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Al Qaeda, seeking to reassert itself, sets sights on West Africa and foreign visitors

An emergency worker carries a boy injured in one of the attacks on hotels in Grand Bassam, Ivory Coast, on March 13.
(Sia Kambou / AFP/Getty Images)

Al Qaeda and its allies have a new strategy for spreading fear in West Africa.

Once focused on taking hostages for ransom and striking military targets in the desert, the terrorist network has been sending small groups of nimble gunmen to attack hotels, resorts and other soft targets where Westerners congregate. The latest assault came Sunday in Ivory Coast, where the dead included 15 civilians.

The shift is an attempt by Al Qaeda and its affiliates to gain visibility as the world’s attention has turned to threats from Islamic State militants. It is also a response to a French military offensive against insurgents in the region as well as airstrikes and other interventions by the U.S. and its allies in Africa and the Middle East.

“It’s almost a symbolic reminder that this is a serious force to be reckoned with,” said Paul Rogers, a terrorism analyst at the University of Bradford in England, describing Al Qaeda’s recent attacks and its fight for relevance. “It doesn’t have the capacity to take on military forces head on, so it’s concentrating on soft targets with high impact.”

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The strategy has been on display for some time on the east side of the continent, where the Al Qaeda affiliate Al Shabab has launched attacks killing hundreds of civilians in Somalia and Kenya, including high-profile assaults on a mall and a university.

Its adoption in West Africa began late last year. In November, the group known as Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM, and its ally Al Mourabitoun killed 22 people at a luxury hotel in Bamako, the capital of Mali. In January, the two groups struck again, killing at least 30 people at a hotel in Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso.

The attack in Ivory Coast marked the first time the country had experienced Islamist terrorism.

Three gunmen shouting “God is great!” attacked beach bars and hotels in Grand Bassam, east of the capital, Abidjan, shooting down white tourists and locals. In addition to the civilian victims, three members of the security forces and the gunmen were killed in an ensuing shootout.

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AQIM claimed responsibility for the attack. The full names and nationalities of the attackers have not been released.

In a statement to the media on its website, the terrorist group’s media wing called the beach resort “a lair of espionage and conspiracies in the Ivory Coast, where the heads of criminality and looting got together.”

And it warned Westerners of future attacks, threatening to “destroy your security and that of your citizens, just as you destroy ours.”

The groups view Ivory Coast as an ally of the West.

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Their greatest wrath is toward France, which sent troops to Mali in 2013 to fight the terrorist groups and take back large swaths of territory they had won in a series of attacks on military targets there.

France now has more than 3,500 troops in the region, the vast majority part of Operation Barkhane, an anti-insurgent campaign it launched in 2014 in Mali, Chad, Burkina Faso, Niger and Mauritania. The operation involves gathering intelligence, attacking terrorist bases and training local forces.

It has eliminated some key terrorists, but experts said the French forces are spread too thin across a vast area to eliminate the organizations or cut off their income sources, which include drug trafficking and weapons smuggling.

The campaign also had an unintended effect: Looking for new ways to demonstrate its power, AQIM turned to high-impact brazen attacks in capital cities.

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“The goal is to get publicity and to send a message that they can do these attacks and they have this expanding reach, when they were initially confined to northern Mali,” said Vincent Rouget, an analyst on the Sahel region with the consulting firm Control Risks.

Such publicity helps terrorist groups raise money and recruit members.

Once the dominant force in Islamic terrorism, Al Qaeda has lost its clout in recent years, as the militant group Islamic State has become the primary recruiter of foreign fighters, the brutal overlord of territory in Syria and Iraq and a master in using extreme violence, graphic videos and social media to spread fear.

Africa represents Al Qaeda’s biggest opportunity at the moment.

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Its most significant affiliate in the western part of the continent is AQIM, which traces its roots to the 1990s and a group of rebels in Algeria. The group operated in the Sahel and raised money by kidnapping Westerners and smuggling drugs and weapons.

Al Mourabitoun was formed as a breakaway faction, but the two groups have reunited.

As the allies try to extend their reach and compete with Islamic State for followers, experts said, the violence is likely to spread to countries that have long been spared from terrorism.

The strategy presents almost limitless opportunities. “It’s a continuing worry for authorities because you can’t protect every hotel and you can’t protect every soft target,” Rogers said.

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The terrorist groups are in little danger of running out of weapons, as the collapse of Moammar Kadafi’s Libyan government in 2011 flooded the region with looted arms that are traded freely.

Governments have been increasing security around hotels, French schools and cultural centers and other potential targets, according to security experts.

“Pretty much any West African country might be next, for example Senegal and Ghana,” said Yan St-Pierre, an Africa specialist at the Berlin-based Modern Security Consulting Group, a risk analysis firm. “Any soft target — hotels, resorts, government buildings in any West African country.”

Follow @RobynDixon_LAT for news from Africa.

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