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Ivory Coast: what's behind the attacks on Grand Bassam

Sella OnekoMarch 15, 2016

As eye-witness reports paint a clearer picture of the events in Grand Bassam, little is known about the attackers. What is clear is that while Jihadist groups in the Sahel may be divided, they are still a potent force.

Elfenbeinküste nach dem Anschlag
Image: Getty Images/AFP/S. Kambou

"At around 1pm we saw two armed people coming towards us. They started shooting in all directions. The people lying here were all hotel customers," said one eye-witness, referring to the victims. "One of the gunmen was almost a child himself. He went up to a young woman, who was talking on her phone and just shot her," another man said.

A barman told the Reuter news agency four of the attackers had arrived at the popular weekend resort in Grand Bassam in a Ford saloon car and ordered drinks. "They didn't speak French. They spoke Arabic. We communicated with them in English," he said. That happened just before they kicked over the table and started yelling. The attack in Grand Bassam left 18 people dead and 33 people were injured.

Tunisia in June 2015, Mali in November 2015, Burkina Faso in January 2016 and now Ivory Coast. The attacks in the Sahel region all followed a similar pattern. A small group of gunmen attacked civilians, tourists or business people on a popular beach or in a hotel. In some instances they spared people who could prove that they knew Islamic prayers. The radical Islamist group al-Qaeda in the Maghreb (AQIM) claimed responsibility for the three West African attacks. The Tunisian attack was claimed by the group that calls itself 'Islamic State', but the Tunisian government said it believed that AQIM was behind it.

"These terrorist attacks can happen anywhere, at any time," Ivorian President Alassane Ouattara said on Sunday after visiting the scene of the shooting. The area of the attack was cordoned off, for the removal of any unexploded munitions, and the government said that security forces had killed three of the six assailants. Ouattara declared three days of national mourning for the victims.

Elfenbeinküste Anschlag Grand Bassam in Abidjan
Many of the victims and the injured were swimming or simply spending time at the beach before the gunmen arrived.Image: Reuters/J. Penney

Victims of the attack

The victims included nationals from Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, France, Mali as well as one German victim - Henrike Grohs, who headed Ivory Coast's Goethe Institute.

"We are shocked that Henrike Grohs was torn out of this life (world) in such a tragic, gruesome way . She loved her work and was full of energy and ideas," said Johannes Ebert, Secretary-General of the Goethe Institute. The 51-year-old Grohs had worked in Ivory Coast for just over two years.

"The news of the attack in Ivory Coast really left us speechless, and when we heard that someone very close to us was killed, we were devastated," said Inge Herbert, director of the West Africa branch of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation, an organization affiliated to Germany's Free Democratic Party. Based in Dakar in neighboring Senegal, Herbert had frequently visited Ivory Coast. "Grand Bassam with its restaurants at the beach is a place that we visit very often, both professionally and privately - there are hotels there where we conduct our workshops," she said.

Attack is a shock but no surprise

The news of the attack may have come as a shock, but the region has been aware of a sense of growing insecurity for quite a while. Since the attacks in Ouagadougou and Bamako, security measures in hotels have been tightened, said Herbert. For some time now, people have expressed concerns about the safety of big public events, such as a recent marathon in Dakar. "Some people do ask themselves, will there be a time when I stop attending such big events?" Herbert added.

It's the easy targets, like beaches, which are difficult to monitor, that the terrorists target, explained Lori-Anne Theroux-Benoni, a senior researcher with the Institute for Security Studies. They have seen this strategy working in Bamako and Ouagadougou, she explained.

Terror attack in the Ivory Coast

"Ivory Coast was definitely one of the countries where an attack was a possibility, because of Ivorian diplomatic activity in the Malian crisis," Theroux-Benoni told DW. In 2012, Ivory Coast had played a central role in the regional efforts to mediate a deal between the Malian government and Tuareg rebels groups, some of which are affiliated to AQIM. "Ivory coast also has a French military base which has a logistical role in Operation Barkhane," explained Theroux-Benoni. She was referring to France's 3,000 troop strong counter-terrorism force, based in Mali, Chad, Burkina Faso and Niger.

In recent months several experts warned of the possibility of further attacks in the Sahel region, but pre-empting terrorist attacks is not always possible."I think it shows an escalation of al-Qaeda's capabilities in using the porous borders and in countries where it knows that there is an availability of arms, but more so countries which are fragile," Ayo Johnson, director of the media platform Viewpoint Africa, told DW. "It also shows that al-Qaeda is trying to drive a wedge in countries which have a predominantly Muslim north and predominantly Christian south," he added. Despite his own Muslim background Ouattara's government last year put a ban on foreign imams in its northern regions.

What needs to be done?

"In an ideal world we would prevent the emergence of these terrorist groups, but we are in a situation where we can only prevent their growth," Theroux-Benoni explained. "The people who join theses type of movements do so because of questions of governance, social exclusion and the absence of socio-economic opportunities. These are the points that the state has to work on."

Philipp Sandner contributed to this article.