The expansion of activities of JNIM’s Kompienga and Tapoa bases in Burkina Faso outlined in the previous section are closely tied to Benin. We first explore the impact of these activities on Benin and subsequently explore the potential explanation for why the groups target Northern Benin.
A first observation is that “Undermining the Maginot Line” by the Kompienga and Tapoa Provinces was first and foremost intended to support operations in Burkina Faso rather than really being aimed at Benin. The control over Nadiagou limited the capacity of Burkina Faso to defend its frontier with Benin. As a response, there was a gradual reliance on low-risk aerial bombardments rather than troop deployments. In the first three months of 2022, this reliance somewhat limited JNIM but did not significantly slow down its progress. Controlling Nadiagou subsequently allowed JNIM to gradually oust FAB from the border of Burkina Faso.
Attacks on FAB and APN installations along Benin’s Park borders began in January and February 2022, with the specific targeting of installations used by both APN and FAB. The goal appeared to be to diminish the Beninese capacity to threaten JNIM’s Burkinabe bases. Similarly, the attack at Point Triple against an APN convoy was a carefully planned and targeted operation which sent a clear message to African Parks to steer clear of Burkina Faso.
From April onwards, JNIM’s objective in Benin became clearer (or might have changed): rather than pushing back the Beninese military, the goal seems to be to create a giant buffer zone, stretching across Monsey, W and Pendjari National Parks in Benin and over to the Mandouri villages in Togo. In Benin, increasing IEDs in the Parks and ambushes chased away both APN and FAB forces from Park W. The Pendjari National Park appears to be holding because of its more limited size, but it is weakening.
What is important is that Togo is drawn into this buffer zone. Sources claim that during a meeting in the Kompienga Province in the middle of 2022 some local authorities argued that access to Benin could be achieved in two ways. Either directly through Koualou (the strategy hitherto used) or instead by passing through Toutourgou – a small Burkinabe village on the border with Togo – and then on to Lalabiga – a village in Togo on the border with Benin – before finally reaching the Atacora Department of Benin. Subsequent military developments highlight that JNIM has indeed sought to create this path into Togo through the Soudougui Department of Burkina Faso.
What drives the creation of a buffer zone around the Kompienga and Tapoa Provinces? While there are certainly also endogenous reasons (e.g. some recruits stem from Atacora and seem set to settle scores), here we explore three plausible exogenous explanations.
The first explanation for a buffer zone is JNIM’s alleged overarching strategy. According to an analysis by Promediation (May 24th and July 5th 2022), the push by JNIM into the West, South and East of Burkina Faso is part of a coordinated strategy to progressively encircle the Burkinabe capital, Ouagadougou. To achieve this, JNIM seeks to take control of several aspects: firstly, of strategic supply routes from Benin, Togo, Mali, and Côte d’Ivoire; secondly, of strategic supply infrastructure (bridges, roads, etc.), or indeed simply to destroy them; and, thirdly, of parallel criminal or supply networks. In short, this understanding would mean that Benin itself is not the primary target but is ultimately a means to obtain and consolidate control over Burkina Faso.
A second explanation is that JNIM seeks to carve out a buffer zone in response to coordinated regional military threats. These threats stem from, among others, the Accra Initiative. This initiative – created in 2017 – seeks to increase the synergies between Benin, Burkina Faso, Ghana, Togo and Cote d’Ivoire (Niger has observer status). One of the key mechanisms of the Accra Initiative is that countries agree to ‘hot pursuit’ operations. This means that rather than asking for permission to cross borders, countries can just ‘inform’ their neighbours and pursue VEOs on the neighbouring territory.
So far, Burkina Faso has been the only country where ‘hot pursuit’ is possible. In the run-up to the first attacks against Benin, both Togo and Benin accumulated troops at the border with Burkina Faso. Togo had already done so in 2018 with the Koudjoare operation and it increased its presence in 2020. Benin similarly had some hot-pursuit operations in 2020 but this increased in 2021 when it was encouraged to address the issue of Koualou (a contested border area with Burkina Faso). Regular troop movements along the borders within the Parks and villages were a constant threat to JNIM.
Indeed, the Nadiagou attacks were preceded by military campaigns: “Ougapo 2” by Burkina Faso (in the Est and Centre Est); “Taanli 2” by Niger and Burkina Faso; and “Koundalgou 4” by Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast, Ghana, and Togo. It is conceivable that the Mouslimou Group seeks to create the buffer zone to keep neighbouring military forces at bay, who have greater liberty because of the Accra Initiative.
A third and final explanation for a buffer zone would be that it will provide JNIM with specific benefits. As a start, a buffer zone could generate recruits to support an ever-expanding fight (e.g. there has been an increase in recruitment activity in 2022). Moreover, a buffer zone provides the group with more income (including Zakat) and opportunities for a stronger grip on illegal trafficking in the border area stretching from Togo (Mandouri) to Niger (W). For example, JNIM is known to operate in the gasoline market and seeks to gain control thereover. Illustrative is a long-lasting conflict between leading fuel dealers and individual fuel smugglers who use boats. When local boat smugglers realized they were supplying JNIM they refused to continue. At that point in time, fuel dealers said they would denounce individual boat smugglers to JNIM which ‘kill’ those who refuse to continue.
These three explanations all have in common the notion that JNIM’s presence in Benin is first and foremost a means rather than an end in itself. This is significant as it suggests that perhaps some of the programming aimed at preventing a spillover would be better addressed towards Burkina Faso rather than Benin. It also suggests that a military response is necessary (while certainly needing to be accompanied by the simultaneous addressing of very real discontent in the areas).
However, while this is presently correct, it is not the whole story.
First, Al Qaeda’s main lesson has been that it needs to give autonomy to its fighters and speak to real local needs. For this reason, the various Katibats that make up JNIM have a large degree of autonomy and speak to the needs of the fighters. Hence, the Mouslimou group’s ongoing recruitment in Benin likely means that JNIM’s goals will change over time. Recent information suggests that this is actually already happening: new recruits from Benin seek to target Benin, its government and those who represent the authorities. For example, individuals recruited from undisclosed villages in Atacora recently expressed threats to behead mayors in the Materi Commune. In an incident in October in Porga, an individual from Benin was killed; he was the self-declared leader of Benin’s local Jihad. Over time, JNIM has the potential to further localise its activities.
Second, it remains important that JNIM has a structure wherein there is strategic coordination at the highest level (Shura Council). And strategies change as the last three years have made abundantly clear from Benin. In 2019 and 2020, Benin was an area of kidnapping (plans) and the procurement of JNIM, which changed to a transit and hide-out zone in 2021. Even though decision-making in rebel movements is often not fully hierarchical, it is clear that deliberate decisions have been made before each step on the escalation ladder. There are multiple conceivable reasons why JNIM might decide on more offensive activity in Benin.