Benin Faces Down the Threat From Jihadists in the Western Sahel

The West African country is investing in security, especially on its troubled border with Burkina Faso

Benin Faces Down the Threat From Jihadists in the Western Sahel
Beninese soldiers during a joint combined exercise training in Ouassa, Benin. (Operation 2022/Alamy Stock Photo)

The long-abandoned safari lodge stands lonely and deserted in the West African sun. Hours from the nearest road, in the middle of a national park full of dusty plains and scrubland, the once-bustling collection of tourist huts now hosts a different kind of visitor. Soldiers and military officers move purposefully between the luxury facilities, returning from armed patrols in the bush or heading to the canteen. This is a top-secret military base in Benin’s Pendjari National Park; the soldiers are here to fight jihadists who have flooded over the border from neighboring Burkina Faso, which has recently been overrun by a brutal Islamist insurgency.

Inside one of the green huts, military officers and intelligence officials are glued to computer screens that show “hostile movements” along the West African country’s northeastern frontier. The soldiers use satellite imagery and calls from agents stationed in the field to monitor the 240-mile border, as jihadists make regular incursions from Burkina Faso.

According to the army, there were 54 incidents between January and mid-April this year alone, making Benin the country with the sharpest increase in attacks in Africa. The country’s top military brass say the conflicts in Mali and Burkina Faso over the past decade have put enormous pressure on coastal West African states like Benin, which suddenly face the threat of violent extremism. “The Burkina Faso military have long since abandoned the area just north of the border,” says Col. Faizou Gomina. “As a result, jihadists and criminal gangs have formed large bases, which they use to stage attacks into our sovereign territory.”

To keep the jihadists at bay, Benin has had to build a defense system from the ground up. The tiny Francophone country previously had very little need to develop and invest in its armed forces, thanks to a relatively peaceful postcolonial history. Most Beninese soldiers were previously either training abroad in France and the United States, or were part of United Nations peacekeeping forces in other parts of Africa. Now, most of the troops have been called home, as the threat to Beninese territory grows yearly.

Gomina tells New Lines that, until late 2020, he was based in Mali, as the head of Benin’s troops in the U.N. peacekeeping mission known as MINUSMA. He says that after a huge military effort, the armed forces have since managed to drive the Islamists back to Burkina Faso.

The intelligence unit at the Pendjari National Park in northern Benin forms part of the country’s wider efforts to ramp up its military presence across its northern territories. Pendjari and the W National Park are among the areas that have previously been most infiltrated by bandits and jihadists. The wide-open spaces were used as smuggling routes to connect Nigeria to Burkina Faso and Niger, with criminal gangs and jihadists moving everything from guns to drugs through Benin’s sparsely populated northern zones. The parks have been closed since 2019, when two French tourists were kidnapped and their local guide killed in Pendjari. This was the last time any Western journalists were allowed to enter the region, making this trip the first time in four years that the world at large has had access.

Along with an intelligence unit, the government has constructed eight military bases in strategic positions across the national parks. One of these fortresses is in Kourou-Koalou, a combination of its Beninese name, Kourou, and its Burkinabe name, Koalou. The frontier town sits at the border of Benin, Burkina Faso and Togo, known as “point triple,” and soldiers mill around a huge base with four imposing lookout towers. In the far north of the country, the heat is almost overwhelming as it bears down on the men and women who act as the only barrier to the dusty and lawless plains ahead.

Equipped with heavy artillery and several tanks, the soldiers stationed at the base look tired but alert as they stage regular patrols up and down the road, long since abandoned, that was used to take travelers to Burkina Faso and onward. “We have constructed this base to defend against the threat of jihadist incursions coming from Burkina Faso, which is just 50 [yards] away,” says Georges Kpovihin, military commander of Pendjari, pointing at the border.

The border area has seen a large number of incidents and the first attack on Beninese soil took place in Kourou-Koalou in November 2021. Despite once being a busy highway used by trucks and taxis, the road to the border town from Natitingou in the northwest is now practically deserted, with potholes and makeshift barricades littered across the tarmac. The wind blows dust and wiry branches across it while small children stand and watch in awe as huge tanks thunder past.

On the outskirts of the army base, frightened villagers try to continue life as normal, despite the lack of services and the constant threat of jihadist violence. Mira Tankoino, a local market woman, tells New Lines of an attack in 2022 that changed her life.

“It was a normal day; we were all working at the market like usual,” she says. “Then around 20 heavily armed jihadists arrived on motorbikes and asked us to leave. When my husband and other men refused, they lined them up on the street and cut their throats. I was there when he died.” The 45-year-old mother is now left to look after eight children and says she can barely survive, especially as the local economy has all but collapsed since the conflict started. Despite the challenges, officials say that local conditions have improved since the army reestablished control over the area at the start of the year.

The jihadists were formerly camped in an abandoned tourist lodge on the other side of the border, but have since fled to towns deeper in Burkina Faso. Independent observers and researchers have also noted the army’s success, adding weight to official claims.

“I think the simple fact that the government is responsive is a good point,” says a Benin-based researcher who wished to remain anonymous. “I think perhaps the previous government might have just denied it and let it get worse. But the current response has been effective in two ways. First, they have invested a lot in equipment, intelligence and the deployment of people. The second is they have increased legal abilities. They will pass a terrorist law and they will soon introduce a national strategy on terrorism.”

Since the initial attack in late 2021, the government has pumped $130 million into beefing up its security forces. At the beginning of this year, it created a specially designed anti-jihadist task force called Mirador. The unit’s current objective is to reverse the upward trend of attacks and stop any incidents from happening in the country in 2024.

To help achieve these aims, the government has embarked on a massive recruitment drive to enlist and train more than 5,000 extra soldiers over the next few months. At an army barracks in Parakou, the largest city in northern Benin, hundreds of young recruits wait outside the administrative buildings in the hope of becoming part of the task force. It is late afternoon and the excited chatter quickly dies out as army officers bark orders at the group, reminding them of the seriousness of the task ahead.

Gilles Yoa Tawema says that he journeyed over 300 miles from Porga near Kourou-Koalou to enlist. “I came here to fight against the huge threat of terrorism. I come from the north and instead of just sitting there waiting for them to attack, I thought I would do something to fight back. I have cousins and family members who have already left the region. The threat is very real so it’s important that we fight.” The 24-year-old will have to pass a set of tests, including a 5-mile run, to join the army.

For the moment, Gomina proudly announces that Benin will fight the jihadists “with our own muscle.” Last year, French President Emmanuel Macron said he would increase military aid to Benin after President Patrice Talon pressured his counterpart to speed up the delivery of crucial equipment, having already received H125 helicopters from France. But as it stands, there are no signs that Paris is going to put boots on the ground, as it has done in other West African countries. Indeed, although France is still active within the region, relations have soured between many West African countries and their old colonial master.

Coups against leaders allied to France have been launched in Mali, Burkina Faso, Guinea and Niger over the past few years, as military figures use rising anti-French sentiment to depose civilian leaders. In Mali and Burkina Faso, the frustration largely stems from France’s failure to defeat the jihadist insurgency which started in Mali in 2011. France pulled 2,500 of its Operation Barkhane troops out of Mali in 2022, after the French ambassador was expelled earlier that year following rising diplomatic tensions. The troops had been stationed in Mali since 2012 and, as well as being widely criticized by the local population for failing to defeat the jihadists, they were also accused of plundering the country for resources.

Growing anti-French sentiment then spread to Burkina Faso, which would come to face its own jihadist insurgency, military coup and increased hostilities with France. In July, the same thing happened in Niger when military leaders deposed the democratically elected president, Mohamed Bazoum.

In Benin, Gomina says that, if they need extra help, they may turn to Rwanda, which has started to build a reputation for itself as a country that will lease peacekeeping forces to troubled African states, like Mozambique. Rwandan President Paul Kagame promised military support to Benin President Patrice Talon when they met in April, though nothing has been finalized yet.

One concern across the wider region is that more and more countries will turn away from the West and replace the security void with Russia’s infamous paramilitary Wagner Group. The mercenaries have already been accused of atrocities in Mali, where the Wagner Group has a military deal with the government to fight jihadists.

Although security cooperation with Russia has increased under the military junta, there is currently no evidence of the Wagner Group in Burkina Faso. However, analysts are concerned that Burkina Faso’s strategy of beefing up local security by setting up vigilante groups has led to increased atrocities, making it easier for jihadists to recruit among the local population.

This is also a concern in Benin and other countries like Togo, Ghana and Ivory Coast that the security forces must be careful not to blindly target certain ethnic groups who are believed to be associated with jihadists. All three countries share a border with Burkina Faso and have seen an increase in security forces.

Militant groups have been known to readily recruit from the Fulani ethnic group, known as Peul in French. The group is the largest seminomadic ethnic group in the world, with more than 20 million Fulani spread from Senegal in the north to Nigeria in the south.

Despite the Fulani being an extremely heterogeneous group, they are often targeted by other ethnic groups and security forces who accuse them of being terrorists. Human rights groups have sounded alarm bells about what they describe as ethnically motivated “unlawful killings” by vigilantes and security forces in Burkina Faso.

While the situation in Benin differs vastly from Burkina Faso, the researcher Kars de Bruijne has said that Fulani herdsmen have been targeted by security forces over the past year. If Benin-based Fulani are increasingly targeted by security forces, this will inevitably make it much easier for jihadists to recruit in the country.

A Fulani herdsman, near the Boiffo army base on the outskirts of W National Park, tells New Lines that his community continues to live without any problems next to other ethnicities in northern Benin. “We have not been the target of any attacks or hostilities by other members of the community,” says Matcha Farouck.

The government claims that very few Beninese citizens have joined the jihadist ranks, though it is hard to give an accurate estimate, let alone a precise number. The breakdown of government authority in certain parts of Burkina Faso makes it hard for even the army and intelligence agents to have a clear idea of who they are fighting. The retreat of effective government has led to the growth not only of numerous different jihadist groups but also to local bandits and armed gangs. Rather than calling armed groups terrorists, the officers prefer to call them “combatants” or “unidentified hostiles.”

“It’s very hard to identify the insurgents,” says Gomina. “They often do not claim responsibility for attacks and there are very few ways to distinguish different groups of men with guns.”

The main jihadist groups active in the war-torn country at the moment are the al Qaeda-linked Jamaat Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM), the home-grown Ansaroul Islam, and the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara. Benin’s senior military figures say that when they do identify attacks, they are mostly from JNIM, which has established bases on the Burkina Faso side of the border.

In fact, a suspected JNIM attack recently sent shockwaves through Benin as a new kind of warfare entered the once-peaceful country. In May, unidentified assailants killed at least 12 civilian farmers in a night raid on a village called Koabagou on the outskirts of Pendjari. Although no one claimed responsibility for the attack, the Benin-based researcher says it had “all the hallmarks of an attack by JNIM. … They slit the civilians’ throats and put an improvised explosive device on one of the bodies, which is typical of JNIM.” This pivot to murdering civilians is a new development in Benin’s fight against terror and has sparked fears among the local population that they will soon be regular targets like civilians in Burkina Faso and Mali.

On the outskirts of the Boiffo army base, a young man named Daouda Sane tells New Lines that he is worried that the attackers will penetrate further into Beninese territory.

“I’m scared that the terrorists will come to my village and attack us like they attacked other civilians in May,” he says.

The other concern is that some of Benin’s Muslims, who mainly come from the country’s arid north, may sympathize with jihadist movements in the greater Sahel. New Lines spoke to Iloutchka Soutemie, a local imam, on the outskirts of Pendjari, one of the danger areas, who said that he had not heard of any religious clerics in the country who are spreading jihadist ideology. “Islam is a peaceful religion, we do not condone the violence and we have not heard of anyone in Benin who does,” he said.

What is clear is that violent ideology is being espoused by militants who cross over the borders from neighboring Burkina Faso. The latest West African coup, in Niger in July, has also raised the question of whether Benin will now face an even worse security situation on its northern border.

At the time of writing, the military junta who seized power in July look like they will stay put, despite the threat of intervention to reinstate the democratically elected president by the region’s political and economic union, the Economic Community of West African States. If the junta holds, the more than 1,500 French troops who were stationed in Niger to fight terrorism across the region will be forced to leave by the military government, which has already torn up the country’s former security pact with Paris.

Depending on how the junta deals with the jihadist threat, Benin’s northern border could soon resemble its border with Burkina Faso, forcing the government to fight jihadists on both fronts. Indeed, the coup in Niger has created an even more uncertain security situation in the Sahel that will pile further pressure on West Africa’s coastal states, which for the moment are largely democratic and free of jihadists.

“The big question for coastal West Africa is what happens in the Sahel and Burkina Faso,” says Wendyam Herve Lankoande, a risk analyst for West Africa and the Sahel at the consultant organization Control Risks. “Depending on what happens in Burkina Faso and the region in general, you might see attacks increasing in other West African countries including Benin, Togo, Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire.”

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