel to the W National Park area in Benin on the tri-border region with Niger and Burkina Faso due to the presence of criminals and militants.
This report was written by Aarushi Tibrewala, MAX Security’s Senior Analyst for West Africa & reviewed by Rachel Jacob, MAX Security’s Regional Director of Intelligence, Sub-Saharan Africa