Last month, as many as 12 members of the armed forces of Côte d’Ivoire were killed, and eight others wounded, in an attack by unidentified assailants on an outpost in Kafolo on the country’s border with Burkina Faso. While there have been no claims of responsibility for the attack, the Ivorian government immediately attributed it to Islamist extremists known to maintain an operational presence in both Burkina Faso and Mali.
A statement in this regard was made by Côte d’Ivoire’s defense minister, Hamed Bakayoko, in the immediate aftermath of the attack which he described as an act of “terrorism.” Bakayoko’s suspicions were not without merit. On May 28, al-Qaeda had issued a warning to the Ivorian government in response to its counterterrorism operations it had been carrying out in and around the Comoé National Park— a reserve located close to Cote d’Ivoire’s border with Burkina Faso.
During joint operations in mid-May, Ivorian and Burkinabe security forces reportedly dismantled a terrorist cell associated with the al-Qaeda-aligned Macina Liberation Front (MLF)—a key constituent of the Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM) militant coalition. Al-Qaeda warned that further military collaboration rendered the country susceptible to retributive acts of violence, referencing its March 13, 2016 attack on the Ivorian town of Grand Bassam as indicative of Côte d’Ivoire’s vulnerability.
Al-Qaeda’s statement underlined that the terrorism threat facing Côte d’Ivoire is not only tied to its geographical proximity to established terrorism epicenters, but also rooted in the country’s domestic and foreign policy standing. Indeed, Côte d’Ivoire has emerged as a powerful domestic and international partner to countries engaged in security initiatives against Islamist extremist groups in West Africa and the wider Sahel.
Since the launch of France’s Sahel-focused Operation Barkhane, which is now the most broad-based and extensive regional counterterrorism initiative in sub-Saharan Africa, Côte d’Ivoire has hosted one of the mission’s permanent bases and provided logistical and operational assistance to its constituent forces. On the sidelines of the African Union-European Union Summit in Abidjan in November 2018, the presidents of Côte d’Ivoire and France announced the creation of an international counterterrorism academy to “respond to the desire of many African countries to develop and share counter-terrorism capabilities.” Less than a year later, the International Counter-Terrorism Academy (AILCT) was launched with the purpose of assisting in training counterterrorism professionals.
Associated with the evolution of Côte d’Ivoire’s counterterrorism engagement both within and outside its borders has been the progression of jihadist dynamics in the very same geographical space. Initially centralized in northern Mali—which was occupied by Islamist extremist groups following the coup that toppled the administration of Amadou Toumani Touré in 2012—militant actors are rapidly expanding their operational presence across the West African region. While areas bordering Mali have experienced the most acute extremist activity—especially Burkina Faso and Niger—al-Qaeda-aligned actors have also carried out attacks in West Africa’s littoral states such as Benin and Côte d’Ivoire.
The Kafolo incursion in June was possibly forewarned by al-Qaeda in response to Côte d’Ivoire’s targeting of a 50-member cell reportedly operating between the Ivorian city of Ferkessedougou and south of the town of Banfora in neighboring Burkina Faso. This cell may be specifically focusing on exerting a foothold in northern Côte d’Ivoire and on establishing a grassroots network in the region in order to exploit ethno-political and religious grievances within communities who may feel otherwise disconnected with the Ivorian state. It is a strategy which al-Qaeda has executed with brutal efficacy in the Liptako-Gourma zone of the Sahel which incorporates the tri-border region of Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger.
Whether or not the Kafolo attack marks the start of a sustained militant campaign in Côte d’Ivoire will largely depend on the government’s response to recent developments. Should the administration of President Alassane Ouattara adopt a defensive approach by suspending its counterterrorism cooperation with Burkina Faso and limit its national security position to bolstering forces alongside its shared borders with Burkina Faso and Mali, the threat of further attacks could be mitigated. This is the most likely response as highlighted by the Ouattara government’s announcement on July 13 of the creation of a Northern Operational Zone along the country’s shared borders with Mali and Burkina Faso. As per a statement by government spokesman, Sidi Tiémoko Touré, the creation of the Northern Operational Zone will allow for the better coordination of intelligence and counterterrorism resources to both monitor and respond to extremist groups operating within the country’s territory.
Although initially centered to be a defensive directive, should the Northern Operation Zone assume a more aggressive posture it could paradoxically increase Côte d’Ivoire’s threat of terrorism. This, not only by catalyzing retaliatory attacks within the country’s borders, but also by promoting the ethno-religious marginalization of communities deemed sympathetic to militant actors and who could ultimately provide these groupings with a foothold in Côte d’Ivoire.