The assassination on September 14 of two customs officers a few days after the kidnapping of three people linked to the government, signals an alarming resurgence of jihadist violence in northern Benin (The 4 Truths, September 14, 2022). ACLED records 26 events of political violence staged in northern Benin attributed to the Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (JNIM) between November 2021 and September 14, 2022 (see map below). There is growing evidence that jihadist cells have become deeply entrenched in the northern regions of the country. The Beninese government is currently stepping up its response to the threat, which is expected to include a security agreement with Rwanda (Radio France Internationale, September 10, 2022). It is more urgent than ever for the country’s counterinsurgency to avoid the tragic mistakes of governments in the Sahel by blunting the deep roots of the insurgency in rural areas.1
Recent events in northern Benin and other theaters of jihadist expansion, including western Mali, suggest that a solution will not be logistical: it goes beyond strengthening public administration or improving basic services. Insurgents in northern Benin take control at night, as they have done across the Sahel, stealthily driving in motorbike convoys with a single headlight on to mount blitzkriegs and descend on villages where they cow the inhabitants and receive clandestine support from their sympathizers. Residents observe that these unpredictable nighttime movements allow jihadists to be everywhere and nowhere, posing a challenge to even the most sophisticated security response that Rwandan forces can provide.
Increased civil threat
Jihadist militants are also gaining a foothold in local communities by preaching and infiltrating Koranic schools. In April, a Quranic teacher and eight of his students were abducted from a village in Banikoara, a district in northeastern Benin that borders W National Park and serves as an important transport link to southeastern Burkina Faso. . According to sources who spoke to the author, the Quranic master, who was later executed by the armed insurgents, tried to sever his alleged ties with jihadists based in neighboring Niger. A victim of the September 9 abduction, which took place in the border district of Karimama, was also taken to Niger and later released. The lack of details about what happened during his captivity and the conditions of his return to Karimama adds to the confusion and fear in local communities there.
The jihadist presence in protected reserves is one of the most acute threats civilians currently face. As the above incidents illustrate, these groups target local communities, especially pastoralists, in their efforts to further entrench their power and control over these sparsely populated areas. The mixture of mobile attacks emanating from nature reserves, Islamist preaching and violent coercion that jihadists are deploying in some communities in northeastern Benin has also been observed in western Mali. This tactic also characterized the campaign led by the Katiba Macina, a JNIM subgroup, to establish a presence in the Boucle de Baoulé National Park in western Mali (to learn more about the Katiba Macina, see Mali: End of the storm). The 25,000 square kilometer reserve forms an irresistible conduit between areas near the Mauritanian border, where jihadists are well established, and the capital, Bamako (Konrad Adenauer Foundation, July 1, 2021). Jihadist activity around Baoulé National Park is concentrated in the Kolokani district, which is a two-hour motorbike ride from the Malian capital and the military garrison town of Kati which was attacked on July 22 (New York Times, July 22, 2022).
Although the JNIM succeeded in recruiting locally around Baoulé National Park in Mali, this recruitment was marked by kidnappings, especially during the first phase of its occupation, which could point to a similar pattern in northern Benin. . The sheer size of the W and Baoulé parks means that policing them and ensuring security in adjacent communities is a daunting task. Jihadists working from these parks have displaced civil authorities and eliminated security agents through threats and assassinations. This discrepancy leaves local communities even more exposed to the kidnappings and extortion that jihadists regularly commit. Additionally, it is extremely difficult to track insurgents in these wilderness areas during the rainy season when visibility is reduced by thick vegetation and movement is impeded by seasonal waterways that cross the trails. When the dry season arrives, the insurgents may simply melt away crossing the border or returning to their home villages.
Nature reserves provide a strategic advantage to insurgents
In both western Mali and northern Benin, parks and other nature reserves are strategic spaces that jihadists use to move money, weapons and hostages. Elements of the Katiba Macina took control of large parts of Baoulé National Park in western Mali from 2019 through targeted raids on the handful of rangers on the ground. In W National Park in northern Benin, insurgents demonstrated their capabilities by staging a spectacular and complex ambush in February 2022 that reportedly killed around nine people, including five park staff (Africanews, February 11, 2022).
The region’s network of protected areas is primed for jihadist expansion, placing their managers at the forefront of counterinsurgency. The littoral countries of Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Togo and Benin host a total of approximately 588 underfunded protected reserves covering 142,703 square kilometres; 188 of these reserves, including four of the five largest, are within ten kilometers of an international border. Côte d’Ivoire alone is dotted with 249 reserves, none of which is more than twenty-six kilometers apart and more than a quarter of which adjoins another reserve. These protected areas are essential for the preservation of the region’s remaining wildlife, but they are at the heart of an unprecedented security challenge. As hiding places and conduits, reserves are a tactical resource for jihadists, but they are also useful strategically because they allow armed groups to maintain a high threat-sympathy ratio among the civilians they target. By remaining mobile and hidden, they have to invest fewer resources to gain legitimacy.
Jihadists operating out of Benin’s W National Park appear to be doing little to assuage local grievances, so popular support for their actions is unlikely to be widespread. Local complicity is often limited to one or a few individuals; this probably fulfills the jihadists’ minimum need to secure the supplies and intelligence they need to stay in the desert and evade government forces. Deepening popular support would likely require the kind of shadow governance that emerged in the Inner Delta region of Mali (International Crisis Group, December 10, 2021). The jihadists operating in this region apply their harsh version of justice, which has greatly reduced cattle theft in the region (African Center for Strategic Studies, July 12, 2021). The political geography of Benin does not lend itself to this approach as well as the remote plains of central Mali. However, Fulani herding communities in the country are disadvantaged and marginalized, which offers potential support. More inclusive management of protected areas will play a central role in determining whether jihadists can exploit grassroots grievances that stem in part from the coercive history of environmental conservation in the region (Ribot, 2001).
Non-governmental organizations (NGOs), such as African Parks Network which manages several West African reserves, are increasingly faced with the delicate challenge of protecting wildlife, meeting local needs and assisting governments in their anti-corruption operations. – growing insurgencies. Governments, their NGO partners and other stakeholders will only help maintain support for civilians living under jihadist threat if they provide better prospects, starting with basic security and protection. Rwanda’s security support, which could include the deployment of troops, will play a central role in this – if it materializes (Africa Intelligence, September 9, 2022). However, if this contributes to an unbalanced Beninese government response that focuses on counterterrorism at the expense of protecting civilians, it could make matters worse. Throughout the region, security forces have resorted to collective punishment of pastoral communities out of suspicion, fear and confusion (to find out more, see State atrocities in the Sahel). If this happens in Benin, the result will be tragic and counterproductive.