Breaking News: Al-Qaeda Jihadis From Benin Move to Nigeria, Settle at Kainji Lake National Park

by Ohepo Ohepo

ABUJA, Nigeria (AP) — Jihadi fighters who had long operated in Africa’s volatile Sahel region have settled in northwestern Nigeria after crossing from neighboring Benin, a report said Wednesday, marking the latest shift in the militants’ movement towards wealthier West African coastal nations.

Extremists believed to be linked to al-Qaida have, over the last year, moved from Benin’s hard-hit northern region and settled in Kainji Lake National Park, one of Nigeria’s largest parks. This park, which houses one of West Africa’s dwindling lion populations, has become a hotspot for armed groups, according to a report by the Clingendael Institute think tank.

Residents near the park told The Associated Press that it has been closed for over a year due to security threats from armed groups attacking nearby villages and roads. “Before, it was like a tourism center, but now, people find it difficult to pass through there,” said John Yerima from New Bussa town. “You cannot enter that road now. It is dangerous, seriously.”

The security situation in the 5,300-square kilometer (2,000-square mile) park in Niger state and along the nearby border with Benin is “getting out of hand” and presents a “much more explosive situation than we had anticipated,” said Kars de Bruijne, a senior research fellow at the institute and co-author of the report.

The report suggests that the presence of these armed groups in the park signifies a connection between Nigeria’s homegrown extremists, who have led a decade-long insurgency in the northern region, and al-Qaida-linked militants from the Sahel. This link offers the extremists an opportunity to claim large-scale success in both countries, already suffering from deadly attacks in recent years, Bruijne added.

The Sahel region, a global hot spot for violent extremism, faces worsening security crises amidst military coups and severed security ties with traditional partners like France and the United States, as these countries turn to Russia for support.

Northwest Nigeria’s remote territories, rich in mineral resources but plagued by high poverty levels and minimal government presence, present opportunities for jihadi groups from the Sahel and the Islamic State group, which operates in the Lake Chad basin, to expand their influence.

“A link between Lake Chad and the Sahel is a major opportunity for al-Qaida and the Islamic State to bolster their profiles as leaders of global jihad,” the report noted.

Conservationists are also concerned that the presence of armed groups in the park could further endanger the remaining lion populations, already declining due to poaching and climate change. The park and most protected wildlife areas in Nigeria are poorly patrolled, making them easy targets for armed groups.

“The security situation has become a top concern regarding the lion populations in Nigeria,” said Stella Egbe, senior conservation manager at the Nigerian Conservation Foundation.

The Nigerian military often conducts aerial bombardments and deploys personnel to criminal hideouts in the northern region. However, security forces, fatigued by a decade-long war in the northeast, are still outnumbered and outgunned in these remote villages, with root causes like poverty remaining unresolved.

The Clingendael report stated it is unclear what the Sahel extremists’ motives are in the park and how they will interact with other armed groups. Security analysts suggest it offers logistical opportunities and increased influence amid booming illegal trade across the porous border.

“The Sahelian jihadis could use northwestern Nigeria as a base for fundraising, logistics, and to influence jihadi groups there as part of their own competition,” said James Barnett, a fellow at the Hudson Institute whose work in northwestern Nigeria was cited in the report.

Across many villages in Nigeria’s northwest, banditry remains the major security threat, not jihadi fighters. The bandits have occasionally collaborated with jihadi fighters in carrying out attacks, leading to deadly consequences, Barnett noted.

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