France’s foreign and interior ministers will travel to Ivory Coast on Tuesday to offer support after al Qaeda’s North African arm killed 16 people, including a French national, at a beach resort there on Sunday, diplomatic sources said.
Some 18,000 French citizens live in the former French colony. As well as Jean-Marc Ayrault and Bernard Cazeneuve, France is sending counter-terrorism officers to help the investigation.
France already has 3,500 troops stationed in West Africa, trying to help restore stability after a rebellion in 2012 by ethnic Tuaregs in Mali that was later hijacked by jihadists linked to al Qaeda.
Its forces drove the Islamists out of urban centres in northern Mali, but did not eradicate their networks. French officials have warned that the militants are likely to change their methods, and that West African security forces should increasingly prepare for counter-terrorism operations.
“The militants’ modus operandi has changed,” said a senior French official. “Before, they had armies; now they have turned to pure terrorism.”
Barely two months ago, Islamists killed dozens of people in a hotel and cafe frequented by foreigners in neighbouring Burkina Faso’s capital, Ouagadougou. Gunmen also attacked a hotel in the Malian capital, Bamako, late last year.
Both of those attacks were, like the Ivory Coast attack, claimed by Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), and suggested that militants were extending their reach southwards from their traditional zones of operation in the Sahara and Sahel regions.
Though previously untouched by Islamist violence, Ivory Coast, French-speaking West Africa’s largest economy and the world’s top cocoa producer, has long been considered a potential target for militants.