Al Qaeda’s North African branch has claimed responsibility for a terror attack on an Ivory Coast beach resort on Sunday in which 16 people, including four Europeans, were killed.
Six gunmen targeted hotels on a beach at Grand Bassam, a weekend retreat popular with Western expatriates about 25 miles east of the commercial capital Abidjan, before being killed in clashes with Ivorian security forces, the government said.
A top French expert said that the attack was “clearly against France”, which has former colonial ties with the country and a continent of 600 soldiers nearby.
“Six attackers came onto the beach in Bassam this afternoon,” Ivorian President Alassane Ouattara said during a visit to the site. “We have 14 civilians and two special forces soldiers who were unfortunately killed.”
Hamed Bakayoko, Ivory Coast’s interior minister, said foreign citizens from France, Germany, Burkina Faso, Mali and Cameroon were among the victims.
On Twitter, one of those killed was identifed as Henrike Grohs, director of the Goethe Institut in Abidjan.
Mr Bakayoko also told state television that authorities were in possession of a mobile phone they hoped would prove a valuable lead in finding those responsible for the attack.
Beachgoers were filmed screaming and running into nearby hotels for cover as up to four balaclava-clad gunmen sprayed bullets indiscriminately while shouting “Allahu Akbar”.
Marie-Claire Yapi was separated from her nine-month old baby and her sister in the chaos. She said she was told the attackers were speaking in Arabic and everyone understood they were terrorists. “It was truly, truly, terrifying, it was indeed terrorists,” eyewitness Marie-Claire Yapi, who was separated from her nine-month old baby and her sister in the chaos, told FRANCE 24. “Someone said to me: ‘Run, this is serious – they are killing everyone.’
Witnesses described the attackers as African, armed with Kalashnikovs and grenade belts and dressed in casual clothes who shot at “anyone they could find” as they “calmly” walked along the packed beachfront of Grand Bassam, 25 miles east of the capital Abidjan at lunchtime on Sunday.
At least one is thought to have been killed as they met police and a shootout ensured. At around 6.30pm local time, an army officer in Grand Bassam said two attackers were encircled by special forces.
The attack is the third on West African establishments popular with Westerners since November. In November, the Radisson Blu in Mali’s capital Bamako was targeted in an attack which left 20 dead, then in January gunmen entered the Hotel Splendid and nearby Cappuccino Café in Burkina Faso’s capital Ouagadougou, killing 30.
François Hollande, French president, said in a statement that he “strongly condemns the cowardly attack that caused the death of at least ten civilians, including at least one French national, and several members of the security forces in Grand Bassam”.
Local media cited a hotel employee named JB Beugré as saying that the gunmen arrived by fishing boat and their attack lasted three hours. According to a doctor at Bassam’s main hospital, two dead and 17 injured people had been brought in.
The latest attack also bore similarities to an attack by Islamic State in the Levant in June 2015 on the Tunisian beach resort of Sousse, which claimed 38 lives of mainly British tourists.
Responsibility for the two West African incidents was claimed by AQIM which vowed to carry out more attacks.
Braman Kinda took pictures showing seven bodies including at least one woman lying prone on the beach and said he saw four attackers who “roamed the beach firing shots”.
“We were on the beach, we heard the gunshots and we saw people fleeing – we understood this was an attack,” he told AFP.
A worker in one of the hotels on the beach in Grand Bassam told the Telegraph by telephone that he had seen at least six bodies on the sand and two male attackers armed with Kalashnikovs.
The bodies were those of white Europeans, Africans and Lebanese, said Lacina Ouattara, who works at the Wharf Hotel.
“They started at the Etoile du Sud hotel and then made their way along the beach, which was packed as it was Sunday afternoon,” he said.
They passed in front of the Wharf hotel, “shooting at anyone they could find” and sparking panic among the beach-goers who tried to flee to the nearby string of beachfront hotels.
“I saw two men with guns. Kalashnikovs. Their faces were bare and I could see they were Africans. They were in their thirties and were dressed in civilian clothes,” said Mr Ouattara. “They shouted Allahu Akhbar as they moved along the beach.”
He said they were intercepted by police as they reached La Paillote Hotel and a shootout ensued.
“A policeman later told me that one of the attackers was killed and the other had escaped,” he said.
Yves Losseau, a Belgian national, was on the beach at Grand Bassam when the attackers struck.
“We tried to take refuge in the hotel building,” he told Belgian national radio.
“Then I saw one of the attackers approach the hotel garden and I saw him shoot dead a European woman. Then I saw another young man running towards the hotel who was also shot, but he kept moving afterwards so he was still alive.
“That happened 60-80 metres way from us. After the attacker shot the woman, he walked away calmly.”
Local journalists described seeing around a dozen injured people evacuated from the beach in a military truck as Ivorian soldiers and police, and soldiers from the French contingent stationed there rushed to the scene.
Photographs showed at least three bodies stacked in the back of a pick-up truck.
Cocoa-producing Ivory Coast, a former French colony with a large French community still, is one of the world’s fastest-growing economies following a turbulent few months during an electoral standoff in 2010.
ntoine Glaser, a top expert on French-speaking Africa, said: “The target was clearly France.”
“Grand-Bassam is the historic capital and the signs of France’s colonial presence are numerous – a French cemetary, old colonial houses, former missionary schools. It is the very symbol of France in Ivory Coast.”
Added to that, he said it took place very close to the base for 600 soldiers there to support the “Sahel G5” group of African states who are coordinating anti-terror operations. “It is clearly for the jihadists a way of saying France is not welcome in this region”.
Analysts have been warning for some time that its relative wealth in the region, popularity as a hub for Western agencies and relatively lax security could make it a target for jihadists based in Mali, along with Senegal.
Lemine Ould M. Salem, an expert on al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb and author of a book The Bin Laden of the Sahara, said Sunday’s attack would either be claimed al-Mourabitoun, the al-Qaeda-linked group which carried out the Burkina Faso and Mali attacks, or Boko Haram, the terror group based in Nigeria.
“I have always said that Abidjan and Dakar (the capital of Senegal) are the next targets for jihadist groups because these two countries represent windows of France in Africa,” he said.
Dr Robert Besseling, of the Exx Africa business risk intelligence group, said the French security services had been warning “for at least a year” of an imminent attack on the relatively affluent West African nations of Ivory Coast and Senegal.
He said that al-Qaeda in the Islamic Magreb, which claimed responsibility, is expanding its operations southwards from its traditional Sahel heartland and adopting the more aggressive tactics of Islamic State in the Levant (Isil).
“Since the middle of last year, Côte d’Ivoire has stepped up security in northern areas and predominantly Muslim neighbourhoods of the commercial capital, Abidjan, in response to a growing jihadist presence near its border with southern Mali,” Dr Besseling said.
“Details gained from intercepted communications and human sources have revealed that Islamist groups are considering using car bombs, attacking public areas popular with foreigners, and targeting beaches in Côte d’Ivoire and Senegal, which both have substantially more Western expatriates and visitors than the Sahelian countries previously targeted.”
He said that the Grand Bassam attack was most likely carried out by jihadist fighters from al-Mourabitoun, which rejoined al-Qaeda in the Islamic Magreb in 2015 and conducted the recent Mali and Burkina Faso terror attacks.
“The attack on Abidjan is indicative of a rising threat to expatriates in West Africa, including in cities such as Dakar in Senegal and Accra in Ghana, as well as Lagos in Nigeria,” he added.