Hostage to violent extremism: Kidnapping in northern Benin, ECOWAS, March 2024

Hostage to violent extremism: Kidnapping in northern Benin, ECOWAS,  March 2024

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Authors : Flore Berger, Lyes Tagziria and Aziz Mossi

Site of publication : Hostage to violent extremism: Kidnapping in northern Benin | Global Initiative

Type of publication : Report 

Date of publication : March 2024

Link to the original document




Kidnappings in northern Benin surged in 2022 as violent extremist organizations (VEOs) intensified their southwards spread from the Sahel. By the end of November 2023, northern Benin had experienced at least 101 kidnapping (or attempted kidnapping) incidents since 2019, with the figure for 2023 alone (75) more than three times higher than that of the previous year.

In 2023, with VEOs having expanded from the Sahelian states of Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger and cemented their presence in Benin’s Atacora and Alibori departments, recorded kidnapping incidents escalated dramatically again. This rise in kidnapping mirrors a sharp increase in violence more broadly in northern Benin, with an increasing proportion attributed to suspected VEOs.

The main armed group present in these two most northern regions of Benin, and thus the focus of this study, is Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM). The presence of Islamic State Sahel (IS Sahel) has been reported at the border with Niger, in Malanville and Karimama communes, and while an ongoing presence is still likely, its reach is far more limited compared to JNIM.

Since 2021, and more extensively from 2022, JNIM has been infiltrating new communities in northern Benin by building alliances (often by force) and intimidating key personalities. Kidnapping is an important tool used by JNIM to achieve this, replicating tactics found across the Sahel.

JNIM and IS Sahel are not the only actors in the kidnapping business, and there is a distinct type of abduction, perpetrated by bandits or otherwise unidentified armed groups, that primarily targets wealthy individuals. These profit-motivated kidnappings have a longer history in Benin, and have been traced, in small numbers, back to 2016 at least, but largely occur further south in the Borgou and Collines departments.


Violent extremism: expansion in northern Benin

Threat of violent extremism in the north of West African littoral states

The threat of violent extremism in West African littoral states, particularly Burkina Faso, has escalated with rising conflict fatalities, displacement, and control by non-state actors. Extremist groups like JNIM and IS Sahel have expanded their presence from Burkina Faso into coastal nations like Côte d’Ivoire, Benin, and Togo, triggering multiple cross-border attacks and heavy security responses. 

While Côte d’Ivoire managed to stem the wave of attacks with enhanced security measures and economic development efforts, Benin and Togo experienced a significant increase in violent incidents involving violent extremist organizations (VEOs). These incidents often exploit existing communal tensions, particularly in northern Benin, where conflicts over land have been exacerbated by VEO activity.


Opportunism and exploitation : geographies at play

The spillover of violent extremism into Benin is attributed to both pull and push factors, with the majority of extremist violence concentrated in Atacora and Alibori, near the border. VEO presence in northern Benin is less entrenched than in neighboring Sahelian states, with armed attacks often carried out by militants based in Burkina Faso or Niger. Border areas, particularly vulnerable to violence and insecurity, serve as bases for military operations and recruitment. 

National parks, such as Pendjari National Park and Park W, are utilized by violent extremists as rear bases and hubs of illicit economies. Clashes between VEO elements and local hunters highlight the strategic importance of abduction and violence against civilians to VEOs’ objectives.


Strategic use of violence: Civilian targeting 

Violence by JNIM spiked in northern Benin since late 2021. While the group has a regular presence in certain areas, primarily in Karimama commune, as of the end of 2023, the group does not currently have any strongholds or areas where its influence is uncontested in northern Benin. In other words, they have not been able to turn any areas into a safe haven as of yet. 

This makes it a crucial moment for a deep dive into JNIM’s kidnapping activity to provide insight into how the group engages in kidnapping in the early stages of an insurgency

According to an NGO operating in northern Benin that monitors the movement of violent extremist groups, ‘JNIM has adopted an anti-government posture rather than an intimidating and terrorizing the population one’. Attacks have mostly targeted the defence and security forces (through direct attacks or improvised explosive devices, IEDs) as well as park rangers in the WAP complex, who are often considered a legitimate target by the group. In 2022, state forces and civilians were more or less equally targeted and/or involved in political violence at the hands of VEOs (49% and 51% of attacks respectively)

Among the most violent attacks in which JNIM are suspected to have been involved took place in July 2022, when ten pastoralists were killed near Materi, reportedly because they had refused to enlist in the armed group. In May 2023, approximately 20 civilians were killed and more disappeared in Kaobagou and Guimbagou, Atacora province. A dozen people were also kidnapped as part of these attacks. JNIM militants had entered the villages to demand residents leave; farmers refused to leave their fields and their homes, and so they were either kidnapped or killed. 

This incident is, however, somewhat of an anomaly, as the trigger was a conflict between two ethnic groups in which JNIM got involved only at a later stage. Nevertheless, such large-scale violence against civilians remains a relatively rare occurrence, but it shows that JNIM increasingly does not shy away from targeting civilians (though the group does not claim such attacks) when confronted with community disobedience and resistance, if they perceive it to further their strategic objectives. Indeed, where communities resist – either unilaterally or in coordination with the state – this has repeatedly resulted in increased violence from JNIM. 


Kidnapping: an entry point for violent extremist organizations 

Emergence of the violent extremism kidnapping threat 

GI-TOC research has underscored that kidnapping is one illicit economy that is particularly closely linked to conflict and instability. The nascent stages of VEOs’ territorial infiltration – before regular, direct attacks on defense and security forces, intimidation of the population or continuous presence in villages or markets – are, in certain contexts, accompanied by higher levels of kidnappings of foreign nationals. This was the case in Burkina Faso and Mali, for example.

In Benin, the violent extremism-related kidnapping landscape shares some characteristics with that of other countries in the region. In May 2019, two years before VEOs started claiming attacks in northern Benin, the kidnapping of two French nationals and murder of their Beninese guide in the Pendjari National Park was the first event to be attributed to a VEO in Benin.


Current kidnapping landscape in northern 

Benin Kidnapping incidents were rare in Atacora and Alibori until the end of 2021, and almost entirely unrelated to VEO activities. However, in 2022 there were 24 separate kidnappings across both departments. By November 2023, that figure was 75, more than three times the previous year’s total. While not all kidnapping incidents are attributable to a specific perpetrator type (due to the lack of reliable data), VEO-attributed incidents still account for more than two-thirds of kidnappings in northern Benin since 2021; between 2022 and 2023, 38% of all recorded kidnappings are attributed to JNIM, with a further 29% recorded as having been perpetrated by either JNIM or IS Sahel. 

In terms of geography, all but one kidnapping attributed to VEOs in the country occurred in Atacora and Alibori, which are also the two departments most affected by armed violence of other forms (most of which is also perpetrated by suspected VEOs), including armed attacks, IEDs and intimidation. These incidents cluster either close to the Benin–Togo–Burkina Faso tri-border area in Atacora, or along the border with Niger in Alibori.


Kidnap for ransom As in the Sahel, violent extremists in northern 

Benin typically engage in kidnappings for strategic purposes, rather than financial. Since 2019, there have been only 13 reported incidents of kidnapping in Atacora and Alibori in which a ransom was demanded. This represents just 13% of the 101 recorded kidnapping incidents in northern Benin. While this is likely to be an undercount given the sensitivity in reporting ransom requests and data-collection challenges, the small proportion does likely indicate that many kidnappings are not primarily ransom-driven. 


Kidnap for ransom by suspected VEOs

Ransoms are not considered to be the primary driver of the majority of kidnappings by JNIM and IS Sahel in northern Benin. This mirrors trends in the Sahel, where in recent years strategic interests – in the shape of recruitment, intimidation, punishment and intelligence gathering – have repeatedly superseded profit-seeking as the primary motivations behind most kidnapping incidents targeting locals.


Kidnap for ransom by non-VEOs 

Since 2016, Benin has experienced waves of kidnappings where a ransom was reportedly requested. Thought to have evolved from a combination of banditry since 2005 and an imported crime from Nigeria, so-called criminal kidnappings are primarily an intra-herder phenomenon in Benin. 

Targets are typically from the herder community, often wealthy families that own or trade cattle. Of the 19 reported kidnapping incidents involving a ransom in Atacora, Alibori and Borgou, the victim was a cattle herder, breeder or trader, and/or a member of the Fulani community in 13 of them. In some cases incidents reportedly involve the cooperation of someone from within the family itself. These kidnappings are sometimes linked to cattle rustling, where the aggressors simultaneously steal cattle and take the herders hostage, reflecting trends evident elsewhere in the Sahel.

The first is the timelines: kidnapping, primarily among the Fulani community, were a common occurrence in Benin long before the arrival of VEOs. And while the arrival of VEOs is likely to have disrupted existing criminal dynamics, it is unlikely that it would have put an end to so-called criminal kidnappings altogether. The second is that the geography is for the most part different: JNIM and IS Sahel established in Burkina Faso and Niger operate mostly in the north of the two most northern regions of Benin (Atacora and Alibori). 

A different set of actors, including bandits and Nigeria-based VEOs, tend to operate further south along the border with Nigeria. Thirdly, there are notable differences in modus operandi. Reported kidnappings for ransom by unidentified perpetrators are typically carried out by groups on motorbikes. Most victims are driven away towards Nigeria, crossing forests and waterways, and travelling along tracks that are not frequently used. The kidnappers leave a Nigerian telephone number that the victim’s family can call to make contact and negotiate the ransom.

In November 2021, a Niger State official claimed that the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) was trying to establish a ‘caliphate’ around the Kainji National Park (where, as mentioned, kidnappers are known to keep their hostages). At the beginning of 2022, Nigeria’s federal government ordered a large-scale military operation aiming to flush suspected-ISWAP elements out of the national park. In October 2022, Nigerian military repelled a raid on a military base that holds captive a number of senior VEO leadership, in the town of New Bussa in Niger State, on the outskirts of the Kainji National Park.

It is not clear which actors are predominantly behind the increasing incidence of kidnapping for ransom phenomena in northern Benin, although existing evidence suggests that they are based in Nigeria. Further, potential alliances between the different non-state armed groups and criminal actors operating in northern Benin and north-west Nigeria continues to require further investigation.