Since December 2021, Benin has suffered an increasing number of armed conflicts linked to violent extremist groups. The Beninese government publicly acknowledges that there have been around 20 violent events in the period between December 2021 and May 2022.[1] This report records 43 discrete violent events involving Violent Extremist Organisations (VEOs) from December 2021 to September 2022 (92 when including non-violent activities).

The geographical area of activity in Benin is also expanding. Initially, activity was restricted to Benin’s borders with Burkina Faso, the interior of the “W park” and the Pendjari National Park (although the latter to a lesser extent). Since June 2022, incidents increasingly occur in populated areas around the parks.

There are generally two explanations for the surge of activity in Benin.

One explanation is pent-up tensions in Northern Benin’s villages. In this understanding, the entry of VEOs is facilitated by pull factors such as local tensions which they strategically exploit. VEOs make gestures towards local leaders and the population, promising to resolve tensions around land ownership, access to natural resources, social schisms and conflicts between farmers and herders. There is ample evidence of how they are drawn to Benin and overlapping interests are developing as evidenced by four studies.[2]

The problem with this pull factor explanation, however, is that it discounts the fact that VEOs come from outside Benin where they face serious push factors. VEOs operating in Benin stage their activities from Burkina Faso, Niger and, to a lesser extent, Togo and Nigeria. Their fates there – e.g. military pressure, success-changing strategies (e.g. plans to isolate the capital and to cut off supply routes), and social and economic developments – strongly influence their behaviour in Benin.

This report seeks to better understand a second explanation; push factors. What has been the impact of developments in Benin’s neighbouring countries on the security situation in Alibori and Atactora (the Northern Provinces of Benin)?

This question is relevant for two reasons.

First, the dominant line of thought in Benin security circles is that they are primarily facing a threat from outside of Benin. To be clear, there is ample evidence of an emerging Beninese Jihad – and it is dangerous to deny and underestimate its emergence. Yet, there is real merit in better understanding why the Beninese government believes that it is subject to developments that are partly beyond its control. As this report shows, the Beninese government is rightly also pointing to its neighbours.

A second reason to better understand violence in Northern Benin as a threat from the outside is that it has important programming consequences. The spread of violence in the Sahel towards the Littorals has led to specific programming on addressing root causes in the Littorals. Yet, if ‘spillover’ occurs because of security developments outside of the Littorals, there are two resulting consequences: a) there might be a need to better account for hard security developments (not because it is the solution, but because it sets the context where root causes can be addressed); b) there is a need to engage in programming transcending the Littorals and instead to truly connect to programming in the Sahel.

In advancing this perspective, this report is not only advocating considering violence in Northern Benin as an outside threat. Rather, it seeks to complement present insights on local grievances as driving forces. Indeed, the pace of violence in Northern Benin is presently determined outside the country.

The report concentrates on four main groups (see figure 1). The biggest is the long-running JNIM presence around Kompienga (Burkina Faso). This group is under the command of Mouslimou, the Emir of the East, and has expanded in all directions (including Atacora, Benin). Closely related is the JNIM presence in Tapoa (Burkina Faso). This group is also under Mouslimou’s command and has a stated goal to gain control over Tapoa Province. It also controls the Burkina Faso side of Park W.

Another group has a presence around Torodi (Niger) – possibly Katiba Serma – a split from Katiba Macina. The leader of this group is the Emir of Torodi, Abu Anifa. The group has some influence in the Tapoa Province of the East region, but concentrates on the northern Komondjari Province of the East region, in Burkina Faso. This group also has a presence in Park W in Niger (and Alibori Benin). These three groups are all units of JNIM and coordinate their activities, especially in operations against the Burkinabe military.

Figure 1
Suspected VEO activity (June – September 2022)
Suspected VEO activity (June – September 2022)

Source: ACLED, Supplemental data

A final group is the Islamic State of the Greater Sahel (ISGS). The ISGS presence in Benin stems from Niger but it remains unclear where and who leads this group. Since 2019, ISGS has been known to treat Alibori as a resting area from the tri-border/Liptako-Gourma area. While the group was believed to have disappeared in the past couple of years, it re-emerged in September 2022 when it claimed responsibility for attacks in early July in Benin.

To assess these groups, this report relies on various sources (in addition to some interviews). ACLED data for Burkina Faso, Niger, Togo and Benin. ACLED collects information on the dates, actors, locations, fatalities, and types of all reported political violence and protest events. ACLED events in these countries derive from a mixture of international, national and local sources. Events are thoroughly vetted through well-established procedures and date back to 1997.

Another source is additional data on political violence and disorder (adding to ACLED) as well as various smaller events such as the arrests of individuals and non-organized instances of farmer-herder conflict and preaching by VEOs. Finally, fine-grained data on VEO movements in border areas with Togo, Niger and Burkina Faso.

The report has the following structure. The first section sketches recent developments in Northern Benin in 2022. The second and third sections explore how Northern Benin is impacted by the Kompienga and Tapoa Provinces (Burkina Faso) and subsequently explain JNIM operations from Burkina Faso towards Benin. The fourth and fifth sections consider the ISGS presence in Niger’s Dosso Region and its effect on Benin, and subsequently explain what might drive ISGS operations from Niger into Benin.

TV5 Monde avec AFP (2022). Le Bénin cible d'une vingtaine d'attaques de groupes terroristes. TV5 Monde Info. link.
Konrad Adenauer Stiftung. (2021). North of the countries of the Gulf of Guinea: The new frontier for jihadist groups? Konrad Adenauer Stiftung. link; de Bruijne, K. (2021). Laws of Attraction. The Clingendael Institute. link; ELVA. (2021). Tracking VEO Spill-over from the Sahel into Littoral West Africa: 2nd Situation Report; Institute for Security Studies (2022), Upcoming report on spillover in the coastal states, Institute for Security Studies.