Recent Attacks Signal Emerging Jihadi Threat to Northern Benin
The slender littoral West African nation of Benin has been comparatively immune to the jihadi insurgencies raging in neighbouring Nigeria, Burkina Faso, and Niger. However, recent developments seem to indicate a growing security threat to the country’s northern territory.
During the week of December 14th, details emerged of an attack along the border of Benin and Burkina Faso. It was the second such incident in the span of only a few days. Suspected Islamist militants conducted an earlier operation, on December 3rd, that reportedly left two soldiers dead.
Researcher Caleb Weiss of the Long War Journal attributes the spreading regional instability to rising violence in neighbouring Burkina Faso which is likely driven by Al-Qaeda-linked JNIM. It is significant that Al-Qaeda made its first official attack claim in Benin in early December.
The recent attacks were not totally unforeseen, as there have been a number of emergent warning signs in the months leading up to the clashes. In February, there were reports in French media quoting Bernard Emie, the head of French Intelligence, warning that JNIM was expanding its activities southward towards the Gulf of Guinea, and Benin was one of the countries that the group was focused on. Islamic State insurgent branches likewise operate nearby.
Previously, militant and bandit activity in Benin has included the May 2019 kidnapping of two French tourists and the murder of their tour guide in Pendjari national park, an attack on border police in February 2020, and the arrest of a jihadist in March 2021.
It has also been reported that militants travelling between Burkina Faso and Nigeria have transited through Benin. One potential way to track the movements of these groups is to follow certain trade routes including those which are known to be used in the narcotics trade. Militants often use these routes to transit throughout West Africa, and it appears that Benin is being used as a transit point.
Analysis by the U.S. government appears to be lagging behind developments on the ground. This is apparent in the State Department’s newest annual report on counterterrorism, released in December 2021, given the notable lack of a national profile entry for Benin. Although JNIM activities in Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso are mentioned in the summary on Africa, the report is bereft of any discussion about this sliver of a nation on the Gulf of Guinea. A fact sheet prepared by the State Department briefly describes the assistance provided to the Armed Forces of Benin regarding professionalism and capacity building with the goal of promoting domestic and regional stability and security.
In addition to the creeping jihadi threat in the north, Benin faces governance issues, has limited military and police capacity, and its resources are spread out in addressing various kinds of other security challenges. In April 2021, the Council on Foreign Relations released an article citing the potential risks posed by a politicized security sector and judiciary and the negative implications of any crackdowns against independent media outlets. These political conditions are common in other regional countries where jihadi groups are operating.
Compared to some of its neighbours, Benin has a small military relative to its population size and has a poor state of readiness. One factor that could be a hindrance in responding to militant activity is the lack of strike capacity of the Benin Air Force. It currently uses 14 transports and helicopters presenting a chance to respond quickly to an internal assault, but any counterstrike that is needed to repel an incursion most likely will have to be provided by a third party.
The tensions along the border with Burkina Faso are not the only potential security threat that Benin faces. In March 2016, it was announced that Benin would send 150 troops to join the multi-national force along with Nigeria, Chad, Niger, and Cameroon that was combating Boko Haram and Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) in the Lake Chad Basin area where these other countries share a common border. Jihadi groups in the region have been quite active and have proven to be very lethal.
Benin is also expending a share of its limited resources combatting piracy off its coast in the Gulf of Guinea, which has become the world’s leading hotspot for illicit maritime activity. The latest Stable Seas report notes that Benin is one of the most proximate nations to the bulk of regional pirate operations and has had to increase its spending to acquire new boats to try and address the threat.
Currently, Benin does not face the level of insurgent threat seen across sizable swathes of the nearby Lake Chad Basin, however, there are clear indications of jihadi operations creeping into the country’s north. Benin faces the spectre of major attacks, and perhaps a protracted insurgency if militants continue pressuring the border region and if government forces are unable to effectively establish a security buffer to break this advance.