Militants Take Cover Amid Elephants, Lions in West Africa’s National Parks

Beninese soldiers on patrol near a military base in Banikoara, Benin.
Beninese soldiers on patrol near a military base in Banikoara, Benin.


The U.S. and its allies battle al Qaeda and Islamic State fighters at a bloody crossroads of wildlife, insurgency, geopolitics and military coups.

KAOBAGOU, Benin—Gunmen pulled 18 villagers from their homes during a night raid this spring, shooting some and slitting the throats of the rest. They wedged hand grenades under the bodies, laying a trap for those who would discover the grisly scene.

Two more villagers were later killed when they moved the corpses and triggered the explosives. By then, the attackers were hiding in nearby Pendjari National Park, a refuge for thousands of elephants, herds of antelope, the last few West African cheetahs and, increasingly, Islamist militants.

Pendjari and two adjacent national parks comprise West Africa’s largest surviving protected wilderness—4.2 million acres spread across remote areas of Benin, Niger and Burkina Faso. The expanse of emerald-green savannah, jagged cliffs and stands of ancient baobab trees has also become the latest battlefield pitting the U.S. and its allies against al Qaeda and Islamic State fighters.

Militants carried out 71 killings, kidnappings and other attacks in Benin in the first half of this year, compared with five in 2021, according to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project, a U.S.-based nonprofit monitoring service, and the Pentagon’s Africa Center for Strategic Studies. Most of the violence took place inside the parks or nearby.

Washington is increasingly worried the Islamist insurgency that has engulfed Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger will undermine Benin and other relatively prosperous, pro-Western states along the Gulf of Guinea. U.S. Special Forces are stationed in Benin to gather intelligence and advise the local military on counterinsurgency operations.

U.S. concerns are geopolitical—the prospect of weakened Western influence, growing militant strength and Russian inroads—as well as environmental. If the wilderness areas are lost to militants, “then forget conservation in West Africa," said Hugues Akpona, an operations manager for Johannesburg-based African Parks, a nonprofit that runs the Pendjari and W national parks for Benin.

African Parks’s 300 rangers are trying to protect wildlife while dodging roadside bombs. They carry assault rifles and machine guns to defend against poachers, but they aren’t trained or equipped to fight insurgents. The rangers withdrew from areas bordering Burkina Faso and Niger after seven African Parks staff were killed last year by explosive booby-traps. Benin has since closed the parks to visitors.

Joe Siegle, research director of the Pentagon’s Africa Center, described Benin as a barometer of the threat to the nations of Ghana, Togo and Ivory Coast on the Atlantic’s Gulf of Guinea.

In recent years, U.S. military strategy has centered on deploying special-operations troops across western Africa to train local commandos to fight extremists. The approach has failed to stop the insurgents, and it has been upended by military coups in Mali, Burkina Faso and, most recently, in Benin’s neighbor, Niger, which hosts American commandos and drone bases. Federal law sharply limits arms sales, training and other security assistance to military regimes that come to power by overthrowing elected leaders.

Before the coup, drones launched from U.S. bases in Niger flew over Benin, collecting aerial footage of militant movements for American Special Forces troops, who passed the information to Beninese counterterrorism commandos. This summer, additional U.S. Green Berets trained local commandos in Benin for counterterrorism missions. Benin’s army has stationed 3,000 troops, a fifth of its force, at outposts in and around the Pendjari and W national parks.

“Benin is trying its best to contain the threat," said Brig. Gen. Abou Issa, commander of Benin’s army.

No group has claimed responsibility for the Kaobagou village massacre in May. Beninese soldiers hunted the militants for a week and killed six of them in Pendjari, said Col. Faïzou Gomina, commander of Benin’s counterinsurgency campaign. The army couldn’t determine the men’s affiliation. The Pentagon’s Africa Center estimates that 80% of the violence in Benin is connected to al Qaeda.

“The soldiers never sleep," said Angelo Koulidiaty, an elder in Kaobagou village. “They’re in the woods, day and night."

‘No peace’

In 2019, militants kidnapped two French tourists on a safari in Pendjari and killed their Beninese guide, foreshadowing the threats to come. Two French commandos died rescuing the tourists, who had been smuggled into Burkina Faso.

Since then, insurgents have killed 47 civilians and 29 soldiers in Benin, according to Benin army data. That pales in comparison with the 27,000 people killed by militants or during combat in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger since 2017. There is growing fear, however, that sporadic al Qaeda and Islamic State attacks in Benin will grow into a full-blown battle for control of territory.

“We always hear in Niger there’s no peace because of the jihad," said Wakas Guinguere, who fishes for tilapia in the Alibori River edging W park. “In Burkina Faso it’s the same. In Nigeria it’s the same. We’re frightened. If it can happen to them, it can happen to us."

The first major attack in Benin took place in December 2021, when militants armed with rifles and rocket-propelled grenades raided an army position in Pendjari while soldiers slept, killing two and wounding nine.

Although Benin’s army has served in peacekeeping missions, it has never fought a war. “We weren’t prepared to fight terrorism," said Gomina, the army colonel. “The first attack shocked us."

Starting in January 2022, Benin flooded the parks with troops. A month later, roadside bombs inside the W National Park blew up two Land Cruisers and killed four African Parks rangers, two drivers and a French law-enforcement instructor. African Parks suspected the al Qaeda umbrella group Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal Muslimin, or JNIM, was behind the attack.

African Parks restricted the rangers to small sections of Pendjari and W. To avoid booby-traps on larger roads, rangers stopped patrolling in vehicles and instead moved inside the parks by foot, motorbike and helicopter.

Park rangers instructed the newly arrived soldiers how to behave around wildlife: Don’t take flash photos of elephants. Don’t run from lions. The first army commandos to arrive ignored their lessons when they heard lions roaring near their camp at night, said Akpona, the African Parks manager. The men bolted back to their base.

In Pendjari, African Parks fenced a 1,500-acre site near park headquarters to breed West African cheetahs. Only about 25 to 30 are believed left in the wild. The group has stocked the enclosure with kob antelope as prey for the cheetahs it plans to capture after this year’s rainy season. African Parks is also considering returning rhinoceros to the parks, along with ostrich, giraffe and giant eland antelope.

“We can’t do this without the army," said Abdel-Aziz Bello, manager of W National Park, named for the zigzagging course of the Niger River.

African Parks is funded by the Benin government, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the State Department and private donors. Each park has an annual budget of $6 million. The conservation group is in talks to run Burkina Faso’s Arly National Park, the third park in the cross-border wildlife refuge.

African Parks buys supplies from local markets and employs 700 people in Pendjari and W. It touts the economic benefits of the two national parks, hoping locals will be more inclined to protect the lands instead of poaching wildlife, cutting trees, grazing cattle—or joining al Qaeda. Commerce and services help “disrupt the chain of recruitment in communities," Akpona said.

W allows locals to fish in the Alibori River as well as gather plants and honey from the forest. Every year, African Parks vaccinates more than 15,000 head of cattle belonging to residents

and allows controlled grazing in buffer zones around the parks. Residents, in turn, are encouraged to keep an eye out for information helpful to the military.

The conservation group built a ceremonial palace—a modest round building with a throne platform—for Oumara Iloutchoka, the traditional king of Alfa Kouara, the town at W’s entrance. Paintings of leopard, lion and the 84-year-old king adorn the building’s interior.

Iloutchoka’s advisers monitor the town and nearby villages for strangers. Suspect visitors are brought to the king for interrogation. He checks their identification, searches their belongings and looks for suspicious injuries. He asks what brings them to Alfa Kouara. Evasive responses prompt a call to the army.

“You can’t understand the motives of bad people," Iloutchoka said. “I’ve read the Quran. It doesn’t say you should get a gun and kill innocents."


In March, al Qaeda affiliates on motorbikes smuggled rifles and plastic jugs of homemade explosives from Nigeria into Benin. They stopped at an isolated homestead, woke the farmer and pillaged his stock of yams and cassava flour. The farmer notified the local army captain, who gathered his men and organized an ambush on the road leading to W park.

The soldiers hid among trees and waited. At 2 a.m. the next morning, they spotted a man signaling with a flashlight. Seven motorbikes, loaded with fighters, weapons and gear, rode into a fusillade from the commandos. “God is great," yelled one of the militants as he fell, according to the army captain.

A corporal who rose for a moment from his covered position died from two shots to the head. The firefight lasted two hours, and, in the morning, the soldiers recovered five bodies. Villagers later found two more.

The militants had planned to cross the park into Burkina Faso to link up with fighters from JNIM, the al Qaeda group, according to information retrieved from cellphones of the dead. U.S. Green Berets routinely break into captured phones to hunt for information about militant networks, Beninese officers said. JNIM controls 40% of territory in Burkina Faso. Ansarul Islam, a smaller al Qaeda franchise, operates in Nigeria, east of Benin.

Facing militant gains and military coups, the Biden administration hasn’t announced a backup plan for western Africa. The U.S. has been trying to persuade the juntas in Niger and Gabon—where the military ousted the president in August—to announce a quick path back to elected rule. After the July coup in Niger, the U.S. temporarily halted drone flights out of its Nigerien bases, including reconnaissance missions over Benin. In October, the State Department declared the ouster of Niger’s elected president a coup d’état, a legal trigger that forces the administration to reduce security and other aid.

The coups in Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso also upended regional security arrangements. Benin, Ivory Coast, Togo and Ghana had agreed in 2017 to conduct joint border patrols with Burkina Faso. Niger and Mali signed the accord as observer parties.

Niger has since severed its counterterrorism accord with Benin, which joined other members of a regional bloc, the Economic Community of West African States, in threatening to invade Niger to reverse the coup.

U.S. officials still hope Niger’s junta will announce a return to civilian rule, allowing a resumption of American counterterrorism aid. A senior State Department official said, however, that the U.S. would likely shift military resources from Niger to the states along the Gulf of Guinea coast.

France initially led the international campaign against militant groups when they began operating a decade ago in the Sahel, the semidesert strip south of the Sahara. Paris withdrew its forces from Mali last year after relations with the military government broke down. Burkina Faso’s military leaders ordered French soldiers out of the country earlier this year. Last month, France withdrew the first of its 1,500 troops from Niger after the junta there demanded they leave.

Heightening worries in Washington, Mali hired mercenaries from the Kremlin-linked Wagner Group, which has also pitched its services to Burkina Faso and Niger.

Burkina Faso keeps no security forces stationed within 60 miles of Benin, leaving Benin’s troops to sometimes pursue militants into Burkina Faso’s territory, according to Beninese officers. The Benin army in February sent forces into Kourou, a triangular territory claimed by both Benin and Burkina Faso and a longtime haven for smugglers and militants.

Before the troops established their outpost, Kourou locals said armed fighters roared into town on motorbikes during market days, preaching jihad to Muslims at mosques and urging those who held traditional spiritual beliefs to convert to Islam.

Anyone suspected of cooperating with Benin’s security forces would be taken into the bush and beaten, according to villagers. “That’s the way they operate," one Kourou official said.

Write to Michael M. Phillips at

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