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Spotlight: ISS informs Benin’s response to violent extremism

With violent extremism rising in West Africa’s coastal states, ISS helped analyse its causes and develop prevention strategies.

At the request of the Beninese Integrated Border Management Agency (ABeGIEF), the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) shared its 10 years of empirical research on violent extremism in the Lake Chad Basin and the Sahel.

This enabled Benin’s decision makers to better understand people’s motivations for associating with violent extremists, the modus operandi of militants, and their complex links with illicit economies and local conflict. It helped the government tackle the supply chain of resources linked to extremism and understand how state responses affect local communities.

‘The ISS ensured Benin’s response to violent extremism is based on facts and insights about the reality on the ground,’ said ABeGIEF Managing Director Dr Marcel Baglo.

‘We work with the ISS because we value its knowledge and ability to draw on experience from across the continent. We appreciate that the ISS research team are Africans with a deep knowledge of both Benin and the wider West African region. We get honest advice and reliable insights that have made a significant impact on our understanding of a complex phenomenon.’

In 2017, the ISS recognised a need to address government and public misperceptions about violent extremism, including its causes, impact and key players. In 2018, ISS started raising awareness among defence, justice, police and security officials, highlighting that extremism was not a distant concern but was emerging fast in areas on the Burkina Faso side of Benin’s northeastern border. 

When ISS started engaging stakeholders in 2018, their knowledge and understanding weren’t based on evidence

The first recorded extremist incident in Benin was in 2019, rising to 20 attacks in 2022 and doubling in 2023 – mainly attributed to the Group for the Support of Islam and Muslims and to a lesser extent, the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara.

These organisations exploit porous borders, a territorial dispute between Benin and Burkina Faso over the Kourou-Koalou area, local grievances against the state, a weak government presence and people’s need to protect their livelihoods.

‘When ISS started engaging national stakeholders in Benin back in 2018, knowledge and understanding were not based on evidence. Violent extremism was largely seen as an external threat,’ says Jeannine Ella Abatan, a Senior Researcher in the ISS Dakar office.

‘We identified the urgent need to improve empirical understanding of the vulnerabilities that violent extremist groups depend on to operate in Benin. Our aim was to encourage preventive actions to stem the rapid expansion of incidents in Benin and coastal states.’

ISS research shows that even before the first attacks, militants had begun to secure financial, operational and human resources through alliances with groups involved in activities such as fuel smuggling, Indian hemp trafficking and illegal hunting.

ISS research was presented to a committee chaired by the director of President Talon’s military cabinet

In 2022, following a request by the regional cooperation organisation Conseil de l’Entente, the ISS conducted research in Benin's four northern departments on the links between violent extremism and illicit activities.

‘Our methodology enables us to speak with people who live in areas where extremists operate, including those who have collaborated with them,’ says Abatan. Among the interviewees were people involved in illicit activities, their families and associates, community members, defence and security forces, other researchers and government officials involved in developing and implementing responses.

At a validation workshop in Cotonou in September 2022, Beninese stakeholders gave feedback on research findings about the links between violent extremism and illicit activities. Participants included Beninese ministries for defence, public security, economy and finance, development, justice, local government, water, mines and agriculture. Members of parliament, civil society, researchers and academics also attended. Participants confirmed that ISS recommendations would inform future responses to violent extremism.

With the approval of senior government officials, the ISS organised a closed meeting with ABeGIEF attended by senior police, military and intelligence officials, and civil society. ISS research results were presented to Benin’s High-Level Committee for the Fight against Terrorism and Insecurity at Borders, chaired by the director of the military cabinet of Benin’s President Patrice Talon.

At the request of Benin’s authorities, ISS provided input on the country’s counter-terrorism and border security plan. Officials have also asked the ISS to share lessons and experiences with Benin’s intelligence personnel.

For more information, contact:

Ella Jeannine Abatan, ISS: [email protected]

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