We return to the initial pages of this report: the apparent threat of violent extremism from the Sahel spilling over to the coastal areas. As significant drivers for spillover are existing communal problems and violence, the key question is whether communal violence around land, pastoralism, and management of the parks is currently exploited by violent extremist organisations (VEOs) in Benin.
This chapter makes three main observations. First, there is sufficient evidence to suggest that the presence of VEOs is a bigger problem for Benin than has hitherto been assumed. Different VEO cells are present in Benin, albeit temporary, transitory and often limited in nature. Second, there is as yet no clear collusion between agents involved in communal violence and VEO interests. Third, there are very dangerous dynamics in Benin’s border areas – particularly between Burkina’s Est and Atacora as well as Niger’s Dosso and Alibori. Thus, despite the sobering message of this report on the higher levels of communal violence in northern Benin, the regular but transitory presence of VEOs and the very real dangers at the borders, this report suggests there is still policy space to prevent spillover to the north of Benin.
To back up these claims, this report relies on a set of grey sources such as undisclosed reports and conversations with Beninese and international sources in and outside of the security field (including in-country conversations). It first explores sightings of VEOs in Benin, then identifies four areas with temporary VEO presence, and finally explores nascent relationships that seem to be developing.
The available evidence suggests that despite everything, at the end of 2020 it seemed likely there was no permanent collective presence of VEOs in Benin’s north. Nevertheless, VEOs do regularly traverse the three provinces, have logistical connections, and have developed ties with individuals in Benin.
To see this, figure 5 provides information on sightings of VEOs in Benin in 2020. These data have been collected by the author, Héni Nsaibia (of Menastream), a local network, intelligence reports and other sources in and outside Benin for the purposes of this report. These sightings range from VEOs moving into Benin to buy or trade fuel or meat, to meeting with associates or moving from one country to another. Whereas most sightings appear in Alibori, it is important to stress that these data are necessary incomplete; other sources suggest more sightings in Atacora (Natitingou/Tanguieta) and even as far south as Donga (Djougou Town).
A recent report noted sightings in Atacora of ‘VEOs [that] were reported to wear black outfits and spoke Hausa and Zarma, but not the local language’; the same report noted sightings in Donga of ‘VEOs that were dressed “religiously like imams, with the sheared pants and the turban”. They spoke the local languages, Hausa and Fulfulde.’ While such reports seem to convey a degree of rumour and local gossip, there are too many such reports to dismiss them as rumours only. Figure 5, nevertheless, displays only incidents where some verification was possible.
A second indication of temporary VEO presence is a well-publicised security incident that happened in June 2020. A group of 12 individuals had moved from Burkina Faso through Benin into Nigeria. The group was monitored upon entering Benin by the government in (very close) collaboration with African Park Network. The group originated from Burkina Faso (possibly north of Diapaga) then moved into Park W at the Point Triple entry point and moved through the park to the vicinity of Goungoun and then via Madekali into Nigeria (Kebbi state). At various of these places, the ‘group of twelve’ met what seemed to have been potential collaborators. From there, the group moved in and out of Benin (e.g. Godjekoara, Segbana, Kalale) over a period of weeks before they finally went on to Kainji Lake National Park in Nigeria. What concerned (inter)national security officials was not only the prolonged movement of the group but also the fact that they visited various individuals in Benin, used some routes only known locally and grew in number over time.
While these sightings are concerning, as they show the porous nature of borders, the links with neighbouring countries and the ability of groups to move around Benin, the most worrying aspect is that there are three areas where temporary VEO presence is very common. While VEOs have no permanent and settled presence, they wield some influence in these areas.
The first of these areas is the border of Alibori with Niger, particularly in the area between Malanville and Kompa, with flashpoints Woro Chateaux, Karimama in Benin and Katanga in Niger. An ISGS cell seems to operate in the area. Reports suggest that the group is moving between villages in Benin and Niger and can stay up to a month in a town. From local sources it is clear that the group is operating in broad daylight; for example, in Woro Chateaux the leader of the cell is known by name (‘Mr Shangania’). Likewise, in Katanga the group engaged in public violence by reportedly killing two individuals on 8 August 2020. There are various reports that suggest that Karimama is used as a regular resting area. A report by the Dutch consultancy ELVA suggests that this ISGS cell may have tried to impose a tax and forbidden women to work. For outside observers it is important to realise that this presence remains temporary and flexible, and that the influence of this cell is limited and for many inhabitants not very important in their lives.
A second area of Benin under mild VEO influence is Atacora. The influence stems from Burkina Faso’s Est region and although ISGS has had a presence in Est, it is now JNIM/Katiba Macina that is mostly in control of the border areas and the Pama and Singou Reserves, Arli National Park and W on the Burkina Faso side of Est. JNIM has three main bases in the area and a few smaller ones. One rear base is in Pama/Kompiembiga, where it has full and open control, including direct involvement in running various artisanal gold mines. Another base is in Singou/Arli where it moves into surrounding villages now and then. A third base is around Tapoa-Djerma; this base operates in Park W (on the Burkina side), and Botou/Tamou. Movement of JNIM fighters – allegedly totalling at least 300 in number – between the bases is common and it is from these bases that much of the fighting with ISGS in 2020 took place (e.g. in Pama, Madjoari, and Logobou, respectively in Kompienga and Tapoa Provinces).
The de facto influence of this group is significant, with some reported influence as far away as Fada (in Est), on the Boungou mine (where an accommodation has likely been reached) and into Niger. Since the group’s attack on La Tapoa (Niger) on 4 December 2020, they also appear to be well stocked in terms of arms and ammunition. The influence of these JNIM units on Benin is considerable. There is movement of these groups in Pendjari Park and Park W where they engage in agricultural activities (both parks are part of larger park structures that span into Niger and Burkina Faso). Further, JNIM influence reaches into Atacora, particularly along the Porga-Tanguieta-Natitingou axis. In Benin, JNIM currently seeks supplies for its Pama rear base; there are many reports of fuel theft (and fuel buying), large amounts of meat allegedly stolen and procurement of motorbikes – all linked to JNIM (accounting for the fact that criminality in the area is common). Since March 2021, there is an increase of armed incident between the group and APN.
A third cluster of activity is in and around Kalale, the Forets de Trio Rivieres (between Kalale and Kandi) and stems from Nigeria’s Middle Belt particularly Kara State (an area that shares ethnic demographics and has strong ties with Borgou). Activity from Nigeria can be traced back to the Kanji forest in Nigeria where VEOs pushed away by the Nigerian army from north-west Nigeria are camped. The ‘group of twelve’ visited individuals in Kalale, which led to the arrest of someone who received them. This research has found evidence dating from August 2020 of the Nigeria-based group sought procurement of goods in Kalele. On September 28 a jihadist and his wife were arrested in Bessassi for being a link with Nigeria, which led to new arrests and weapon seizures a day later. On 4 November presumed jihadists from Nigeria stole cattle in Bessassi. On 13 December a beheaded corpse was found in Derassi (10km from Kalale) under suspicious conditions. In early 2021 another arrest was made of someone who had been trying to recruit youth from Kalale for over a year. Local sources suggest that roads from Nikki to Kalale are under some military control. Some Western governments, therefore, consider declaring this area a red zone (the French ministry made that decision in early 2021).
The identity and motivation of this group is not clear. Multiple sources refer to Boko Haram presence. While this cannot be ruled out altogether, this designation is clearly a result of a long-existing practice in various areas in northern Benin of (unhelpfully) labelling all Nigerian threats as ‘Boko Haram’. Alternatively, it might be that the group is linked to Jama'atu Ansarul Muslimina Fi Biladis Sudan (Ansaru, a breakaway faction of Boko Haram linked to Al Qaeda), ISWAP (which moved into the north-west in 2020 and has been under threat from the Nigerian military in Kaduna and Katsina and to a lesser extent Zamfara, or a dormant group in Sokoto) or to older VEO organisations like the inward-looking and secluded group Darul-Islam (Niger state, Nigeria) which also hosts elements who pursue a more violent agenda. Generally, all these potential actors are under some military pressure in Nigeria.
The presence of violent extremists in Benin does not mean that Benin is the next target. VEO presence in Benin largely supports VEO activity in Burkina Faso, Niger and Nigeria. For example, most activity around Kalale (Bourgou), Natitingou/Tanguieta (Atacora) and Malanville (Alibori) involves attempts to procure fuel, meat, motorbikes, food and medical supplies, sometimes in very large quantities (information suggests thousands of kilos/litres). From an operational/tactical viewpoint, it is clear that all three groups need resting areas, as they are engaging in ongoing military operations in Niger, Nigeria and Burkina Faso. Stoking new conflict in Benin may not (yet) be a strategic move.
Further support for not overestimating the threat is that VEOs bordering Benin have made explicit statements of defensive postures. For example, the ‘group of twelve’ said it had no intentions for Benin when it encountered APN staff in Park W. Sources close to APN suggest that when they encounter VEOs in the park, they sometimes return them to the border with instructions to stay on the non-Beninese side of the park. What seems to have emerged, is a precarious and informal equilibrium and perhaps more explicit informal agreement has been reached that VEOs can operate somewhat freely in Benin’s north as long as they pose no real threat to the country. It is clear that various Beninese policy makers seem to operate under this assumption. It is a situation much like that of the Malien-Burkina Faso border in Liptako-Gourma up until 2016: VEOs in Mali and the Burkina state had reached an informal arrangement. It might not last forever.
This report points at early indications that VEO presence may not remain temporary. There are signs of two nascent marriages of convenience in the making between VEOs and local populations in the Dosso-Alibori and Est-Atacora border area.
Before we explore these potential links, it is important to look at some long-term developments that facilitate VEO activity in northern Benin. Since the 1970s researchers have pointed at a growing Wahhabi influence, as scholars from the Gulf came with a ‘purist and anti-Sufi interpretation’. Throughout the 2000s, areas in the north of Benin have been particularly susceptible to this message. One effect is that there has been a spread of Koranic or Franco-Arabic schools with curricula that are oppositional to some sections of Beninese society. For example, a recent study observed a ‘desire to […] delegitimize the State and promote a distinct cultural identity’. Moreover, training young Benin Muslim scholars continues from the Gulf countries. Upon their return, generational and ideological conflicts emerge over the purity of Islam and the relative power of religious elders who are tolerated by the younger generation (e.g. in Djougou). The Beninese state has tried to mediate in these tensions.
Despite the fact that as of yet there seems to be no real alignment of interests (yet), there are worrying signs around Malanville and Goungoun that should lead to caution on narratives of temporary hideouts.
This view is driven by a number of small observations that together give rise to concern. To start with, the open presence of ISGS suggests that there is some local acceptance and tolerance among some sections of the population. Indeed, the area is home to Wahhabi religious groups from neighbouring countries. This holds for the Yan Izala movement, a movement originating from northern Nigeria (Jos, Kano and Sokoto), a precursor to Boko Haram in Nigeria with a strong presence in Niger and Chad. The movement is explicitly anti-Sufi and although officially non-violent has various sections that support and engage in violence towards Sufi Muslims. The Yan Izala movement acquired a mosque in Malanville after a land conflict in the early 2000s where it supported the party that won the conflict. Likewise, the Tabliqh movement – a Sunni mission that is a ‘pure’ but non-violent movement – gained some foothold in Benin (the movement is partly tied to some support for ISGS in Tillabery (Niger). It is reported that the Dosso-Alibori border area sees the movement of Yan Izala and/or Tabliqh congregations in the form of rotating sermons on both sides of the border. These sermons have the aim of ‘re-Islamizing the Muslim base and the moralization of society’.
Furthermore, various recent studies point to severe tensions between authorities (e.g. the police) and the local population. For example, local community leaders in Malanville complain that they have repeatedly reported suspicious presence to the police but that no action has been taken. Some local support for VEOs and the contentious relationships with the state are both enabling factors for spillover.
Another problem is that VEOs seem to tap into local resentments. This is most clear from the behaviour of the ‘group of twelve’. After travelling through Park W, the group went on to Goungoun – the endpoint for the international transhumance route. On 30 May and 3 June 2021, Goungoun saw deadly clashes between Fulani pastoralists and local farmers, which left at least four dead. Various sources suggest that the ‘group of twelve’ intended to intervene in the local conflict, which had already ended at the time of their arrival. While those informed of the incidents often point to the apparent willingness to use violence, the key insight from this event is that these VEOs are very aware of local tensions and are willing to become embroiled in them. Coupled with local susceptibility this means there should be serious concern of spillover in the Alibori.
The second theatre in which marriages of convenience may be emerging is in the border area between Est (Burkina Faso) and the parks and the strong JNIM/Katiba Macina presence in the border area. While Atacora region is first and foremost a tactical hideout and procurement area, there are indications that VEO links with local tensions in Park W may become more pronounced. The driving force of this potential marriage of convenience is paradoxically the Beninese counter-insurgency force: African Park Network and its role in Pendjari Park and Park W.
African Park Network is not simply a wildlife conservation enterprise. In Benin, it has transformed into the country’s counter-terrorism unit. In Pendjari Park APN has around 125 rangers, in Park W more than 60 are deployed and the numbers are rising due to ongoing training (to 324 in mid-2021). These APN rangers are well trained and armed, and are supported by drones and other aerial surveillance in their operations to track movements in and outside the parks. The Forces Armées Béninoises (FAB), at the same time, lack combat experience and need both equipment and training. Many observers believe that the FAB would not be able to withstand a VEO attack. Therefore, it is APN that has assumed command over the FAB in the border areas. Since mid-2020, APN has issued orders as to where FAB personnel are to deploy. Also, intelligence gathering in the border areas is foremost carried out by APN – often in collaboration with Western supporters. APN has become the bulwark defence of the Talon government against VEO spillover from Burkina Faso and Niger.
There is little doubt, that the apparent limited intentions of VEOs are at least in part driven by the strong and professional role of APN. However, this very strong role of APN increasingly pitches the organisation against VEOs in the border area. Indeed, the successful role of APN has not gone unnoticed by the governments of Niger and Burkina Faso, which have both attempted to manage their parts of the parks, although so far both have more or less failed to take control. In fact, park rangers in Niger, for example, are targeted by VEOs even when they stay far outside the park. Park rangers in Pama, Arli and Singou (Burkina Faso) no longer operate. A recent training mission to reinstate some control in Arli, violently ended in the death of the trainer and two journalists.
The Nigerien and Burkinabe governments and APN are considering extending the role of APN to Niger and Burkina Faso through proxy forces (undisclosed subsidiary organisations are claimed to have been set up to manage Park W in Niger and Arli/Zingou and W in Burkina Faso) and a marine operation (on the Niger River). Moreover, there is an active lobby of APN in Cotonou to consider military action against VEOs in the Burkinabe and Nigerien sides of the park, with support from APN donors.
However, it is this privatisation of security that risks creating problems. If the Benin army (FAB) had been in control, it would have been foremost a deployment that was defensive in nature. But the privatisation of security – concealed under the pretty face of eco-protection – means that commercial and ideological incentives are introduced in the mix and clearly risk spurring conflict. Any expansion of APN operations outside of Benin – even if only just perceived – will threaten VEO strongholds. The real problem is that it is exactly this threat, that has in the past pushed VEOs from relatively limited intentions into escalation (consider for example the imminent threats on the Alidougou cell and subsequent attack on Kafolo – Côte d’Ivoire). Joint operations by the Ivorian and Burkinabe military coupled with a larger role of APN risk leading to an escalation of activities in these cells. The push of APN risks triggering the same type of confrontation.
Moreover, the loyalty of APN is with President Talon and this means that incentives are introduced to withhold information. Recently, APN has not been openly sharing information, including not with some of its donors.
This is all the more relevant, given that the heavily securitised approach of APN is leading to serious discontent in communities in and out of the park (see above). APN, which also operates in various East African parks, takes a militarised approach to conservation; it has invested strongly in military-style training, capacities and tools to protect wildlife from poachers. One of the founders of APN, Mavuso Msimang, is a former prominent member of the ANC’s armed wing. What’s more, in Benin the goal of conservation has been partly taken over by the counter-terrorism focus of APN. Particularly telling is that Western intelligence organisations work directly with APN. At least three countries have their own intelligence staff in the park; some are integrated into the APN structure and there are joint APN-intelligence coordination cells to facilitate the regular exchange of information and expertise. APN is providing regular and professional intelligence reports. It is claimed that the operating budget of APN is about 4 million euro (even though that is equally unclear), and some of it comes out of the intelligence budgets of individual and multilateral organisations.
Unfortunately, APN’s track record of its all-security-like approach has led to local tensions in other contexts. For example, in Ethiopia APN was accused of burning property in order to intimidate local communities and force resettlement (in 2007 it ceased operations in Omo National Park). In its operations in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), APN was accused of ‘(…) privatizing wildlife reserves, running them with military discipline and keeping locals out, for the benefit of rich international tourists [..]’.
There are clear signs that APN is acutely aware of the importance of the civilian and socially responsible dimensions of park management. As already pointed out above, APN plans to cede sections of the parks to local populations for farming and provide controlled access to the park for the various hunting associations. It also seeks to regulate transhumance by formalising access points, creating grazing areas and water-wells along the route, and facilitating transhumance movement in a small strip just above Park W and a strip below Pendjari Park. Moreover, APN is generally trying to improve community relations through community meetings where it listens to local people’s views, takes into account their needs, and engages in job creation programmes that are effective and meet with local approval. However, problems continue to arise in and around the parks. The new demarcation zones around W are not met with local enthusiasm and in various villages around both parks there is serious discontent with APN. Sealing off the border and the parks, as well as its counter-terrorism role, requires APN to be a strong security actor, which may simply be incompatible with the interest of the settled communities and transhumant pastoralists.
The great risk, therefore, is that this securitised approach continues to create local discontent which may become the exact entry point for VEOs (that moreover perceive APN as a threat to their hideouts in Niger and Burkina Faso). This threat is not theoretical but immediate; JNIM and ISGS brigades in eastern Burkina Faso implanted themselves on the back of strong local discontent over the heavy-handed security focus and corrupt practices of Burkinabe forest guards in managing Park Arli and Singou, the gold resources around Pama and Kompienga, and the generally restricted access to the park’s resources. Hence, APN and Benin face an enemy that has proven to be highly skilful in exploiting tensions in the park among the same (ethnic) communities.
In short, northern Benin is at risk. While there is no permanent collective presence of VEOs in northern Benin, VEOs regularly transit Beninese territory and there are at least three areas where temporary presence is very common (Malanville, Park Pendjari and Kalale). Of these, two areas see nascent dynamics that would facilitate a marriage of convenience between VEOs and local groups. The role of APN in particular risks accelerating dynamics that will be hard to control.