An African al Qaeda affiliate struck again over the weekend, spreading its brand of violence deeper into West Africa with an attack on a popular beach town that left 22 people dead in Ivory Coast.
Masked gunmen stormed the beachfront in Grand-Bassam on Sunday afternoon, killing Ivorians and visitors from countries like Cameroon, Mali, and France at three hotels. Located about 25 miles southeast of Abidjan, the country's economic capital, Grand-Bassam is a popular getaway.
"I saw all the customers running with their crying children. I asked and they said, 'They're there on the beach shooting'," Souleymane Ouadreogo, who works at the Assoyam Beach hotel and restaurant, told Reuters. "We never thought it would happen here. Abidjan, maybe. But here? Never."
Soon after the assault, in which six militants and two security forces were also killed, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), a branch of the terrorist organization that is entrenched in southern Algeria and northern Mali, claimed responsibility for the attack.
The streets of Grand-Bassam were quiet on Monday, as regional and international leaders expressed condolences and support. Ivory Coast President Alassane Ouattara visited the resort town, and France announced that its foreign and interior ministers would travel to the former French colony to offer their help in investigating the attack.
Thousands of French soldiers are posted in West Africa to bolster the fight against groups like AQIM. The Islamist militant group is notorious for its role in the 2012 rebellion in northern Mali that saw AQIM and several other groups fight alongside the ethnic Tuareg population for control of the region. French troops intervened and took back much of the territory.
This is the third time in recent months that the North African-based al Qaeda affiliate has claimed responsibility for an attack on soft targets in the region. Following a November siege on the Radisson Blu Hotel in the Mali capital of Bamako and a January assault on the Splendid Hotel in Burkina Faso's capital Ouagadougou, the French government alerted both Ivory Coast and Senegal that they could fall victim to a similar attack.
"It's been on the list of worries for the Ivorian state for a while," said Ayso van Eysinga, an Africa researcher at Eurasia Group, noting that a counter-terrorism task force was established in Ivory Coast last year. "The attack was maybe not a surprise, but what was surprising about it was they didn't attack Abidjan."
While the two previous AQIM attacks were carried out in capital cities, Abidjan is under tight security, making it a more challenging target for militants. The looming threat and elections last fall have left the country sensitive to security concerns. The cocoa and coffee producer held its first election in October since Ouattara's 2011 win, which sparked a civil war against those loyal to the ousted former leader Laurent Gbagbo.
Van Eysinga said it's notable that Ivorian forces were quick to respond to the attack, keeping the death toll slightly lower than the other attacks while avoiding a hostage situation like the one that followed the assault in Burkina Faso that killed 30, as Burkinabe troops waited for French backup to arrive.
As several experts pointed out, information about where the attackers are from will be crucial for assessing the larger picture of AQIM's presence in West Africa. Previous attacks have been carried out by militants from the group's base, not from the countries where the assaults have occurred. In Burkina Faso, for example, the militants crossed into the country through the Malian border. AQIM does not have known bases in Bamako or Ouagadougou.
It would be alarming if the militants in this attack were in fact assisted by local groups, explained Jennifer Cooke, the director of the Africa program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Otherwise, the Grand-Bassam violence would be more indicative of AQIM working to elevate its brand with soft target attacks. Cooke highlighted the fact that the militants quickly claimed responsibility and broadcasted that message in four different languages, particularly as the group has come under increasing pressure in the Sahel from United Nations peacekeeping and French military missions.
"These aren't particularly difficult attacks to carry out. These are the most vulnerable and softest of targets. They're going to be difficult to guard against," she said, adding that the tragic spectacle "makes the group seem like a much bigger, broader, expansive threat — and I think that's very much what it would like to do."
The Ivory Coast attacks are part of an apparent AQIM effort to carry out largely symbolic violence as the militants attempt to demonstrate their relevance and capabilities, according to Joseph Siegle, the director of research at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies. The organization is essentially trying to show that it is capable of traveling to different countries and waging attacks. What's important to note, Siegle explained, is that this does not indicate any expanding territorial coverage.
"It's a propaganda tool," Siegle said. "This is hit and run. These are purposely scattered just because they are not strong enough to really hold territory and mount any sort of conventional attacks."
"They're roving bandits. They'll hit unsuspecting places wherever they can," he added.
While the UN currently operates a peacekeeping mission Mali known as MINUSMA and France has troops posted throughout the region from a base in Chad, Siegle said the key to averting soft target attacks will be to increase intelligence gathering. This, he explained, is how the international community will be able to help local groups, particularly with tracking cross border movement, money flow, and other transnational operations.
Both Siegle and Cooke expressed concern that the increased targeting of other countries, particularly hotels, could have a chilling effect on tourism and trade. While experts believe AQIM does not currently have bases in countries like the Ivory Coast, an economic affect as a result of the attacks could have a self-fulfilling prophecy of creating environments that are conducive to radicalization.
"I don't think these places are any more or less stable than they were before the attacks," Siegle remarked, "and that's the problem with any soft attack — it could happen anywhere."
Follow Kayla Ruble on Twitter: @RubleKB