Militants Take Cover Amid Elephants, Lions in West Africa’s National Parks
Michael M. Phillips, The Wall Street Journal
November 19, 2023
Gunmen pulled 18 villagers from their homes during a night raid this
spring, shooting some and slitting the throats of the rest. They wedged
hand grenades under the bodies, laying a trap for those who would discover
the grisly scene.
Two more villagers were later killed when they moved the corpses and
triggered the explosives. By then, the attackers were hiding in nearby
Pendjari National Park, a refuge for thousands of elephants, herds of
antelope, the last few West African cheetahs and, increasingly, Islamist
Pendjari and two adjacent national parks comprise West Africa’s largest
surviving protected wilderness—4.2 million acres spread across remote areas
of Benin, Niger and Burkina Faso. The expanse of emerald-green savannah,
jagged cliffs and stands of ancient baobab trees has also become the latest
battlefield pitting the U.S. and its allies against al Qaeda and Islamic
Militants carried out 71 killings, kidnappings and other attacks in Benin
in the first half of this year, compared with five in 2021, according to
the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project, a U.S.-based nonprofit
monitoring service, and the Pentagon’s Africa Center for Strategic Studies.
Most of the violence took place inside the parks or nearby.
Washington is increasingly worried the Islamist insurgency that has
engulfed Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger will undermine Benin and other
relatively prosperous, pro-Western states along the Gulf of Guinea. U.S.
Special Forces are stationed in Benin to gather intelligence and advise the
local military on counterinsurgency operations.
U.S. concerns are geopolitical—the prospect of weakened Western influence,
growing militant strength and Russian inroads—as well as environmental. If
the wilderness areas are lost to militants, “then forget conservation in
West Africa,” said Hugues Akpona, an operations manager for
Johannesburg-based African Parks, a nonprofit that runs the Pendjari and W
national parks for Benin.
African Parks’s 300 rangers are trying to protect wildlife while dodging
roadside bombs. They carry assault rifles and machine guns to defend
against poachers, but they aren’t trained or equipped to fight insurgents.
The rangers withdrew from areas bordering Burkina Faso and Niger after
seven African Parks staff were killed last year by explosive booby-traps.
Benin has since closed the parks to visitors.
Joe Siegle, research director of the Pentagon’s Africa Center, described
Benin as a barometer of the threat to the nations of Ghana, Togo and Ivory
Coast on the Atlantic’s Gulf of Guinea.
In recent years, U.S. military strategy has centered on deploying
special-operations troops across western Africa to train local commandos to
fight extremists. The approach has failed to stop the insurgents, and it
has been upended by military coups in Mali, Burkina Faso and, most
recently, in Benin’s neighbor, Niger, which hosts American commandos and
drone bases. Federal law sharply limits arms sales, training and other
security assistance to military regimes that come to power by overthrowing
Before the coup, drones launched from U.S. bases in Niger flew over Benin,
collecting aerial footage of militant movements for American Special Forces
troops, who passed the information to Beninese counterterrorism commandos.
This summer, additional U.S. Green Berets trained local commandos in Benin
for counterterrorism missions. Benin’s army has stationed 3,000 troops, a
fifth of its force, at outposts in and around the Pendjari and W national
“Benin is trying its best to contain the threat,” said Brig. Gen. Abou
Issa, commander of Benin’s army.
No group has claimed responsibility for the Kaobagou village massacre in
May. Beninese soldiers hunted the militants for a week and killed six of
them in Pendjari, said Col. Faïzou Gomina, commander of Benin’s
counterinsurgency campaign. The army couldn’t determine the men’s
affiliation. The Pentagon’s Africa Center estimates that 80% of the
violence in Benin is connected to al Qaeda.
“The soldiers never sleep,” said Angelo Koulidiaty, an elder in Kaobagou
village. “They’re in the woods, day and night.”
In 2019, militants kidnapped two French tourists on a safari in Pendjari
and killed their Beninese guide, foreshadowing the threats to come. Two
French commandos died rescuing the tourists, who had been smuggled into
Since then, insurgents have killed 47 civilians and 29 soldiers in Benin,
according to Benin army data. That pales in comparison with the 27,000
people killed by militants or during combat in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger
since 2017. There is growing fear, however, that sporadic al Qaeda and
Islamic State attacks in Benin will grow into a full-blown battle for
control of territory.
“We always hear in Niger there’s no peace because of the jihad,” said Wakas
Guinguere, who fishes for tilapia in the Alibori River edging W park. “In
Burkina Faso it’s the same. In Nigeria it’s the same. We’re frightened. If
it can happen to them, it can happen to us.”
The first major attack in Benin took place in December 2021, when militants
armed with rifles and rocket-propelled grenades raided an army position in
Pendjari while soldiers slept, killing two and wounding nine.
Although Benin’s army has served in peacekeeping missions, it has never
fought a war. “We weren’t prepared to fight terrorism,” said Gomina, the
army colonel. “The first attack shocked us.”
Starting in January 2022, Benin flooded the parks with troops. A month
later, roadside bombs inside the W National Park blew up two Land Cruisers
and killed four African Parks rangers, two drivers and a French
law-enforcement instructor. African Parks suspected the al Qaeda umbrella
group Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal Muslimin, or JNIM, was behind the attack.
African Parks restricted the rangers to small sections of Pendjari and W.
To avoid booby-traps on larger roads, rangers stopped patrolling in
vehicles and instead moved inside the parks by foot, motorbike and
Park rangers instructed the newly arrived soldiers how to behave around
wildlife: Don’t take flash photos of elephants. Don’t run from lions. The
first army commandos to arrive ignored their lessons when they heard lions
roaring near their camp at night, said Akpona, the African Parks manager.
The men bolted back to their base.
In Pendjari, African Parks fenced a 1,500-acre site near park headquarters
to breed West African cheetahs. Only about 25 to 30 are believed left in
the wild. The group has stocked the enclosure with kob antelope as prey for
the cheetahs it plans to capture after this year’s rainy season. African
Parks is also considering returning rhinoceros to the parks, along with
ostrich, giraffe and giant eland antelope.
“We can’t do this without the army,” said Abdel-Aziz Bello, manager of W
National Park, named for the zigzagging course of the Niger River.
African Parks is funded by the Benin government, U.S. Fish and Wildlife
Service, the State Department and private donors. Each park has an annual
budget of $6 million. The conservation group is in talks to run Burkina
Faso’s Arly National Park, the third park in the cross-border wildlife
African Parks buys supplies from local markets and employs 700 people in
Pendjari and W. It touts the economic benefits of the two national parks,
hoping locals will be more inclined to protect the lands instead of
poaching wildlife, cutting trees, grazing cattle—or joining al Qaeda.
Commerce and services help “disrupt the chain of recruitment in
communities,” Akpona said.
W allows locals to fish in the Alibori River as well as gather plants and
honey from the forest. Every year, African Parks vaccinates more than
15,000 head of cattle belonging to residents and allows controlled grazing
in buffer zones around the parks. Residents, in turn, are encouraged to
keep an eye out for information helpful to the military.
The conservation group built a ceremonial palace—a modest round building
with a throne platform—for Oumara Iloutchoka, the traditional king of Alfa
Kouara, the town at W’s entrance. Paintings of leopard, lion and the
84-year-old king adorn the building’s interior.
Iloutchoka’s advisers monitor the town and nearby villages for strangers.
Suspect visitors are brought to the king for interrogation. He checks their
identification, searches their belongings and looks for suspicious
injuries. He asks what brings them to Alfa Kouara. Evasive responses prompt
a call to the army.
“You can’t understand the motives of bad people,” Iloutchoka said. “I’ve
read the Quran. It doesn’t say you should get a gun and kill innocents.”
In March, al Qaeda affiliates on motorbikes smuggled rifles and plastic
jugs of homemade explosives from Nigeria into Benin. They stopped at an
isolated homestead, woke the farmer and pillaged his stock of yams and
cassava flour. The farmer notified the local army captain, who gathered his
men and organized an ambush on the road leading to W park.
The soldiers hid among trees and waited. At 2 a.m. the next morning, they
spotted a man signaling with a flashlight. Seven motorbikes, loaded with
fighters, weapons and gear, rode into a fusillade from the commandos. “God
is great,” yelled one of the militants as he fell, according to the army
A corporal who rose for a moment from his covered position died from two
shots to the head. The firefight lasted two hours, and, in the morning, the
soldiers recovered five bodies. Villagers later found two more.
The militants had planned to cross the park into Burkina Faso to link up
with fighters from JNIM, the al Qaeda group, according to information
retrieved from cellphones of the dead. U.S. Green Berets routinely break
into captured phones to hunt for information about militant networks,
Beninese officers said. JNIM controls 40% of territory in Burkina Faso.
Ansarul Islam, a smaller al Qaeda franchise, operates in Nigeria, east of
Facing militant gains and military coups, the Biden administration hasn’t
announced a backup plan for western Africa. The U.S. has been trying to
persuade the juntas in Niger and Gabon—where the military ousted the
president in August—to announce a quick path back to elected rule. After
the July coup in Niger, the U.S. temporarily halted drone flights out of
its Nigerien bases, including reconnaissance missions over Benin. In
October, the State Department declared the ouster of Niger’s elected
president a coup d’état, a legal trigger that forces the administration to
reduce security and other aid.
The coups in Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso also upended regional security
arrangements. Benin, Ivory Coast, Togo and Ghana had agreed in 2017 to
conduct joint border patrols with Burkina Faso. Niger and Mali signed the
accord as observer parties.
Niger has since severed its counterterrorism accord with Benin, which
joined other members of a regional bloc, the Economic Community of West
African States, in threatening to invade Niger to reverse the coup.
U.S. officials still hope Niger’s junta will announce a return to civilian
rule, allowing a resumption of American counterterrorism aid. A senior
State Department official said, however, that the U.S. would likely shift
military resources from Niger to the states along the Gulf of Guinea coast.
France initially led the international campaign against militant groups
when they began operating a decade ago in the Sahel, the semidesert strip
south of the Sahara. Paris withdrew its forces from Mali last year after
relations with the military government broke down. Burkina Faso’s military
leaders ordered French soldiers out of the country earlier this year. Last
month, France withdrew the first of its 1,500 troops from Niger after the
junta there demanded they leave.
Heightening worries in Washington, Mali hired mercenaries from the
Kremlin-linked Wagner Group, which has also pitched its services to Burkina
Faso and Niger.
Burkina Faso keeps no security forces stationed within 60 miles of Benin,
leaving Benin’s troops to sometimes pursue militants into Burkina Faso’s
territory, according to Beninese officers. The Benin army in February sent
forces into Kourou, a triangular territory claimed by both Benin and
Burkina Faso and a longtime haven for smugglers and militants.
Before the troops established their outpost, Kourou locals said armed
fighters roared into town on motorbikes during market days, preaching jihad
to Muslims at mosques and urging those who held traditional spiritual
beliefs to convert to Islam.
Anyone suspected of cooperating with Benin’s security forces would be taken
into the bush and beaten, according to villagers. “That’s the way they
operate,” one Kourou official said.