The first of May 2016 marks five years of the death of al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden, however the network that he founded is far from dead despite suffering a series of setbacks.
While al-Qaeda has been replaced as the preeminent global jihadist power by the so-called Islamic State (IS) group, which has held on to territory in Syria and Iraq and has a foothold in Libya, experts maintain that al-Qaeda nonetheless remains a potent force and dangerous threat. Attacks, such as the January 2015 attack on the Charlie Hebdo office in Paris, France, and a string of shootings in West Africa over the last several months have shown that al-Qaeda continues to maintain the capabilities to carry out large-scale attacks. Furthermore, in Syria and Yemen, al-Qaeda militants have taken advantage of the continued chaos to take control of significant territory, in some instances presenting themselves as an alternative to the brutality of IS rule.
When United States Special Forces killed bin Laden in Pakistan on 2 May 2011, the militant group that he had founded in the late 1980s had been baldy damaged as many of its militants and leaders had either been killed or captured during the US’ “War on Terror.” Dissention grew within the jihadist ranks as al-Qaeda’s new chief, Ayman al-Zawahiri, struggled to replace bin Laden. One of the militant group’s branches, originally al-Qaeda in Iraq, would later break away to form the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). After successfully capturing parts of Syria and Iraq in 2014, the group declared an Islamic “caliphate” in areas under its control, and would later call itself the Islamic State. Since then, IS has eclipsed its former partner, and many other global militant groups. It has drawn thousands of jihadists, both local and foreigners, to its cause and has claimed responsibility for attacks in Brussels, Paris, Tunisia, Turkey, Lebanon, Yemen, Saudi Arabi and on a Russian airliner over Egypt – All of which have left hundreds dead. It continues to threaten European states with attacks such as those that were carried out in Paris and in Brussels. IS’ self-declared “emir” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has also won pledges of allegiance from extremist groups across the Middle East and in Africa. Powerful IS affiliates operating in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula and in Libya have carried out a string of deadly attacks, with growing international concerns that the jihadist group is spreading from the Middle East into Africa and beyond. Experts have noted that IS has been especially effective at using new technology to surpass al-Qaeda, which has been less tech-savvy. According to Jean-Pierre Filiu, a Paris-based expert on Islam and jihadist groups, “al-Qaeda propaganda has become invisible on social networks thanks to the media war machine that Daesh (IS) has managed to successfully create,” adding, “al-Qaeda has lost everywhere to Daesh, except in the Sahel” desert region of northern Africa.
Other experts however, such as William McCants of the Brookings Institution in Washington, note that while al-Qaeda has lost some ground to IS, the organization has recovered, noting that “al-Qaeda has a strong showing in Syria and in Yemen.” In Syria, the group’s local affiliate, Al-Nusra Front, is one of the strongest forces that is fighting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. The group also holds large parts of the northern province of Idlib. Meanwhile in Yemen, the local branch, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), has seized significant territory in the south and southeastern regions of the country as the Yemen government struggles against Iran-backed Shi’ite insurgents who have taken control of the capital city Sanaa and other areas of the country. AQAP did however suffer a significant setback in late April 2016 when Yemeni troops recaptured the key port city of Mukalla, which it had occupied for more than a year. McCants notes that despite this loss, AQAP remains the key jihadist force in Yemen as it has thousands of members compared with only several hundred who are affiliated with IS. AQAP, which is considered by Washington to be al-Qaeda’ most well-established and dangerous branch, has also claimed responsibility for one of the group’s most important attacks abroad in recent years. In January 2015, gunmen stormed the Paris offices of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. That assault, which was claimed by AQAP, killed 12 people.
Since November 2015, Al-Qaeda’s branch in the Sahel region, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), has carried out a string of deadly assaults on hotels and restaurants in Mali, Burkina Faso and Ivory Coast, which have left dozens dead, including many foreigners. In March, New York-based intelligence consultancy The Soufan Group disclosed that the attacks in West Africa “have reasserted the regional presence of AQIM and shown its expanding reach…AQIM has used the attacks to challenge the influence of the Islamic State, to demonstrate and build its local support and to show that it is united after earlier damaging divisions.”
The International Crisis Group notes that while IS has reshaped the jihadist landscape, al-Qaeda “has evolved,” noting that its branches in North Africa, Somalia, Syria and Yemen “remain potent, some stronger than ever.” The United States also continues to see al-Qaeda as a major threat, as has been exemplified in Yemen, where the US is pursuing a vigorous drone war against the group. The strikes have killed many senior operatives, including al-Qaeda’s second-in-command Nasir al-Quhayshi in June 2015. In March, a US strike on an AQAP training camp in Yemen killed at least 71 recruits. In Somalia, the US has also carried out a string of drone strikes against al-Shabaab, an al-Qaeda affiliate that is trying to topple the western-backed government in the capital Mogadishu.
According to a memo from Ghana’s Immigration Service, Ghana and Togo are the next targets for Islamist militants following high-profile attacks that occurred in Burkina Faso and Ivory Coast this year.
The memo calls for better border protection, in what is the latest sign of a heightened government response to the threat to West Africa by militants based in northern Mali, who in the last year have increased their campaign of violence. The memo also states that the National Security Council Secretariat (NSCS) has evidence from neighboring Ivory Coast from the interrogation of a man suspected of orchestrating an attack on 13 March in which 19 people were killed. The memo, which is dated 9 April and which was published by Ghanaian media, states that “intelligence gathered by the …NSCS indicates a possible terrorist attack on the country is real….The choice of Ghana according to the report is to take away the perception that only Francophone countries are the target.” The memo ordered immigration agents on the northern border with Burkina Faso to be extra vigilant and disclosed that patrols should be stepped up along informal routes between the two countries.
In an interview on state radio’s Sunrise FM on Thursday, President John Mahama asked for public vigilance and stated that Ghana was also at risk from home grown militants. He further noted that countries in the region share intelligence on militant threats. Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) has claimed responsibility for attacks on a hotel in the capital of Mali last November, a restaurant and hotel in Burkina Faso’s capital in January and the Ivory Coast attack in March. In all, more than 65 people have died, many of them foreigners.
The 13 March 2016 shooting rampage on a beach resort in Ivory Coast is the latest in a series of high-profile assaults that have occurred in northern and Western Africa. The attack is also the latest sign in what appears to be al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb’s (AQIM) shift in focus to soft targets that are associated with foreigners in an effort to destabilize economies and to gain the group credibility amongst jihadis in its ongoing rivalry with the so-called Islamic State (IS) group.
On Sunday, three gunmen targeted the Grand Bassam beach resort, killing 18 people. AQIM has since claimed responsibility of the attack, as the terror group increasingly moving out of its desert stronghold and into urban city centres. IN recent months, AQIM has carried out devastating attacks that have seen militants target luxury hotels frequented by foreigners.
While AQIM was once known for striking military posts in Algeria and neighbouring countries, such attacks made little impact internationally. Since November 2015, AQIM has carried out three major attacks. The first occurred when gunmen targeted a hotel in Mali, and then in January, a similar attack was carried out in Burkina Faso. On Sunday, the moved even farther south, to an Ivorian resort popular with tourists and locals alike. AQIM is effectively moving its strategy from operating in northern Mali and neighbouring states, to city centres, where attacks not only leave high numbers of causalities and cause fear but also strike at the heart of the economy of the affected nation and business confidence of the surrounding region.
The recent attacks in the region are generally viewed as targeting France and its allies, after Paris intervened militarily in Mali in 2013 to drive out al-Qaeda-linked militants who had seized the desert north a year earlier.
Sunday’s attack also raises fears of where they might strike next, and poses serious security questions for former regional colonial power France, which has thousands of citizens and troops in the region. While some 18,000 French citizens live in Ivory Coast, over 20,000 reside in Senegal. France also has 3,500 troops in the region, from Senegal in the far west to Chad. A French military base in Abidjan, which is manned by around 800 soldiers, serves as a logistical hub for regional operations against Islamist militancy in the Sahel.
Here is an overview of the worst such attacks that have occurred over the past year, all of which have been claimed by jihadist groups:
- 13 March – At least 15 civilians and three special forces troops are killed when gunmen storm the Ivory Coast beach resort of Grand-Bassam. According to the government, one French and one German national are amongst the dead. Al-Qaeda’s North African branch, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), claim responsibility for the attack, which is the first to occur in Ivory Coast.
- 15 January – Thirty people, including many foreigners, are killed in at attack on a top Burkina Faso hotel and a nearby restaurant in the capital Ouagadougou. AQIM claims the assault, stating that the gunmen were from the al-Murabitoun group of Algerian extremist Mokhtar Belmokhtar.
- 20 November – Gunmen take guests and staff hostage at the luxury Radisson Blu hotel in the Malian capital of Bamako. The siege leaves at least twenty people, including fourteen foreigners, dead. The attack is later claimed by AQIM, which says it was a joint operation with the al-Murabitoun group. Another jihadist group from central Mali, the Macina Liberation Front, also claims responsibility for the attack.
- 31 October – A Russian passenger jet is downed on its way from Egypt’s Sharm el-Sheikh resort to Saint Petersburg, Russia, killing all 224 people on board. The Egyptian branch of the Islamic State (IS) group claims responsibility. Russia confirms that the crash was caused by a bomb.
- 26 June – Thirty Britons are amongst 38 foreign holidaymakers killed in a gun and grenade attack on a beach resort near the Tunisian city of Sousse. The attack is claimed by IS.
- 18 March – Gunmen kill 21 tourists and a policeman at the Bardo Museum in Tunis, Tunisia. The attack is claimed by IS.
- 7 March – A grenade and gun attack on La Terrasse nightclub in the Malian capital Bamako kills five people – three Malians, a Belgian and a Frenchman. The attack is claimed by al-Murabitoun.
On Sunday 13 March, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) gunmen launched an attack in Ivory Coast, killing 18 people, including four Europeans, at a beach resort town in the West African country. Six shooters targeted the Chelsea Hotel and Hotel Etoile due Sud, which are located on a beach at the Grand Bassam – popular with westerners and which is located about 40 km (25 miles) east of the commercial capital Abidjan. Witnesses reported that the gunmen followed a pathway onto the beach where they opened fire on swimmers and sunbathers before turning their attention to t he packed seafront hotels where people were eating and drinking at lunchtime. The gunmen were later killed by security forces. Foreign citizens from France, Germany, Burkina Faso, Cameroon and Mali were amongst those killed. Ivorian authorities have launched an investigation into the attack.
According to US-based SITE intelligence monitoring group, AQIM, which has carried out other recent attacks in the region, claimed responsibility for Sunday’s shootings. In a statement, it indicated that the attack had been carried out by just three militants.
Sunday’s attack in Ivory Coast comes barely two months after Islamist militants killed dozens of people in a hotel and café frequented by foreigners in neighboring Burkina Faso’s capital city Ouagadougou. In November 2015, gunmen also attacked a hotel in the Malian capital Bamako. Both of these attacks were also claimed by AQIM and raised concern that the militant group was expanding its area of operation far beyond their traditional zones of operation in the Sahara and the arid Sahel region.
While the Ivory Coast was previously untouched by Islamist violence, despite its proximity to countries that have severely been affected, in the wake of the two deadly attacks in Mali and Burkina Faso, analysts warned of further such attacks across the region, including in Ivory Coast. In the wake of the attack in Ouagadougou, Ivory Coast was on high alert, with security visibly bolstered at potential targets, including shopping centres and high-end hotels. While security was also increased in the northern regions of the country, particularly near the borders with Mali in a bid to keep Islamist militants out, Grand Bassam is located in the south on the Atlantic Coast, indicating that the militants have not just cross the border, but may also have a greater presence in the country. It also further demonstrates the capacity of jihadists to blend into the public and strike soft targets.
This threat is spreading across West Africa and will likely result in further similar attacks carried out in other countries in the region. Regional government will now have to focus on increasing their policing, as well as intelligence gathering and will need to act both individually and collectively. This may also result in France increasing its military campaign in the region as it looks to protected its vast and entrenched interests in its former colonies.
On Monday (8 February), African forces began a US-led counter-terrorism training programme in Senegal, which is aimed at what a US commander said were rising signs of collaboration between Islamist groups across northern Africa and the Sahel region.
The annual “Flintlock” exercises began only weeks after an attack in Burkina Faso’s capital city Ouagadougou, which left thirty people dead. The assault on the hotel used by foreigners raised concerns that militants were expanding from a stronghold in northern Mali, towards stable, Western allies, such as Senegal. Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) fighters claimed responsibility for the attack, which is just one of several increasingly bold regional strikes that have occurred in the Sahel region. Speaking to reporters on Monday, US Commander for Special Operations Command Africa Brigadier General Donald Bolduc indicated that increased collaboration between militant groups effectively meant that they have been able to strengthen and strike harder in the region. According to General Bolduc, “we have watched that collaboration manifest itself with ISIS becoming more effective in North Africa, Boko Haram becoming more deadly in the Lake Chad Basin (and) AQIM adopting asymmetrical attacks…against urban infrastructure.” He further noted that cooperation has increased as the so-called Islamic State (IS/ISIS) group exploited a power vacuum in Libya to expand its self-declared caliphate, which takes up large areas in Syria and Iraq. He added that “we know in Libya that they (AQIM and ISIS) are working more closely together. Its more than just influence, they (AQIM) are really taking direction from them.” He also stressed the importance of regional cooperation and intelligence-sharing, adding that the United States would help Cameroon, Chad, Niger and Nigeria set up a joint intelligence center by the middle of next year. The US already supports a regional task force against Nigerian-based terrorist group Boko Haram. However not all security experts agree that there are emerging alliances between Islamist militant groups, with some arguing that competition between groups has led o more attacks.
This year’s programme, which opened on a dusty airstrip in Senegal’s central city of Thies, involves around 1,700 mostly African special operation forces. Western partners are also participating in the programme, including forces from France and Germany, which are amongst more than thirty countries that are participating. The attacks in Ouagadougou, coupled with a hotel attack in the Malian capital of Bamako in November 2015, have led to a greater emphasis on preparing for urban attacks this year through training to increase cooperation between police and military forces. At the request of African partners, this year’s exercises will also include anti-Improvised Explosive Devices (IED) training. The programme, which has been an annual event since 2005, will run from 8 February until 29. Some exercises will also be held in Mauritania.