DAKAR, Senegal — In a city where nightclubs and mosques coexist peacefully, Islamist violence long felt like a foreign problem — something residents watched on news clips from the Middle East or other parts of Africa.
“We just didn’t worry very much about it,” said Abdullaye Diene, the deputy imam of the country’s largest mosque. “Here you can spend your nights drinking at the disco and then shake the hand of the imam.”
But Senegal and its neighbors are facing a new threat from extremists moving far from their traditional strongholds in northwest Africa. Since November, militant groups have killed dozens of people in assaults on hotels, cafes and a beachside resort in West Africa, passing through porous borders with impunity.
The attacks have occurred in countries that had been rebounding from political turbulence, such as Ivory Coast and Burkina Faso. Now fears of such bloodshed are growing in this pro-Western democracy, which serves as a regional hub for international organizations.
“It’s getting closer and closer to Senegal,” said Aminata Touré, the country’s former prime minister and an adviser to the current president.
The violence is a sign of the rapidly expanding reach of radical Islamist armed groups on the continent. In East Africa, al-
Shabab militants with bases in Somalia have carried out massacres in neighboring Kenya, killing more than 200 people and devastating its tourism industry. Nigeria’s Boko Haram militants have moved into Niger, Chad and Cameroon. In North Africa, the Islamic State and its affiliates have seized territory in Libya and launched attacks in Tunisia and Egypt.
Senegal, a former French colony that has never suffered a major terrorist incident, is now taking unprecedented security measures. It recently hosted a U.S.-led training exercise for the third time in recent years; this time it had a special focus on counterterrorism. Authorities have called for a ban on the full-face Islamic veil, with President Macky Sall saying it raises concerns in instances when women cannot be identified. The garb is “not part of our culture,” he said.
For years, fighters with al-
Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) have lurked in the deserts of northern Mali and Algeria, part of an ungoverned swath of land in northwest Africa known as the Sahel. But AQIM and its affiliates appear to have shifted their strategy. Rather than simply fighting Malian, French or U.N. troops in northern Mali, they have launched attacks hundreds of miles from their power base, in some of the region’s most peaceful, religiously tolerant cities.
There is perhaps no better example of a peaceful, religiously tolerant West African city than Dakar, the capital of Senegal. The country has never had a coup. Its population of 14 million is about 90 percent Muslim, but Christians are widely accepted, hosting public Christmas celebrations. A recent week here saw an international arts festival and a series of public concerts; a flood of amateur surfers took to a local shore break.
AQIM had its origins in the fight against Algeria’s secular government in the 1990s, after the cancellation of elections that seemed likely to bring Islamists to power. The group expanded to parts of Mali, Mauritania and Niger after formally establishing itself as an al-Qaeda affiliate in 2007. Smaller, more localized groups joined as well, and many refer to AQIM as more of a franchise than a single entity.
In 2012, AQIM seized vast tracts of land across Mali, also a former French colony, and implemented a harsh version of sharia law. French troops intervened in 2013, displacing the militants.
But AQIM and its affiliates have recently regrouped, according to experts. In November, the militants killed 19 people during an attack on the Radisson Blu hotel in Bamako, Mali’s capital, hundreds of miles from AQIM’s traditional base. Afterward, Yahya Abu el-Hammam, a senior AQIM leader, released a statement directed at France, declaring that the group “will not spare any effort to fight you and strike your interests, wherever they may be.”
Experts say AQIM’s comeback is due in part to its ability to recruit young men in areas of northern and central Mali ignored by the central government.
“There are places in Mali where jihadists are either filling the void left by the absence of the state or gaining popularity as a result of government abuse or neglect,” said Corinne Dufka, the West Africa director for Human Rights Watch.
Militants also have gotten weapons from Libya, where the 2011 fall of leader Moammar Gaddafi has produced chaos.
In January, militants attacked the Splendid Hotel and Cappuccino Cafe in Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso, killing 28. And in March, gunmen went on a shooting spree in Grand Bassam, a popular beach town in Ivory Coast, leaving 19 dead. Most of the militants who carried out those two attacks were originally from Mali, according to Jean Félix-
Paganon, the French ambassador to Senegal.
Many experts and officials believe that AQIM is trying to reassert itself after the French military action in Mali, while also showing that it can conduct Islamic State-like attacks.
“There’s an element of competition between the two groups,” Félix-Paganon said.
Senegal’s leaders have responded to the new threats by increasing security measures and strengthening ties with the United States. This month, the foreign minister signed a defense partnership that would allow the U.S. military to use Senegal as a staging ground in the case of a humanitarian or security problem.
“It makes our people feel safer to have this connection with the most powerful country in the world,” Mankeur Ndiaye, the foreign minister, said in an interview.
AQIM isn’t the only threat. Senegalese citizens have joined Boko Haram and the Islamic State, according to security officials. Earlier this year, four imams were arrested in the western Senegalese city of Kaolack for alleged connections to Boko Haram. Other Senegalese — roughly a dozen or two — are known to be fighting in Libya and Syria with the Islamic State, officials said.
Dakar’s prominence as a cultural capital and logistics hub in the region has made it a potential target, experts say. In other parts of Africa, sites seen as “Western-oriented” have been attacked — for instance, an upscale shopping mall in Nairobi and a seaside resort in Tunisia. Senegal’s profile is further elevated because it contributes troops to the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Mali.
“Senegal will never be safe if there is no security in Mali, Nigeria, Burkina Faso and throughout the [West African] region and beyond in the Sahel,” said Ndiaye, the foreign minister.
Hotels, malls and government buildings in Dakar now have metal detectors and guards, though security isn’t as robust as in Nairobi or Tunis. This month, authorities nearly canceled a famous jazz festival in the city of Saint-Louis over security concerns.
Mariama Traoré, the prefect for the region, blamed “the vulnerability of the municipality of Saint-Louis and the refusal of the organizers to engage in the security efforts.”
“It’s menacing everyone,” Youssou N’dour, Senegal’s most well-known musician, said in an interview.
On one recent day, standing between racks of imported men’s suits and leather dress shoes, Mouhamed Gueye watched broad-shouldered security guards wearing sunglasses and earpieces stroll past his store in a Dakar mall.
“It’s something, but it’s not enough,” Gueye said.
Gueye fields calls from his friends and family nearly every day urging him to quit his job or sell his store, whose clients include Western businessmen and members of the Senegalese elite, the demographic most frequently targeted by terrorists in this part of Africa.
“But what can I do?” he said. “I’m just waiting and hoping nothing happens.”