Benin Awakens to the Threat of Terrorism After Safari Ends in a Nightmare

PENDJARI NATIONAL PARK, Benin — As a safari guide in a sprawling wilderness preserve in West Africa, Fiacre Gbédji often seemed no different from the tourists in his care: He gushed at each lion sighting and thrilled at each bushbuck he spotted through the trees.

But when Mr. Gbédji and two French tourists he was guiding deep within Pendjari National Park were kidnapped by terrorists, the international response to the men involved was far different.

The tourists were rescued 10 days later by the French military. Two French commandos killed during the mission were given solemn services in the heart of Paris.

Amid the international attention on the kidnapping, Mr. Gbédji disappeared; if he was mentioned at all, it was mostly just “their guide.” He was shot and killed by the kidnappers, officials said, his remains eaten by animals.

But Mr. Gbédji’s name has become a fearful omen in Benin, a small West African country wedged between Togo and Nigeria. It was emerging as a safari destination, and Pendjari, under new leadership, as a jewel of the country.

The kidnapping has upended that progress and drawn attention to how the terrorism wracking Burkina Faso and other neighbors could also threaten Benin.

Al Qaeda and ISIS-linked groups have pushed toward Benin as they flee military assaults on their former strongholds in Mali and Niger, according to security experts. They have found recruits and refuge under cover of dense parkland.

ImageVeronique Fara, the partner of Fiacre Gbédji, the guide who was murdered by kidnappers in Pendjari National Park, with their 2-year-old daughter at their home in Natitingou, Benin.
CreditFinbarr O’Reilly for The New York Times
CreditFinbarr O’Reilly for The New York Times

In Natitingou, Mr. Gbédji’s hometown outside Pendjari, the residents have lost not just a neighbor, a father of six with another on the way, but their sense of security.

Now legions of guides haunt empty hotels, stood up by tourists who canceled their trips.

Today, Benin’s military patrols among the crocodiles and hippos in Pendjari, eyeing the Burkina Faso border. Here, Mr. Gbédji’s death seems evidence that without immediate measures, Benin, a robust, mostly peaceful democracy, may not be immune to terrorism’s contagion.

The morning began like any other for Mr. Gbédji, who was 33, his family said. At dawn, he pulled back the blue mosquito netting over the bed he shared with his partner, Veronique Fara, 29 — pregnant with their second child — and headed across the courtyard to his mother’s home to say goodbye.

He had turned his bachelor pad — a round “tata somba” house made of earth with a thatched, pointed roof — into a family compound with flush toilets and flat-screen TVs. A new infusion of interest in the park had lifted his family’s fortunes.

CreditFinbarr O’Reilly for The New York Times
CreditFinbarr O’Reilly for The New York Times

Benin’s president, Patrice Talon, who took office in 2016, has made bolstering tourism a priority. Home to 1,700 elephants, Pendjari is part of a three-park complex that sprawls across Burkina Faso, Niger and Benin.

Likening the underutilized parkland to untapped oil, Mr. Talon has committed at least $6 million to the 1,800-square-mile park. In 2017, he allowed African Parks, a South African organization, to take over operations.

The influx of tourists helped Mr. Gbédji support his six children — and their six mothers. “It was a gift of God that the ladies loved him,” his mother, Justine Kolikpa, 63, said with a laugh.

She spoke in the compound three weeks after her son’s death, wearing a black-knit mourning cap, his 2-year-old, Bera Eslie, sitting fitfully in her arms. Ms. Kolikpa has struggled with suicidal thoughts since the death, she said, with one thought stopping her: Who will support her grandchildren?

“He just told me, ‘Mum, I will be back soon,’” she said.

Mr. Gbédji set out to meet his clients for the day — two French music teachers, Laurent Lassimouillas, 46, and Patrick Picque, 51.

He didn’t ask his mother to make his favorite packed lunch, spinach with corn dough for dipping. “He brought no food with him,” Ms. Kolikpa said, her face crumpling. “My son died with an empty stomach. He passed away hungry.”

Becoming a certified Pendjari guide requires formal schooling. Mr. Gbédji added personal passion: He knew every watering hole and lion’s den.

And he knew where not to go: To the north is the Pendjari River, dividing Benin from Burkina Faso. On official maps put out by the French and American governments before his death, the river marked a red line. On its northern side, Islamist militants are active and tourism is “formally discouraged,” according to the French Foreign Ministry.

CreditFinbarr O’Reilly for The New York Times
CreditFinbarr O’Reilly for The New York Times

On that shore, insurgents fleeing south from French military operations in Mali and Niger have started to embed. They recruit by exploiting tensions between herders and farmers, competition over resources made scarce by climate change and frustration at abuse by government forces.

Last year, Burkina Faso was hit with 137 attacks by Islamist groups, compared to just 12 in 2016, according to data from the Africa Center for Strategic Studies.

“The challenge for governments is that the jihadists have in many places been able to address people’s short-term needs for stability and rule of law,” said Corinne Dufka, the West Africa director at Human Rights Watch. Often, militants provide needed order before escalating violence as their ideology takes hold, she said.

Similar challenges abound in Benin, where many lack basic services. And instability is growing. A model democracy since 1991, when it transitioned from socialist to democratic rule, President Talon has grown increasingly autocratic.

“Benin needs to take a hard look at the issues which have made jihadist groups resonate in other countries,” Ms. Dufka said. If not, “as abusive jihadist groups move deeper into West Africa, Benin appears to be the latest potential domino.”

Jihadists have pushed south into the three-park complex, where they’ve found food and refuge from air surveillance, said Lori-Anne Théroux-Bénoni, the director of the West Africa office of the Institute for Security Studies, a think tank.

Extremists in Burkina Faso and Niger have attacked forestry agents, forcing many to flee that side of the park.

On the Benin side, African Parks’ management has revitalized Pendjari. But in doing so, it has sometimes inflamed resentments, for example by enforcing a ban on hunting bush meat, a local practice, even as it issues paid game permits to trophy hunters.

CreditFinbarr O’Reilly for The New York Times
CreditFinbarr O’Reilly for The New York Times

Terrorists “understand localized specific vulnerabilities and exploit them,” said Ms. Théroux-Bénoni.

Mr. Gbédji stayed well away from the Pendjari River, feeling safe on the Benin side, other guides said. But since the kidnapping, on French and American maps the red zone has ballooned: All of Pendjari is now red.

“We are the victims,” said Noël Nabougou, 30, a guide waiting at Hotel Totora in Natitingou, where tourists have canceled en masse. He echoed Benin’s government, which says Pendjari’s inclusion in the danger zone is unwarranted.

“If we cut off the park today because of insecurity, it will never open again and jihadists will settle in,” Mr. Nabougou said. “They will consider the park as a no man’s land and use it as a base.”

The French commandos ambushed the kidnappers in Burkina Faso under cover of darkness in early May, said Florence Parly, the French defense minister, at a news conference in Paris the next day. In a firefight, the commandos killed four militants; two others escaped. Petty officers Cédric de Pierrepont, 32, and Alain Bertoncello, 27, were killed.

The French tourists and two other hostages were rescued. The kidnappers were taking the hostages to terrorist cells in Mali, according to the French military.

CreditFinbarr O’Reilly for The New York Times
CreditFinbarr O’Reilly for The New York Times

Mr. Gbédji was killed days before the rescue mission, his body found in Burkina Faso around May 5, according to Marcel Ayité Baglo, the general director of Benin’s homeland security agency. Only Mr. Gbédji’s skull and scraps of bone and clothes remained. He was identified by the trousers he wore, Mr. Baglo said.

Mr. Gbédji was buried under a pile of stones in the shape of a cross inside the park.

The kidnapping is still shrouded in mystery. No terrorist group has claimed responsibility. The French tourists declined interview requests. The French government has not let Benin’s officials interview them, Mr. Baglo said.

Experts cautioned that the attack does not necessarily mean that Pendjari has been infiltrated by militants — only that they are trying.

“We just don’t know at this point the level of embededness, but it is clearly their strategic objective,” said Ms. Théroux-Bénoni of the security think tank.

In fatigues and berets, members of Benin’s military lay on their bellies in Pendjari’s red dust, blasting paper targets one afternoon in June. Legislators in Cotonou, the political center, had authorized a platoon of 150 soldiers to camp in the park to protect the border.

The show of force is to secure the northern frontier, said Mr. Baglo.

CreditFinbarr O’Reilly for The New York Times
CreditFinbarr O’Reilly for The New York Times

Benin has taken other steps, including for its large population of Fulani people, nomads that jihadists have recruited in other countries. Over seven years, Benin has built wells, schools and police stations where Fulani live, “so that they can feel Beninese,” Mr. Baglo said.

“No country in Africa can protect its borders all alone,” he added.

But some in Natitingou fear that the government’s measures are too little, too late.

Mr. Gbédji’s sister, Prisca, said that when he was killed, it was the first time she had ever considered that terrorism could come to Benin. Now she believes the threat has taken root.

“There is no smoke without fire,” she said.

Clutching their mother’s hand in the home her brother built, she said she longs to visit Fiacre’s grave — but never will.

She is too afraid of what else may be in Pendjari Park.

Constant Meheut contributed reporting from Paris.

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