Long War Journal, by Caleb Weiss, March 13, 2016:
Gunmen from Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) targeted a popular beach resort in southern Ivory Coast today, killing at least 14 civilians and two soldiers according to local media. The beach resort, which is in the city of Grand Bassam, is located only 25 miles east of Ivory Coast’s largest city of Abidjan.
According to the AFP, the gunmen “roamed the beach firing shots” before targeting the L’Etoile du Sud and two other nearby hotels. Local media has reported that the three hotels are popular with Westerners and other expatriates, which is likely why the hotels were attacked. The Ivorian government responded to the assault by deploying military personnel to the resort and quickly “neutralized” the gunmen, which is usually a euphemism for killed. Graphic photos from the scene appear to show several bodies strewn across the beach, as well as weapons recovered by the military, but are too graphic to be published at The Long War Journal.
The government’s statement says that “six terrorists” were killed, however, in AQIM’s short claim of responsibility released online, the jihadist group states only three of its fighters were involved in the assault. “Three heroes from the knights of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb were able to break into the tourist resort city of Grand Bassam,” the jihadists said indicating a larger statement will be released soon. The Mauritanian news site Al Akhbar has reported that sources within AQIM told the site that its Sahara Emirate and its Katibat al Murabitoon, which is led by Mokhtar Belmokhtar, were behind the offensive. Al Qaeda has yet to release a larger statement confirming this.
However, these two al Qaeda groups have been responsible for other similar hotel attacks in the region. In January, the Katibat al Murabitoon killed 20 after assaulting the Splendid Hotel in Burkina Faso’s capital of Ouagadougou with two car bombs before breaching the perimeter and entering the hotel. In addition to hitting the hotel, a nearby restaurant was also targeted. Over 30 hostages were freed before the situation was contained. (See Threat Matrix report, Al Qaeda attacks hotel in Burkina Faso.)
Before that, the Sahara Emirate and Al Murabitoon attacked Mali’s capital of Bamako in November. In that offensive, the jihadists stormed the Radisson Blue in Bamako, killing 22 civilians and taking more than 100 people hostage before being killed in a joint raid led by Malian forces. Al Murabitoon said it was responsible in conjunction with the “Sahara Emirate” of AQIM, according to a statement sent to Al Jazeera. In August, Al Murabitoon attacked a hotel in the central Malian town of Sevare, killing 12. (SeeLWJ report, Al Qaeda group claims credit for attack on hotel in Mali’s capital.)
The Bamako assault heralded the reintigration of Al Murabitoon into AQIM. On Dec. 4, AQIM’s Al Andalus Media released an audio statement from Abdelmalek Droukdel, the emir of AQIM, announcing the merger of Al Murabitoon into its ranks. The same statement also said that the Bamako raid was the first joint assault carried out by the two.
Al Murabitoon is led by Mokhtar Belmokhtar, a veteran African jihadist who is openly loyal to Ayman al Zawahiri and has denounced the Islamic State. Belmokhtar was originally a commander in AQIM before splitting with the group over personal disagreements with Droukdel and other leaders. Belmokhtar and his followers have been behind several spectacular attacks in West Africa over the past several years, including the January 2013 suicide assault on the In Amenas gas facility in southeastern Algeria, and the May 2013 suicide assaults in Niger which targeted a military barracks and uranium mine.
The Sahara Emirate of AQIM is led by Yahya Abu Hammam, who is listed by the US as a specially designated global terrorist for playing a “key role in the group’s ongoing terrorist activities in North Africa and Mali.” It is based in northern Mali, but is able to strike in far reaching places within the Sahel. The reintegration of Al Murabitoon further strengthens its abilities in the region.