Advancing Islamist Militant Attacks Put Ivory Coast on Alert

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Operation Barkhane
French and Malian soldiers on patrol in Timbuktu as part of the anti-terrorist operation in the Sahel on June 6, 2015. Photograph: Philippe Desmazes/AFP/Getty Images

Ivory Coast is the latest West African nation that’s concerned it may become a target of Islamist militants in the region.

The world’s top cocoa producer dispatched security forces to its northern border after an attack by suspected militants on the southern Malian town of Fakola, 20 kilometers (12.4 miles) north of Ivory Coast, on Sunday. That followed a June 10 raid on the nearby town of Misseni that killed one Malian soldier.

“In the past year, Ivory Coast has become an increasingly attractive target as it has stepped up its commitment to fighting regional terrorism,” Maja Bovcon, senior Africa analyst at risk consultancy Verisk Maplecroft, said Tuesday in an e-mailed response to questions.

Ivory Coast, whose $31 billion economy is the largest in Francophone West Africa, provides a logistics base for France’s Operation Barkhane, a 3,000-member force to battle militants in the western Sahel. So far it has avoided attacks that have struck Cameroon, Chad, Niger, and Mali. Islamic State’s gains in Libya are heightening concern the region’s militant movements may coalesce behind its leadership and expand their targets.

“We have to prevent any infiltration, any contagion of this phenomenon in our country,” Ivorian Defense Minister Paul Koffi Koffi said Tuesday by phone. “It’s an alert. It’s in our interest to look at it very closely.”

Ivory Coast and Mali are discussing the possibility of setting up a joint force along their border, government spokesman Bruno Kone told reporters Tuesday in Abidjan. He described the militant threat as “close and imminent.”

‘Allahu Akbar’

During the attack on Misseni, militants brandished automatic weapons and shouted “Allahu Akbar,” an Arabic phrase meaning “God is great,” before planting a flag of the Islamist group, Ansar al-Dine, General Mamadou Lamine Ballo, secretary-general to the Malian ministry of defense, said in a June 10 e-mailed statement.

Ivory Coast lawmakers are scheduled to vote Friday on new anti-terrorism legislation to give the government greater powers, such as the use of phone tapping, to track suspected militant networks in the country, said Pierre Gaho Oulata, the head of the National Assembly’s Security and Defense Commission.

“The threat is there and closer to our border,” he said by phone Tuesday. “It is real.”

Ivory Coast, which is recovering from violence that left 3,000 people dead after disputed elections in 2010, needs to keep a close eye on its young former fighters to ensure they don’t join Islamist militant groups, Oulata said.

Mali Attacks

Neighboring Mali has been rocked by militant attacks since the overthrow of Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi in 2011 flooded the Sahel region with looted weapons. While France and the United Nations sent troops to Mali in 2013 to regain control of the north after Islamists invaded the area and fought alongside separatists, sporadic attacks continue.

Six UN peacekeepers were killed and five severely wounded in an attack early Thursday between Timbuktu and Goundam in northern Mali, the UN mission in the country said in a statement.

In the past few months, Mali has been hit by attacks from Islamist militants targeting its central and southern areas. In March, an attack at a restaurant in Bamako, the first deadly assault in the capital, left five people dead.

Southern Attacks

The government and the main separatist rebels in northern Mali last month signed a peace agreement after months of negotiations mediated by Algeria. The accord may limit the Islamist militants’ operational space in the north.

Islamist militants probably carried out the recent attacks in the south near Ivory Coast’s border, according to a June 19 note from the London-based risk analysis group Control Risks, to “demonstrate an increased geographical reach.”

“The recent attacks in Misseni and Fakola signal the emergence of a local militant cell intent on targeting symbols of state authority,” said Control Risks associate analyst Vincent Rouget. “However, it appears to lack sophistication and extensive local support, and its operational reach is likely to remain limited.”

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