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.
On Tuesday, the ambassadors of France and the United States issued separate statements calling for tighter regional and global cooperation to fight the threat of jihadist attacks in Senegal and the broader West Africa region. In the wake of two successive attacks in the past few weeks, which saw the capitals of Mali and Burkina Faso being targeted, Senegal’s Interior Minister Abdoulay Daouda Diallo disclosed that “the surge of terrorist groups shows the international community must fight terrorism everywhere with the same combativity.”
Speaking at talks on a four-year French funding plan against terrorism, he added that the only way forward was to “strengthen our cooperation” and “share our means.” France’s ambassador to Senegal, Jean-Felix Paganon, who attended the meeting, stated that cooperation in the fight against the Islamist threat “calls for regional and international cooperation.” Meanwhile in a separate meeting with the media, US ambassador James Zumwalt stated that “the Senegalese are very eager to partner with us and work with us because they obviously are concerned about the possibilities of terrorist incidents and also worried about radical extremism here in Senegal.” He added that “the threat is no greater now than it was before the attack in Burkina Faso, it’s the same thereat. And the Senegalese capability is the same capability that they had before.” The US ambassador also indicated that “there’s more awareness now about those threats and we clearly want to work very closely with Senegal to help them increase their capacity to respond, either pre or post attack, to a terrorist incident.” An upcoming three-week joint military exercise between Africa, US and European troops, known as Flintlock and due to begin in Senegal and Mauritania next week, will aim to help a country respond to an Islamist attack. Senegal, like Mali and Burkina Faso – which were hit by deadly Islamist attacks in November and January respectively – is a majority Muslim nation however it has so far been free of extremist jihadist attacks. However a Senegalese security source has disclosed that in November, around a dozen people, including several Muslim preachers, were arrested in the country for “links to AQIM (al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb) and Islamic State.”
On 15 January, gunmen launched an attack on two hotels and a café popular with foreigners in the Burkinabe capital Ouagadougou, leaving thirty, mostly foreigners, dead. In November, militants launched a similar attack on the Radisson Blu hotel in Bamako, Mali. Both attacks were claimed by AQIM.
In recent months, the number of deadly attacks carried out by Islamic extremists has increased across Africa, which has prompted questions about the resurgence of armed groups that operate in the region.
- 21 January 2016 – Al-Shabaab fighters stormed and took over a beachfront restaurant in Somalia’s capital, Mogadishu. When the siege was over, more than 20 people had been killed in the attack.
- 15 January 2016 – Gunmen stormed a café popular with foreigners in Burkina Faso’s capital, Ouagadougou. They fired at people and set the café ablaze and then attacked a nearby hotel. At least thirty people were killed after a more than 12-hour siege. The North African branch of al-Qaeda, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), claimed responsibility, stating that fighters from al-Murabitoun, an affiliated terror group, had carried out the assault.
- 15 January 2016 – Al-Shabaab gunmen attacked an African Union (AU) base in Somalia, killing an unknown number of Kenyan peacekeepers. Al-Shabaab has since claimed that it killed about 100 Kenyans, adding that they had also captured several soldiers. Kenyan authorities have not released a death toll. Kenya has provided a major contingent to the AU force that is fighting al-Shabaab and assisting the elected government of Somalia.
- 28 December 2015 – Boko Haram Islamic extremists struck a city and a town in northeastern Nigeria with rocket-propelled grenades and multiple suicide bombers. At least eighty people were killed in Maiduguri, the state capital of Borno.
- 20 November 2015 – Islamic extrmeists seized dozens of hostages at the Radisson Blu hotel in Mali’s capital, Bamako. At least twenty people were killed along with two gunmen during the more than seven-hour siege. AQIM and al-Murabitoun claimed responsibility for the attack, stating that it was their first joint attack.