The countries of the Gulf of Guinea (which includes several countries in West and Central Africa, most notably Angola, Benin, Togo, Cameroon, Nigeria, and Côte d'Ivoire) face a growing expansion of terrorist organizations, especially with the escalation of attacks on these countries' borders with Burkina Faso. France designated the northern and southwestern parts of Côte d'Ivoire a "red zone" following the attack on the "Yendéré" town in Burkina Faso, near the border with Côte d'Ivoire in January 2020[1]. Amidst these developments, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) held, in September 2019, an extraordinary summit to address the growing dangers[2]. This comes at a time when some countries in the region are gearing up for elections in 2020, which poses additional challenges to counter-terrorism efforts.

Against this backdrop, this paper seeks to understand the background and context of the escalation in terrorist organizations' activity in that part of Africa and its underlying drivers. It also attempts to examine the possible scenarios for the expansion of the terrorist threat in the countries of the Gulf of Guinea.

The Terrorist Rise in the Gulf of Guinea Countries: Goals and Motives

  • Although the region has not seen violent attacks such as the Sahel has, it has become more vulnerable following an uptick in terrorist activity in 2019, namely the kidnapping of two French tourists in northern Benin in May. In June of the same year, a terrorist attack targeting a church in Ghana was thwarted. Additionally, a Spanish priest was killed in an area between Burkina Faso and Togo in February while a major terrorist infiltration attempt was foiled on the borders between Burkina Faso and Togo in April, after the Burkinabe security forces warned of jihadists leaving to neighboring countries[3].
  • Terrorist organizations aim to open a new front to distract international efforts, especially the northern areas that have been abandoned by the state, obtain "safe havens" there, and punish countries participating in the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA), such as Togo and Côte d'Ivoire. They also aim to open safe corridors, especially from northern Mali to northwestern Nigeria and northern Benin, and across Burkina Faso down to the Gulf of Guinea states[4].
  • The main drivers of terrorist organizations' expansion  in the countries of the Gulf of Guinea can be summarized as follows:
  1. Dozens of citizens of countries in Gulf of Guinea region have joined the ranks of terrorist organizations in recent years[5].
  2. The ongoing communication between jihadist groups in Burkina Faso and sleeper cells in countries of the region, including, the contacts between Oumarou Diallo, the leader of the "Diawo" group, and terrorist cells in Benin, Togo and Ghana[6].
  3. The fragile borders and their favorable topography, especially the border area between Nigeria and Benin (700 km), and Benin and the Côte d'Ivoire, where forests and swamps provide an environment suitable for providing hideouts[7].
  4. The alliance with cross-border organized crime networks, particularly between Burkina Faso, Côte d'Ivoire, Ghana and Mali, which helps these organizations obtain logistical support[8], given the availability of weapons in Benin, Ghana and Togo[9].
  5. Ethnic links. Fighters from the Fulani group are increasingly making up a larger proportion among the members of terrorist organizations[10]. This group has been operating in many countries of the region[11]. The call for jihad by Amadou Koufa, leader of Katiba Macina, in a video published on November 8, 2018, may find resonance in the countries of the region[12].
  6. The ability to leverage cross-border trade networks, where the gold mines in Burkina Faso, a potential source of financing, are linked to the profitability of these mines in the countries of the region[13].
  7. The use of religious and sectarian strife, especially between Muslims and Christians in Benin and Ghana. This is particularly important as jihadist ideas continue to find haven in marginalized areas (Zongo communities in Ghana for example [14], in addition to the persisting tensions between Wahhabism and Sufism in Guinea[15].
  8. Economic and political frustrations. About 70% of the population of northern Ghana and 60% of the population in the north and northwest of Côte d'Ivoire[16] suffer from poverty and high unemployment rates[17]. The number of refugees coming to the northern regions of Burkina Faso is also growing[18].

Challenges to International, Regional Counter-Terrorism Efforts in the Region

  • Weak security and military coordination at the regional level, in light of the multiplicity of regional initiatives. This is in addition to funding difficulties and the weakening impact of the regional force capable of leading the ECOWAS, and the political challenges that go beyond the ECOWAS ability to raise a billion dollars for the fight against terrorism, according to the recommendations of the Ouagadougou Summit on September 14, 2019[19].
  • Insufficient international response to prevent the spread of jihadist violence at the regional level. The MINUSMA and the G5 Sahel Joint Force and the Sahel Alliance did not establish the necessary coordination required to stop the proliferation of terrorism, especially in light of the division of West Africa into two spheres, Francophone and Anglophone[20].

Future Scenarios

There are three possible scenarios for terrorist expansion in the countries of the Gulf of Guinea, which can be summarized as follows:

  1. Increased maritime terrorism operations, attacks on oil tankers and offshore oil facilities in the Gulf of Guinea, in light of the security fragility and the escalation of piracy operations (20 cases were recorded in the first quarter of 2019[21]). But this scenario seems challenged by the poor naval capabilities of terrorist organizations in the region to launch this type of attacks.
  2. A limited expansion of terrorist organizations and control over limited areas, and their use of a "hit-and-run" strategy, especially in the northern areas near the border with Burkina Faso, which suffer from economic marginalization. However, what challenges this scenario is the some of the region’s countries’ move (Benin, Cote d'Ivoire, Togo and Ghana) to coordinate their military operations with Burkina Faso (Accra Initiative) and the ECOWAS strategy aimed at mobilizing member countries' efforts to combat terrorism.
  3. A decline in terrorist expansion coupled with successful international and regional efforts military strikes on terrorist strongholds in a way that prevents them from marching to the south, especially with France's move to intensify its operations in the region after the killing of 13 of its soldiers in Mali. However, what stands in the way of such a scenario is these organizations' ability to retain their ability to adapt and regroup despite the military strikes against their strongholds. In light of the continued U.S. military presence in the region, the US military strategy continues to focus on providing indirect support to friendly countries while reducing its direct military engagement in this region.

In conclusion, it appears that the future of terrorist organizations in the region will be confined between the first and second scenarios in light of the political conflicts associated with the 2020 elections, and the limited intelligence capabilities of the countries of the region to track terrorist activity across their borders. Even if ECOWAS succeeds in raising the funds necessary to finance its military operations, this does not guarantee success without broader international and regional coordination. Nigeria alone spent $2 billion in 2018, but it has not been able to beat Boko Haram. In spite of the weak naval capabilities of terrorist organizations to launch attacks in the Gulf of Guinea, there is nothing to prevent them from attacking ships from land.

* Researcher on Terrorist Organizations.


[1]  Cote d'Ivoire: France adds two regions to "Red Zone", 6/2/2020, available at:

[2] "One billion dollars to fight terrorism in West Africa", Asharq Al-Awsat, 9/16/2019, available at:

[3] Crisis Group, "The Risk of Jihadist Contagion in West Africa," Africa Briefing, N°149, 20 December 2019.p.3

[4] Ibid, p.2

[5] Antonin Tisseron, “Jihadist Threat: the Gulf of Guinea States up against the Wall," available at;

[6] Crisis Group, op.cit, p.5

[7] Ibid, p.2

[8] Heni Nsaibia, "Insecurity in Southwestern Burkina Faso in the Context of an Expanding Insurgency," Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED), January 17, 2019.

[9] West Africa Network for Peace Building (WANEP), “Violent Extremism and Terrorism: Exploring New Frontiers in West Africa?,” Report, June 2019, p.7

[10] Antonin Tisseron, op.cit.

[11] Boukary sangare, "Fulani people and Jihadism in Sahel and West African countries," Fondation pour la Recherche Stratégique (FRS), March 2019, p.3

[12] Antonin Tisseron op.cit.

[13] Crisis Group, op.cit, .p.4

[14] Peter Knoope and Grégory Chauzal, "Beneath the Apparent State of Affairs: Stability in Ghana and Benin The Potential for Radicalization and Political Violence in West Africa," Clingendael Report, Netherlands Institute of International Relations ‘Clingendael’, January 2016, p.8,16

[15] Antonin Tisseron, op.cit.

[16] Crisis Group, op.cit, p.6

[17] West Africa Network for Peace Building (WANEP), op.cit, p.6

[18] Ibid, p.6

[19] Crisis Group, op.cit, p.3

[20] Ibid, p.8

[21] West Africa Network for Peace Building (WANEP), op.cit, p.6


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