While much of the world is focused on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, analysts warn that nations should not ignore Islamist militants, who are increasing attacks in Africa’s Sahel region and spreading to West Africa’s coastal states.
Since 2020, terror groups linked to Islamic State and al-Qaida have carried out attacks against Ivorian forces. In response to the threat, French security forces are training the region’s militaries.
One Ivorian commando, who declined to give his surname, said the threat is real and they are preparing to face it in every way possible.
“In Ivory Coast, we are really, really focused on terrorism, because in the north part of our country, we are facing terrorism, so we’re talking about sea, air and land. That’s why we are here,” William said.
Security analysts say terrorism is spreading to the north of coastal states like Ivory Coast, Ghana, Benin and Togo — the next phase in the western Sahel’s decade-long conflict.
Large parts of Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger are experiencing daily attacks targeting military and civilians alike.
Since 2020 began, there have been 17 incidents — including gun battles and roadside bombs — in the north of Ivory Coast linked to al-Qaida-affiliated groups, according to the U.S.-based Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project.
Ivory Coast has sent large numbers of troops to the north in response to these attacks.
The commander of French forces in the country, Colonel Arnaud Mettley, expressed doubt regarding fears that terror groups had co-opted local populations in Ivory Coast.
“For the moment, we think that the local population does not cooperate with the jihadist groups, because there is a strong answer from the Ivorian armed forces … but it’s really, it’s a real concern for us,” he said.
He added that limiting the spread of the terrorist threat from Burkina Faso is possible, saying, “We cannot prevent the threat going to the south, but we can succeed in fighting this threat.”
The United States last month carried out Operation Flintlock, an exercise to promote cooperation among regional, NATO and U.S. forces, in Ivory Coast for the first time. Richard K. Bell, the U.S. ambassador to Ivory Coast, said a sustained effort will be needed against terror groups spreading in the north.
“I think the nature of this threat makes it very difficult to eliminate it entirely,” Bell said. “I think it can be contained at a really low level. And I believe that the key to success is the support of the population.”
Analysts say a military response by itself will not be enough.
Geoffroy-Julien Kouao, an associate researcher at the Friedrich Naumann Foundation, a research organization in Germany, said the areas in question are poorly developed, with glaring social problems. He said there are not enough schools, not enough water supply, not enough electricity, not enough jobs for the youth, and terror groups will exploit these social deficiencies to recruit young people.
Asked if he had a message for terror groups operating in Ivory Coast, William, the Ivorian commando, said, “I don’t have any particular message for them, but I’m just ready for them.”
Efforts to boost that readiness are continuing.