Author: Counter Extremis Project
Site of publication: Counter Extremism Project
Type of publication: Report
Date of publication: 2022
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Côte d’Ivoire remains committed to prosecuting terrorists for their crimes. On December 28, 2022, an Ivorian court sentenced 11 defendants to life imprisonment for their role in the March 2016 terrorist attack in the resort town of Grand Bassam. The attack, which was the first terror attack to occur in the country, killed 19. Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) claimed responsibility. In the year after the killings, suspects also were arrested in Mali, Burkina Faso, and Senegal.
Tensions with the neighboring country of Mali reared its head on July 10, 2022, when 49 Ivorian soldiers were arrested by Mali’s military government at Mali’s international airport in Bamako. According to the Mali’s government, the troops arrived without permission. However, according to Côte d’Ivoire officials, the soldiers were deployed as part of a security and logistics support contract signed in July 2019 with the U.N. Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA). Reportedly, Côte d’Ivoire had informed the Malian junta prior to the arrival of the troops who were the eighth rotation sent to Mali. Interim President Colonel Assimi Goita stated on Twitter that he had spoken by telephone with U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres and mentioned the importance of partner nations respecting Mali’s sovereignty. The arrests occurred shortly after the U.N. Security Council agreed to extend the MINUSMA mission for another year on June 29. The soldiers were finally released on January 8, 2023, after receiving a pardon from Mali’s military ruler. The release was facilitated in part by a January deadline set by leaders from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) for Mali to release the soldiers or face sanctions. Mali’s government claimed the two countries also signed a memorandum of understanding to promote peace between the two countries.
Tensions with the neighboring country of Mali reared its head on July 10, 2022, when 49 Ivorian soldiers were arrested by Mali’s military government at Mali’s international airport in Bamako
Ivorian troops have faced several setbacks since 2020 as groups linked to al-Qaeda and ISIS have grown more active in neighboring Mali and Burkina Faso. In June 2021, three Ivorian soldiers were killed when one of their vehicles struck an improvised explosive device (IED) and their convoy was ambushed near Tehini, a northeastern town near Côte d’Ivoire’s border with Burkina Faso. On June 11, 2020, dozens of suspected jihadists attacked a security post in Kafolo, near Côte d’Ivoire’s northern border with Burkina Faso, killing 10 and wounding six. The attack occurred in the same area where the Burkinabe-Ivoirian militaries launched Operation Comoé in May 2020, an effort to expel extremists from the border region. Analysts warned that the terrorist threat was spreading south from the restive Sahel region to countries that were largely free of jihadist violence, such as Côte d’Ivoire. The Kafolo attack marked the first attack by Islamist militants in Côte d’Ivoire since the March 2016 attack in Grand-Bassam.
Radicalization and Foreign Fighters
Recruitment and Radicalization
The terrorist threat posed to Côte d’Ivoire is believed to come primarily from outside the country, from violent Islamist groups like AQIM and AAD in neighboring Mali, masterminded by AQIM operative Kounta Dallah and planned in part by a man named Ould Nouwayely. According to government representative Hamed Bakayoko, none of the terrorists involved in al-Qaeda’s March 2016 Grand-Bassam attacks were Ivoirian. Speaking in July 2016, Bakayoko said that all the terrorists in the attacks “come from outside” the country and are believed to be motivated “by the desire to create chaos.” In 2019, suspected jihadists were detected in the country’s north near the Comoé National Park.
Analysts warned that the terrorist threat was spreading south from the restive Sahel region to countries that were largely free of jihadist violence, such as Côte d’Ivoire
Since Bakayoko’s announcement, Malians, Mauritanians, and several Ivoirians, including two Ivorian soldiers, have been arrested in connection to the attacks. Though few details were revealed concerning if or how the Ivorian soldiers were themselves radicalized, the accused were reported to have lived near the terrorist operatives and communicated with the assailants’ driver prior to the attack. In August 2016, the soldiers were convicted in a military court on charges of conspiracy to aid the terrorist operatives and sentenced to 10 years in prison.
Although Ivoirians are by and large believed to be unlikely to take up violence with regional Islamist groups like al-Qaeda, support for foreign terrorist group Hezbollah is believed to be high.
Although Ivoirians are by and large believed to be unlikely to take up violence with regional Islamist groups like al-Qaeda, support for foreign terrorist group Hezbollah is believed to be high. Pierre Gaho Oulata, the head of Côte d’Ivoire’s National Assembly’s Security and Defense Commission, also maintains that while the threat may not yet be realized, there is a need to monitor former militants from the country’s 2002 and 2010 civil wars to ensure they do not take up arms with violent Islamist groups.
Al-Mourabitoun is a violent terrorist group that broke off from AQIM in 2011 but formally rejoined the group in December 2015. Led by notorious Algerian terrorist Mokhtar Belmokhtar, al-Mourabitoun seeks to establish an Islamic state in West Africa. Al-Mourabitoun has claimed responsibility for numerous terror attacks in the Sahel region, including the deadly November 2015 gun and hostage attack in Mali’s capital, Bamako.
By the time that AQIM launched the March 2016 attacks in Côte d’Ivoire, al-Mourabitoun and AQIM were formally operating under the same banner. Nonetheless, the groups are believed to retain some degree of autonomy. Of the three gunmen named in the attacks at Grand-Bassam, two—Hamza al-Fulani and Abu Adam al-Ansari—were reportedly associated with al-Mourabitoun whereas the third—Abdul Rahman al-Fulani—was reportedly a member of AQIM proper.
Ansar al-Dine (“Movement of Defenders of the Faith,” or AAD) was founded in November 2011 by the Malian Tuareg fighter Iyad Ag Ghali, cousin of AQIM senior leader Hamada Ag Hama. A largely homegrown movement comprised of Tuareg and northern Malian Berber Arabs, AAD works closely with AQIM in their joint goal of implementing sharia. Many of its members are Tuaregs who previously fought alongside deceased Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi and returned to Mali after his overthrow.
Although Ivoirians are by and large believed to be unlikely to take up violence with regional Islamist groups like al-Qaeda, support for foreign terrorist group Hezbollah is believed to be high
Though AAD is not known to maintain a presence in Côte d’Ivoire, its militants have threatened the country with attacks. In June 2015, the group launched two attacks in southern Mali, close to the border with Côte d’Ivoire. Following the attacks, AAD preacher Ismail Khalil warned that AAD planned to “multiply the attacks in Ivory Coast” as well as other countries that “work with the enemies of Islam.”
According to the U.S. State Department’s OSAC, members of Côte d’Ivoire’s large Lebanese community are “known to provide financial support to Hezbollah.”
Hezbollah—a Lebanese-based, Iranian-backed terrorist group designated by the United States—has reportedly attracted significant support in Côte d’Ivoire, which hosts the fourth-largest Lebanese diaspora population in the world after Brazil, Colombia, and Canada. According to estimates, Côte d’Ivoire is host to between 80,000 and 100,000 Lebanese citizens, 80 percent of whom adhere to Shiite Islam. Findings by ISS Africa indicate that the majority of Lebanese-Ivoirians consider Hezbollah a nationalist movement as opposed to a terrorist organization.
Though Lebanese cultural associations in Côte d’Ivoire largely deny any association with Hezbollah, the largest such group—the Al-Ghadir association—is widely believed to serve as Hezbollah’s representative in the country. In August 2009, then-leader of Al-Ghadir Imam Abdul Menhem Kobeissi was deported from Côte d’Ivoire after he was sanctioned by the U.S. government for raising money for Hezbollah.
Since then, Ivorian support for Hezbollah is believed to have continued. According to the U.S. State Department’s Overseas Security Advisory Council (OSAC), members of Côte d’Ivoire’s large Lebanese community are “known to provide financial support to Hezbollah.” A 2014 study by the Institute for Security Studies in Africa (ISS Africa) found that Lebanese communities in Côte d’Ivoire are a “prime target in Hezbollah’s efforts to collect additional financial resources.” The study identified that members of Côte d’Ivoire’s Lebanese community are “more than likely” to “support [Hezbollah] financially” and that some are even likely to “respond to a possible appeal from the movement to join its ranks.” As noted by ISS Africa, several Ivoirians are believed to have joined foreign conflicts in Lebanon.
The Ivorian government has bolstered its counterterrorism legislation and law enforcement in recent years, in response to the growing threat posed by terrorism. In February 2015, the Ivorian government passed a bill to strengthen its counterterrorism law and meet international standards by outlawing recruitment and advocacy to terrorism and terrorist activities. As outlined by the bill, individuals convicted on terrorist-related charges face a prison sentence of 10 to 20 years as well as a fine of five to 50 million CFA Francs
The government has since then continued to strengthen its counterterrorism legislation and law enforcement. In July 2015, the Ivorian government passed new counterterrorism laws allowing officers to tap phone lines and conduct counterterrorism-related searches at night, while also extending detention for suspected terrorists for up to 96 hours without formal charges. That month, the government also banned foreign imams from preaching in the north, near the country’s border with Mali. After the November 2015 attack in neighboring Mali, Côte d’Ivoire tightened its security and devoted additional resources to reinforcing its northern border.
In January 2016, French authorities warned Côte d’Ivoire and Senegal of plans by Islamist fighters to attack main cities and tourist destinations, including beaches, using car bombs. In response, the Ivorian government reportedly asked Muslim religious leaders and cultural organizations to notify police of any new members and suspicious activity, according to one anonymous official. The government also carried out joint exercises with U.N. peacekeepers to test responses in the event of a militant attack, according to a statement by the United Nations.
The Ivorian government has bolstered its counterterrorism legislation and law enforcement in recent years, in response to the growing threat posed by terrorism
Following the March 2016 attack at Grand-Bassam, Côte d’Ivoire increased its counterterrorism budget in an effort to better protect its border from terrorist infiltrators. In April 2016, the government allocated 80 billion CFA Francs (137.2 million USD) to the fight against terrorism. According to the Ivorian government, these resources were set aside for the purpose of building capacity and training units, strengthening the country’s intelligence apparatus and border security measures, bolstering the operational capacities of the country’s defense and security forces, and better equipping its armed forces.
The government has also conducted arrests in the aftermath of the attacks. According to Côte d’Ivoire’s Minister of the Interior, more than 80 people have been arrested in connection to the Grand-Bassam attacks, the vast majority of whom are believed to be foreigners. In August 2016, two Ivorian soldiers were convicted in a military court on charges of violating regulations and conspiracy to aid the terrorist operatives. The soldiers—who had lived near the terrorist operatives and communicated with the assailants’ driver prior to the attack—were sentenced to 10 years in prison and a fine of 200,000 CFA Francs. Malian and Mauritanian suspects connected to the Grand-Bassam attack have also been arrested in early 2017, in Senegal.
In May 2021, President Alassane Ouattara said that Côte d’Ivoire would spend 1 percent of its GDP on equipment to prevent terrorists from entering the country
The country has also worked to integrate counterterrorism efforts into its migration policy. Bruno Koné—Côte d’Ivoire’s Minister of Post and Information and Communications Technology (TIC)—has requested biometric identification for individuals entering the country, saying that although the country should still “respect the principle of freedom of movement,” the Ivorian government “should not be complacent.”
In June 2021, Côte d’Ivoire and France established the International Academy for the Fight Against Terrorism (AILCT) based near Abidjan, the country’s business capital. The counterterrorism academy is meant to bolster the Sahel region’s ability to combat the jihadist threat. Those attending the AILCT will receive special forces anti-terrorism training.
In May 2021, President Alassane Ouattara said that Côte d’Ivoire would spend 1 percent of its GDP on equipment to prevent terrorists from entering the country. Later that year in November, Côte d’Ivoire’s Prime Minister Patrick Achi announced that the country would strengthen border security in the north to push back expanding Islamist insurgencies from neighboring Mali and Burkina Faso. The prime minister also said that the government would accelerate investment in schools, hospitals, and jobs in northern Côte d’Ivoire in order to “occupy our youth to keep them away from the call of terrorists.” Citing one example, Achi said that more than $430 million had already been invested in building a dry port and an agro-industrial center in Ferkessedougou, a main town on the northern border. The project is part of a series of investments that will continue in 2022, aimed at boosting local processing of crops such as cotton and cashews.
Côte d’Ivoire continued to demonstrate its commitment to countering the threat of terrorism in 2022. On June 28, 2022, the Ivorian government announced it would spend $430 million in a three-year campaign to support young people at risk for getting targeted by jihadist groups in the Sahel. According to Youth Minister Mamadou Toure, the funds would be used for integration and infrastructure for education and health.
In May 2020, military officials from Côte d’Ivoire and Burkina Faso launched Operation Comoé in Côte d’Ivoire’s northeastern region of Ferkessedougou to expel extremists from the shared border. By May 25, the operation reportedly resulted in the killing of eight terrorist suspects, capturing of 38 others, destruction of a terrorist base, and seizure of a cache of weapons, supplies, and electronics. Terrorists were known to seek refuge at bases in Ivoirian territory during previous Burkinabe offensives, but a source from the Côte d’Ivoire army said these terrorist bases no longer existed.
Côte d’Ivoire is one of the seven members of the Accra Initiative. Established in 2017, the member states—Benin, Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Togo, and the observer states of Mali and Niger—promote information sharing, enhanced training of security and intelligence personnel, and cross-border military operations. On November 17, 2022, the member states met in Accra, Ghana, to discuss preventing the spillover of terrorist activity rampant in the Sahel. Although launched in 2017, member countries have not conducted many joint operations outside of a joint military campaign in 2018 and 2019 that targeted suspected terrorists on their borders.
United Nations Operation in Côte d’Ivoire (UNOCI)
In June 2017, the United Nations terminated its peacekeeping mission in Côte d’Ivoire, withdrawing its remaining soldiers and nearly all its civilian personnel. The U.N. proclaimed the country had achieved political stability and economic growth, though goals for security sector reform had yet to be achieved. Since April 2004, Côte d’Ivoire had hosted the United Nations Operation in Côte d’Ivoire (UNOCI), which had an initial mandate to implement the peace agreement from January 2003. In March 2016, there were more than 5,000 U.N.-affiliated personnel in the country, including nearly 4,000 troops. However, by June 2017, that number had dwindled to no troops, 154 U.N. civilian personnel and volunteers, and 241 local civilians, as UNOCI’s deployment came to a close. Announcing UNOCI’s departure on June 2, 2017, Francois Delattre, Permanent Representative of France to the U.S., praised the political unity, economic growth, and social cohesion that Côte d’Ivoire has achieved, while stating that “important challenges” remain in the areas of security sector reform and reintegration of “ex-combatants.” In July 2017, Côte d’Ivoire military personnel fought back disgruntled soldiers in at least two separate attacks on army bases. Soldiers have demanded bonuses and pay increases.