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West Africa vows to step up security after attack

Sella Oneko (reuters/afp)March 15, 2016

In the aftermath of Sunday’s terrorist attack on the Grand Bassam beach resort in Ivory Coast, several countries including France have said they will do more to stop the spread of extremism in the Sahel.

Elfenbeinküste Anschlag Grand Bassam in Abidjan
Image: Reuters/J. Penney

"Ivory Coast will not let itself be intimidated by terrorists," Ivory Coast's president Alassane Ouattara said in a televised speech in response to the attacks. On Sunday (13.03.2016) gunmen launched an attack on a beach that left 18 people dead.

The militant group Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb claimed responsibility for the attacks. The group stated the assault was a response to western presence in the region. "We repeat our call to all countries involved in the French invasion of Mali to withdraw," the group said in a statement.

As the news of the attack spread several heads of state offered their condolences to Ivory Coast and the families of the victims. On Tuesday, France's foreign and interior ministers travelled to Ivory Coast and announced an even stronger commitment to fight terrorism in West Africa. France's interior minister Bernard Cazeneuve announced that France would station armed gendarmes in neighboring Burkina Faso. "The desire to position this team in Ouagadougou is to enable us to immediately dispense advice and coordinate other actions in the event of a terrorist crisis," Cazeneuve said.

Nigeria's President Muhammadu Buhari and Algeria's Foreign Affairs Ministry both spoke of the transnational character of Islamist extremism and called for regional international cooperation in the fight against terrorism.

Mali Gao Operation Barkhane Kinder und französische Soldaten
France still has 3,500 troops spread across the Sahel region.Image: Getty Images/AFP/P. Desmazes

Promises of security

The attack in Ivory Coast was a sharp blow to West Africa, which only recently experienced similar attacks in Burkina Faso and Mali. In neighboring Ghana, authorities assured residents that they were putting extra security measures in place. Ghana's Inspector General of Police, John Kudalor announced that his police force would in future focus on gathering intelligence on any possible terrorist activities. According to DW's Isaac Kaledzi in Accra, however, not much has changed in terms of security at hotels or shopping malls. A security guard, who wanted to remain anonymous, told him that he was concerned that they hadn't received much support from the police.

Lack of resources

Many countries in the region had stepped up their security measures prior and in response to the most recent attacks. In mid-2015, Ivory Coast increased security on its northern border after an militants launched an attack in the nearby Malian town of Fakola. Ivory Coast also started engaging with local religious leaders in the region and banned foreign imams. Burkina Faso also increased patrols along its border with Mali.

Yet according to security experts, the measures are still not enough. "A committed assault against what is supposed to be a well-secured high-value target can be achieved fairly simply.

States in the region simply don't have the resources to deal with this threat and we should expect more," Andre Colling, a security analyst at the crisis management assistance company red24 said.

NMLA - Kämpfer im Norden von Mali
In 2012, the Touareg National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad took control of large areas of northern Mali.Image: picture alliance/AP Photo/Blackwell

Northern Mali is the key

Ryan Cummings, director of the risk analysis group Signal Risk, said counter-terrorism forces should refocus their efforts towards northern Mali, which is where the extremists exercise the most control.

Northern Mali is mostly a vast expanse of desert that stretches about 1,000 kilometers from West to East and 1,500 kilometers from north to south. And while the militant groups in the region are by no means a homogenous group, many of the smaller factions like Ansar Dine and Al- Murabitoun have aligned themselves with AQIM.

"Islamist extremists have seemingly re-established an operational nexus in northern Mali and have used this to spill over in neighboring countries," Cummings explained. In response to Mali's political crisis in 2012, French troops supported the Malian government in their fight against Tuareg separatists and Islamist groups that had taken control of key towns like Kidal and Timbuktu.

France deployed 4,000 troops in 2013. "We saw French military forces going into northern Mali, dislodging Islamist militants from areas that were under their control. We saw the destruction of the key militant bases and operational networks. That was all very effective," Cummings said. In 2014, France however reduced its involvement and handed over the control over to the Malian army and the United Nations peacekeeping mission MINUSMA. Both of these forces are under-equipped to deal with AQIM, which is one of the most well-financed militant groups around, Cummings told DW.

Isaac Kaledzi contributed to this article.