It is not clear what exactly drives ISGS activity in Northern Benin. There are three potential explanations and all ultimately suggest that ISGS is presently not inherently seeking to control parts of Benin.
The first explanation is that ISGS has decided to compete with JNIM in Benin (figure 5). The slow but steady growth of the JNIM presence in the Eastern region, where IGSS was defeated by it in mid-2020, and its subsequent foothold across Northern Benin might be a reason for the re-emergence of ISGS in Benin.
One indication of competition with JNIM as a driver is the area where ISGS first hit: Guene. Guene was somewhat regularly visited by JNIM (from Diapaga) in May and June, and the armed group shared the message that they sought to regain control of the Park. When ISGS entered the village a month later, it also adopted a conciliatory tone with regard to the communities, arguing that its goal was to attack the army and not harm the villagers.
Another indication might be that ISGS attempted to move towards Monsey as security officials believed. Monsey was the first village in Alibori that JNIM reached (in April 2022). It is conceivable that ISGS sought to retake control.
A final indication is that ISGS claimed responsibility for very minor incidents, blew these activities out of proportion and seems to be in haste to claim successes. It openly claimed responsibility for the Guene incidents in Al Naba, and subsequently shared a carefully staged photo with its flag, two clean motorbikes and two Chinese AK rifles. It also crossed the River Niger into Benin (from Niger) at the high point of the rainy season. All of this suggests that ISGS is feeling pressure and is in a rush to present itself as an alternative and/or counter JNIM presence in Alibori.
A second explanation for ISGS activity in Alibori is linked to Nigeria. While this is hard to gauge with certainty, some information suggests that JNIM expansion in Alibori in the first nine months of 2022 was not solely about reaching Alibori but could have been about creating a corridor through Benin into Nigeria. This corridor would have to start in Park W (Benin), to exit between Alfakoara and Guéné, to go on to Forêts des Trois-Frontieres, to move through Kalale and, finally, to exit into Nigeria by way of the Kainji Lake Forest. Credible sources highlight that JNIM had created a small unit tasked with forming a bridge around Kalale. The idea was that JNIM sought to connect with Ansaru – a group rapidly expanding in North West Nigeria in 2021 through association with ‘Bandits’ but since then less and less successful – in Nigeria (according to Beninese civilians who were approached to assist).
To be clear, the link between the Sahel conflict and Nigeria has been routinely made for over a decade but it has never really materialized. Moreover, there are clear political interests at stake in making this connection as it would likely unlock Nigerian reluctance to participate and convince many countries that their interests in West Africa are at stake. For this reason, any information has to be treated with caution. However, there are two reasons why information about attempts to link up are more plausible now than they have been before (even though they are still unclear).
On the one hand, the geographical proximity has clearly reduced with the presence of VEOs in North West Nigeria and the expansionist VEO Katibats in Burkina Faso Est. The distance between Tapoa (Burkina Faso) and potential operatives in North West Nigeria is just between 200 to 250 kilometres. On the other hand, there are indications that individuals from North-Western Nigeria have recently been involved in violent activities in Mali. Thus, ethnically-related individuals operate alongside the ISGS. Some sources suggest that it is the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) that is supporting IS Sahel, but it is entirely possible that these reinforcements from North-Western Nigeria are members of the Fulani communities, formerly referred to as “Lakurawa” (the recruits). The two explanations are not necessarily mutually exclusive, and it could be a combination of both. All of this suggests that indications about JNIM attempts to link up with groups in Nigeria fit into wider regional developments.
While it is uncertain, this puts ISGS operations in Benin in a different context. Activity in Alibori might be read as an attempt to counter the attempt (or the threat to attempt) by JNIM to link up with groups in Nigeria. Whereas JNIM exerts stronger control over Benin, ISGS has deeper and more established links with groups in Nigeria, most notably the Islamic State's West Africa Province (ISWAP). ISGS may seek to prevent links between JNIM and Ansaru and maintain the connection with ISWAP.
A third and final explanation has nothing to do with the competition between JNIM and ISGS but is internal to ISGS. Throughout the Sahel, ISGS has been operating out of its areas during the last months and seems to have more liberty and capacity to do so. For instance, in both Mali and Burkina Faso, ISGS has succeeded in consolidating its territory, but in Mali in particular, it has expanded outside its traditional strongholds. In doing so, it has strategically seized the opportunity to demonstrate broader expansion in the region. This might suggest that ISGS has changed its strategy of operations throughout the Sahel and is acting more in line with its slogan: baqiya wa tatamaddad (remaining and expanding). Given that ISGS’s status was elevated in March 2022 when Islamic State Central designated a province to ISGS (the Islamic State in the Sahel, ISSP), this changing strategy might be aimed at demonstrating more successes to IS Central.
In short, there are good reasons to claim that VEO activity in Benin by ISGS is not driven by a strong local agenda (which is generally not the ISGS’ mode of operation) but is rather driven by exogenous reasons. In this specific sense, the view of individuals in Beninese security circles that Benin is facing an outside threat is supported.