“You may think you’re safe,” says a 57-year-old resident of Doropo in northern Ivory Coast. “But jihadists are like ants, they can come in without being noticed.” On June 11th, just three weeks after Ivory Coast’s army reassuringly declared that its northern frontier with war-torn Burkina Faso was “under control”, a band of armed insurgents proved it wrong. Some 20 men on motorbikes descended on an army-and-police outpost near the border at Kafolo. The attackers killed 14 soldiers before roaring away into the bush.
The attack was the worst since 2016, when gunmen killed 19 people in a beach resort in Grand-Bassam, east of Abidjan, Ivory Coast’s commercial capital. It shows that even west Africa’s most populous countries, along the Atlantic coast.
A drone whirs overhead as Ivorian special forces creep out of the undergrowth towards a mock village. French trainers watch closely. Nearby, Ghanaian commandos roar down a dusty road before an explosion sends them retreating under the gaze of British soldiers. Operation Flintlock, an annual counter-terrorism training exercise, appears to be going just as it should: regional forces learning from grizzled Western commandos.
Yet Flintlock also encapsulates some of the weaknesses undermining the West’s efforts to train local armies to defeat the jihadists who have overrun large parts of Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger and are now attacking areas to the South.
As of March 2019, 4.2 million people have been displaced from their homes in the countries of the Sahel region. This is one million more than at the same time last year. Violence has escalated in the past year – especially in parts of Mali, the areas around Lake Chad, Burkina Faso and parts of Niger.
Jihadists are in town, as they say in Abidjan.