Signposts Raise Questions about Islamic Extremism in Togo

West Africa

As African countries meet tomorrow at an African Union summit in Kenya to better address terrorism on the continent, new evidence shows potential signs of the U.S. and U.N. designated terrorist group, Ansar Dine, in the small West African country of Togo. During the recent U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit, the State Department included Togo in a meeting of select West African countries to address transnational organized crime, which has supported violent extremists groups, but it is unclear exactly what Ansar Dine is doing in Togo and if they are connected to the group with the same name based in Mali.

Based on field research by several independent Togolese researchers last summer, there are a growing number of signposts with the name Ansar Dine throughout Togo. Taken in the spring of 2013, for instance, the below photo shows a signpost of an Ansar Dine-funded Islamic school in Tchamba in the Central Region of Togo. Many more signposts for Ansar Dine-funded mosques and schools have been posted on roads across the country under the name of Ansar Dine or El Djama, including in the Togolese cities of Cinkansse, Mango, Sokode, Tchamba and the capital Lomé.

Following a video statement by Ansar Dine leader, Iyad Ag Ghaly, in early August in which he calls on Muslims to fight against Western powers, there is renewed interest in Ansar Dine. During 2012, Ansar Dine worked with al Qaeda in Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and other groups to fight Malian government forces and imposed extreme punishments for many Malians that failed to follow their strict Islamic rule. Ansar Dine also reportedly “executed 82 Malian soldiers and kidnapped 30 more” during its takeover of the town of Aguelhok in March 2012.

In March 2013, both the United States and the United Nations recognized Ansar Dine as a terrorist organization. However, the African Union refrained from identifying Ansar Dine as a terrorist organization because some African states believed the organization could serve an important role in peace negotiations in Mali. Earlier in 2013, Ansar Dine had reportedly split in two with the more moderate members creating a new group called the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (NMLA).  

While some of the Ansar Dine members in Togo are from Mali and Burkina Faso, more information is needed to connect the Mali and Togo based groups. If there is a connection, Ansar Dine in Togo could be operating there to support the illicit smuggling of arms from Togo through Burkina Faso to Mali, where such weapons could be used to boost the military capabilities of Ansar Dine and AQIM (see below GAO map of AQIM's area of operation). According to a June report funded by Denmark, violent extremists groups have been recruiting people in Burkina Faso for money in small numbers. With a relatively large seaport and secure territorial waters, there is a considerable amount of goods coming into Togo by sea and traveling by land to Burkina Faso as well as to Benin, Ghana and Nigeria. From 2002 to 2004, Togo also reportedly served as a transshipment point for illegal arms smuggling to Cote d’Ivoire.

It is also possible that Ansar Dine in Togo is involved in the illicit trafficking of illegal narcotics to boost its overall income. According to the State Department in 2012, Togo is a transshipment point for illicit narcotics trafficking, particularly cocaine and marijuana, and illicit drug seizures are on the rise. A small amount of cannabis is also produced in Togo.      

As many of the Gaddafi-built mosques in Togo were strapped for finances several years back, the Togolese researchers say Ansar Dine members began supporting these mosques to gain favor in the Togo Muslim community. About 20 percent of the Togolese population are Muslim, and some of them reportedly hold prominent positions within the government. Ansar Dine members are also training Togolese religious leaders on a more conservative brand of Islam. While there are some signs of Muslims in Togo practicing such a conservative version of Islam, particularly in the Central Region of Togo, there is no evidence of the extreme punishments given to Ansar Dine followers as seen in northern Mali in 2012. In fact, many people in the Togolese cities where Ansar Dine members are present see them as positively supporting the community.

According to a confidential Togolese government document obtained by the Security Assistance Monitor, Togo is particularly concerned about Islamic extremists taking hold in Togo as the country’s Muslim population is growing and the Togolese military strongly supported the military intervention in Mali, including sending hundreds of troops to the UN-led peacekeeping operation in Mali. The document also notes that Togo could be seen as an attractive corridor to other surrounding West African countries. In order to address the threat, the government hopes to conduct surveys and threat assessments of Islamic extremists in Togo. There has also been some concern about the opening of an office for the Libyan Muslim Brotherhood in Lomé.

In the past few years, the bulk of U.S. security assistance to Togo has focused on peacekeeping and countering drug trafficking and maritime piracy, averaging $1.3 million a year from fiscal year 2010 to 2013. In fiscal year 2013, for instance, the U.S. government provided $665,000 to train Togolese military personnel on peacekeeping operations. Similarly, the United States provided $640,000 to Togo in Section 1004 counterdrug assistance in fiscal year 2012. However, this year the Defense Department has planned to provide its first training to Togolese military personnel on combatting terrorism. 

While it remains unclear if the Ansar Dine in Togo is connected with the Ansar Dine in Mali, the number of signposts in Togo connected with the same name certainly raises concerns and questions. As African countries and the United States continue to address Islamic extremists, it seems important to support efforts to thoroughly investigate these signposts and the nature and operations of Ansar Dine in Togo as well as any other indications of Islamic extremist groups in Togo. If it turns out there is a connection between the two groups, they could uses Togo’s popular seaport to play an important logistical role in supporting Ansar Dine and AQIM in Mali.