Togo Suffers First Al-Qaeda-Affiliated Jihadist Attack
On November 11, Togo announced that it had suffered the first ever jihadist terrorist attack on its territory. According to the country’s security forces, the attack occurred in Kpendjal, in the town of Sanloaga, along Togo’s northern border with Burkina Faso. The attack, which commenced from the Burkina Faso side of the border, was repelled, with no loss of life on either side. The Togolese authorities subsequently pledged to continue to develop a strategy to prevent terrorist attacks as well as to invest in development projects in the border region, which would reduce recruitment of terrorist groups (dw.com/fr, November 11).
Togo assesses that one of the reasons why the terrorist attack took place is that Burkina Faso security forces are absent on the other side of the border. Fortunately for Togo, its military had already been preparing for the eventuality of an attack. For example, Togo’s head of state, Faure Gnassingbé, had visited the country’s north to mobilize and deploy three contingents of troops to the border with Ghana, Benin, and Burkina Faso (togoweb.net, November 10).
Local experts suggest that the attack in Togo was carried out by the al-Qaeda-affiliated Group for Supporters of Muslims and Islam (JNIM) (Twitter.com/@hamidou41898269, November 10). The closest Burkinabe town to the northern Togo border where the attack took place is Kompienga, which itself suffered a JNIM-claimed attack that killed six Burkinabe soldiers in February 2020 (Twitter.com/@Menastream, February 1, 2020). While that attack was not the first of JNIM insurgents in Kompienga, it was likely not the last. On November 2, for example, another attack occurred in Kompienga at a police checkpoint, although no claim has been made (Twitter.com/@U2MS2, November 4). Given the history of JNIM operating in Kompienga, it is likely that the group would have subsequently made the move to cross the border into Togo.
The distance of the Togolese border from JNIM’s main operating areas around the Malian frontier with Burkina Faso and Niger also implies this latest attack in Togo was carried out by JNIM brigades that were historically part of the Burkina Faso-origin sub-group, Ansaroul Islam (Terrorism Monitor, January 13, 2017). This might also explain why the attack in Togo has not been claimed by JNIM, as it was too geographically attenuated from the group’s core, if not also unsuccessful. Nevertheless, the attack represents a trend whereby JNIM’s brigades have in the past few years begun probing attacks along the borders of littoral West African states, including also Benin, Côte d’Ivoire, Senegal, and Ghana (France24.com, May 21).
The attack in Togo does not necessarily forebode an intensification of attacks in the country. After the first JNIM attacks occurred at the borders of neighboring states, they did not continue to escalate. Rather, JNIM’s insurgency has mostly intensified in its core areas in the Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger tri-border region. However, a November 14 JNIM attack in Inata in nothern Burkina Faso appears to have eliminated yet another Burkinabe military base, and will put the entire country’s security under greater duress (lefaso.net, November 14). This means the Togolese concerns about Burkina Faso’s southern borders being unprotected will become even graver. As a result, whether JNIM’s brigades in southern Burkina Faso continue to probe or even attack Togo depends, first, on those brigades’ desire to expand into Togo and, second, Togo’s ability to repel future attacks. Unfortunately for Togo, it is unlikely to be able to depend on Burkina Faso’s military to provide a buffer between Kompienga and Togo’s northern border.
Islamic State in Khorasan Province Escalates Anti-Shia Attacks in Afghanistan
After taking over Kabul and conquering virtually all of Afghanistan in August, the Taliban has attempted to portray itself as a movement for “all Afghans.” This includes Shias, who other jihadist movements often regard as heretics. The Islamic State in Khorasan Province (ISKP) appears to sense this potential weak point in Taliban ideology by continually targeting Afghan Shias and forcing the Taliban to become the Shias’ “protectors.”
ISKP began its attacks on Shia mosques as early as 2016, when the group killed 14 Shia worshippers during Ashura in Balkh and shot to death worshippers at a Shia shrine in Kabul (aljazeera.com, October 12, 2016). One year later, ISKP continued these attacks against Shias, including at mosques in Herat and Kabul, causing dozens of deaths and forcing some not to attend their mosques (thehindu.com, October 21). Ongoing ISKP attacks against the Shia Hazaras in the period before the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan in August also forced the Hazaras to prepare their own self-defence forces (cacianalyst.org, August 26). Two ISKP attacks against Shia mosques in Kunduz and Kandahar in October, which killed over 100 worshippers and occurred after the Taliban consolidated rule over Afghanistan, have only heightened the threat to Shias from ISKP and demonstrated the Taliban’s inability to protect them (indiatoday.in, October 18).
On November 12, ISKP extended its attacks on Shias to a roadside bombing of a minivan in western Kabul in a neighborhood where Shia Hazaras live. The attack killed six passengers, including one well-known journalist who was claimed by ISKP one day later. According to the minivan’s driver, the ISKP suspect had entered the minivan, traveled a short way, and then exited the minivan to place the roadside bomb (aljazeera.com, November 13).
These ISKP attacks conform with Islamic State ideology and media, which has praised various attacks targeting Shias globally and in Afghanistan itself (Twitter.com/@informazioneA, October 31). As a result, there is no expectation that these attacks will decrease. Afghan Shias accordingly depend on the Taliban for security, but even the Taliban’s genuine respect for the Shias and desire to protect them is questionable. In Bamiyan, for example, the Taliban removed a statue of a Shia leader who had been killed by the Taliban in its first period of rule from 1996 to 2001, and replaced the statue with a Koran (trtworld.com, November 12). Memories of the Taliban’s former harsh treatment of Afghan Shias, therefore, have not waned, despite Taliban assurances to the Shias that they are “brothers,” which primarily reflects the Taliban’s recent efforts to gain political legitimacy ahead of the Doha negotiations with the U.S. in 2020 (thehindu.com, May 9, 2020).
Iran could also become a natural defender of Afghan Shias. The Taliban, however, has sought to neutralize potential Iranian interventions in Afghanistan by dismissing reports of the Taliban’s discrimination against Shias and calling on Iran to recognize the Taliban’s government in the name of mutual security interests (hamshahrionline.ir, October 17). Iranian conservatives, however, point to the possible elevation of the Pashtun language over Persian (or Dari) in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan as well as removing Shia religious jurisprudence and evictions of Hazaras from their lands as evidence that the Taliban, like ISKP, is still anti-Shia (iranintl.com, October 23). Should the Iranian conservatives win out in Iranian internal politics and the Taliban remain unable to prevent ISKP attacks on Shias or to refrain from its own discrimination against Afghan Shias, it cannot be ruled out that Iran would increasingly support Hazara or other Shia militias in Afghanisitan. One brigade that could receive such support is Liwa Fatemiyoun, which is an Iranian proxy in the country that could more assertively defend Afghan Shia interests in the future (dergipark.tr, June 30).