July 20, 2023

Salafi-Jihadi Movement Update Special Edition: Refugee Abuses Open the Door for Salafi-Jihadi Attacks in Ghana

This is a special edition of the Critical Threats Project’s (CTP) Salafi-Jihadi Movement Update. These special editions provide in-depth analysis covering one CTP portfolio. CTP's Salafi-Jihadi Movement Team covers the Salafi-jihadi movement in Afghanistan, the Horn of Africa, Iraq, North Africa, Pakistan, Syria, West Africa, and Yemen in our full Salafi-Jihadi Movement Weekly Update, which you can find here.

Al Qaeda’s regional associate may use abuses against Fulani refugees to begin conducting attacks in northern Ghana. Ghanaian security forces began forcibly deporting Burkinabe refugees living in northern Ghana on July 11, many of which were ethnically Fulani.[1] The UN said on July 12 that Ghana had illegally deported at least 250 Burkinabe refugees.[2] The local media wing of al Qaeda’s regional associate Jama’at Nusrat al Islam wa al Muslimeen (JNIM) had circulated an unofficial audio recording calling for jihad against Ghana if “abuses against Fulanis continue” by July 14.[3]

JNIM has not claimed an attack in northern Ghana, but it has the capabilities to launch an attack should it choose to. The group has taken advantage of illicit networks and porous borders to establish rear bases for fighters, access to supplies, and freedom of movement in northern Ghana that support its activities in Burkina Faso.[4] It has also exploited ongoing farmer-herder and chieftaincy clashes and other local grievances to recruit hundreds of Ghanaians that could carry out attacks or start a local insurgency.[5] JNIM transitioned rear zones in Benin and Togo to attack zones in 2022, demonstrating the latent attack potential that is also present in Ghana.[6]

JNIM has repeatedly taken advantage of security force abuses and ethnic tensions to recruit and expand among marginalized Fulani communities in the Sahel. The JNIM subgroups in Burkina Faso and central Mali each exploited local grievances among Fulanis to gain footholds in their respective areas of operation.[7] Both subgroups are using the same strategy as they expand down the eastern and western flanks of Burkina Faso and into the northern regions of the Gulf of Guinea.[8] Various JNIM leaders have also explicitly referenced abuses against Fulani civilians when justifying calls to expand across West Africa, including a shadow governor that said its expansion into neighboring Benin and Togo was a response to Fulani abuses.[9]

Burkinabe counterterrorism operations targeting JNIM havens near the Ghanaian border may disincentivize JNIM from opening new attack zones in Ghana until at least after the pressure subsides. Burkinabe forces have amplified counterterrorism pressure on JNIM havens in Burkina Faso near the Ghanaian border since May 2023.[10] CTP previously assessed that these operations had likely temporarily degraded JNIM’s support zones in the area but that JNIM would use other havens—such as its rear bases in Ghana—to maintain and strengthen the support zones over time, due to Burkina Faso’s capacity limitations.[11]

Opening new attack zones in Ghana would invite pressure onto these rear bases and jeopardize their ability to support the group’s response to the growth of Burkinabe counterterrorism pressure. JNIM did not escalate attacks in Benin and Togo despite having rear bases in both countries until Beninese forces and other regional militaries increased efforts to disrupt these rear bases in late 2021 and 2022.[12] This timeline indicates the group primarily uses its littoral bases to support activities in Burkina Faso but will transition them to attack zones if security forces degrade their ability to do so.

Figure 1. JNIM and Burkinabe Forces Contest Southeastern Burkina Faso

Source: Liam Karr and Mike DeAngelo.

Figure 2. Salafi-Jihadi Movement in Africa

Source: Kathryn Tyson.

[1] https://twitter.com/EliasuAlhaji/status/1678815230443257862?s=20; https://twitter.com/EliasuAlhaji/status/1679103246881681408?s=20

[2] https://www.unhcr.org/africa/news/press-releases/unhcr-urges-ghana-cease-forced-return-burkinabe-nationals-need-protection

[3] https://twitter.com/EliasuAlhaji/status/1679774348574326784?s=20

[4] https://jamestown.org/program/jihadist-attack-on-togo-highlights-threats-to-neighboring-ghana

[5] https://www.criticalthreats.org/briefs/africa-file/africa-file-salafi-jihadi-groups-may-exploit-local-grievances-to-expand-in-west-africas-gulf-of-guinea; https://www.kas.de/documents/261825/16928652/The+jihadist+threat+in+northern+Ghana+and+Togo.pdf/f0c4ca27-6abd-904e-fe61-4073e805038a?version=1.0&t=1652891434962

[6] https://www.criticalthreats.org/analysis/how-ansar-al-islam-gains-popular-support-in-burkina-faso; https://africacenter.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/ASB-38-EN.pdf

[7] https://www.criticalthreats.org/briefs/africa-file/africa-file-salafi-jihadi-groups-may-exploit-local-grievances-to-expand-in-west-africas-gulf-of-guinea; https://www.kas.de/documents/261825/16928652/The+jihadist+threat+in+northern+Ghana+and+Togo.pdf/f0c4ca27-6abd-904e-fe61-4073e805038a?version=1.0&t=1652891434962

[8] SITE Intelligence Group, “Africa-Focused News Blog Interviews JNIM Official on Group’s Mission and Growing Circle of Operations, Attacks in Benin and Togo,” March 23, 2023, available by subscription at www.siteintelgroup.com; https://www.kas.de/documents/261825/16928652/The+jihadist+threat+in+northern+Ghana+and+Togo.pdf/f0c4ca27-6abd-904e-fe61-4073e805038a?version=1.0&t=1652891434962

[9] https://www.criticalthreats.org/analysis/salafi-jihadi-movement-weekly-update-june-7-2023#Burkina20230607

[10] https://www.criticalthreats.org/analysis/salafi-jihadi-movement-weekly-update-june-7-2023#Burkina20230607

[11] https://www.clingendael.org/pub/2022/conflict-in-the-penta-border-area; https://www.criticalthreats.org/briefs/africa-file/africa-file-salafi-jihadi-groups-may-exploit-local-grievances-to-expand-in-west-africas-gulf-of-guinea

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