Understanding the motives for kidnapping in north Benin is a crucial initial response to the security crisis.

In October 2023, suspected Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM) militants attempted to kidnap three fishermen in Porga, a village in Benin on the edge of Pendjari National Park, on the border with Burkina Faso. Two were killed, while one was able to escape.1 As violent extremist organizations (VEOs) have extended their reach into the coastal states of West Africa, kidnapping in northern Benin has surged since 2022, with 2023 incidents up to October constituting a twofold increase on the total for 2022.

VEOs, most prominently JNIM, have used kidnapping to infiltrate communities in northern Benin and forcibly recruit into their ranks. While extremely hard to quantify, kidnappings for forced recruitment are reportedly common, in particular of individuals engaged in traditional economic activities such as fishing, hunting and herding in and around the national parks in Atacora and Alibori – often in spaces where such activities contravene state regulations.2

These types of kidnappings are, however, just one component of the recent surge since 2022 of kidnapping incidents carried out by JNIM and the Islamic State Sahel Province (IS Sahel) in northern Benin. These armed actors also engage in kidnapping across communities in the north for various other reasons, including intelligence gathering, intimidation and punishment. Although far from the most common typology employed, kidnap for ransom by VEOs has also been reported in certain locations in northern Benin.

Analysis of the intersection between conflict and illicit economies often tends to centre on the latter’s role as either a source of financing or operational resourcing. But kidnapping is one of several illicit activities that should also be viewed through the lens of non-state armed group governance strategies. Crucially, however, these three lenses can overlap – with kidnappings used, to some extent, for all three purposes by JNIM in northern Benin. Accurately assessing the different relationships between illicit economies and non-state armed groups is crucial in shaping appropriate responses.

Kidnapping incidents have surged since 2022

Over the past decade, what started off as an insurgency in northern Mali has developed into a large-scale, regional security crisis also affecting Niger and Burkina Faso, now the epicentre of the violence. A constellation of rebel groups, communal militias, self-defence groups and crucially, VEOs are involved in the conflict. And while the Sahel region remains most affected by insecurity, JNIM and IS Sahel have since 2021 been able to use southern Burkina Faso as a springboard for expansion into the littoral states of West Africa.3

Since May 2019, the first known instance of VEO activity in Benin, incidents involving suspected VEOs have multiplied exponentially.4 From five in 2021, that number increased to 113 in 2022 before increasing further to 160 VEO-related incidents in Atacora and Alibori in the first ten months of 2023. Notably, almost a quarter of these (22.6%) were kidnappings (see Figure 1).

Kidnappings as a proportion of VEO-related incidents in northern Benin.

Figure 1 Kidnappings as a proportion of VEO-related incidents in northern Benin.

Note: Includes political violence, as well as strategic developments such as looting, property destruction, movement of forces and other events.
Source: ACLED and other sources

Until the end of 2021, kidnappings in northern Benin were rare. However, in 2022 there were 23 separate incidents of kidnapping across Atacora and Alibori. In the first 10 months of 2023, that figure more than doubled to 55. According to data from the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project, almost 80% of the 78 reported kidnapping incidents in northern Benin between 2022 and 2023 can be attributed to suspected VEOs.

The overwhelming majority of kidnappings tend to cluster either close to the Benin–Togo–Burkina Faso tri-border area in Atacora or along the border with Niger in Alibori (see Figure 2). While there have been several reported kidnappings carried out by armed groups thought to be unconnected to VEOs in the two departments, these are geographically concentrated further away from the northern borders, predominantly in Alibori’s Segbana commune. Most non-VEO kidnapping incidents typically occur further south, however, in the Borgou department.

Kidnappings by VEOs are concentrated along Benin’s northern borders.

Figure 2 Kidnappings by VEOs are concentrated along Benin’s northern borders.

Source: ACLED and other sources

Forced recruitment

Forced recruitment is one way in which these armed actors have sought to extend their areas of influence, and to grow their ranks – human capital is a key operational resource for non-state armed groups. Kidnapping as a means of recruitment has been taking place since the earliest days of VEO infiltration into northern Benin.

While some victims return to their communities following their abduction, others do not. According to community leaders in Matéri and Tanguieta, two communes in Atacora heavily affected by violent extremism, a significant proportion of individuals abducted who return to the communes continue to work with VEOs in some form or another, whether as full time operators, or service providers.5 To the extent that abducted individuals return to their villages, they are widely perceived by their communities to be acting as intelligence-gatherers or providers of basic supplies (such as food and fuel) to VEOs.6

Community members in Atacora reported the recruitment of women into JNIM’s ranks, primarily as informants or to provide food to the militants.7 While it is difficult to substantiate widespread allegations regarding the collaboration of certain community members with VEOs, often following abductions, it is a prevalent perception among the communities in northern Benin.

Profiling the targets of kidnapping incidents that appear to be for the purposes of forced recruitment provides important insights into the vulnerabilities of certain communities to violence at the hands of VEOs. Often, those kidnapped are individuals who engage in economic activities such as fishing, hunting or animal herding, in many cases within the protected areas of the W-Arly-Pendjari (WAP) parks complex.8 In March 2023, for example, suspected VEOs kidnapped two poachers in Park W.9 More recently, in October, three fishermen were targeted in an attempted kidnapping by suspected JNIM affiliates, resulting in the death of two of them (the third managed to escape).10 Some community members believe that some of the abductions were to prevent the individuals reporting the VEO presence to authorities.11

Ongoing research by the Global Initiative Against Transnational Crime has underscored the particularly pivotal role played by national parks as spaces for assessing the intersection between illicit economies and conflict dynamics, not least regarding kidnapping. National parks across the Sahel, Nigeria, and the northern areas of Benin and Côte d’Ivoire have operated as safe havens for VEOs, and have often been used to hide kidnapping victims, sometimes before releasing them.12

National parks are also important areas in VEO expansion because they are often spaces where there is a disjunct between state regulation and community perceptions of legitimacy. The enforcement of regulatory frameworks that criminalize resource extraction from these protected areas – simultaneously rendering many traditional practices illegal – has given rise to community grievances across West Africa and globally.

In the WAP complex, although hunting, herding and fishing in the park are considered legitimate by many local communities, these activities run counter to state regulations protecting the area.13 Such criminalization has repeatedly been found to breed resentment towards the state. Those engaged in such illicit activity can therefore also represent ideal recruits.14

Kidnapping for financing lingers

In Burkina Faso, kidnapping for financial reasons – namely kidnap for ransom – is typically only a secondary motivation behind kidnapping by JNIM.15 Similar dynamics can be observed in northern Benin. Of the 78 recorded kidnappings in 2022 and the first 10 months of 2023 suspected to have been perpetrated by VEOs in Atacora and Alibori, only four reportedly involved a ransom request. This number is likely to be an undercount – ransom payments often go unreported. Further, it is unclear the extent to which JNIM permit other armed actors to operate in their areas of influence and/or control, so incidents in which a ransom is mentioned could still have been conducted by the VEO even if the actor responsible cannot be confirmed.16 Nevertheless, even accounting for all other instances of kidnapping involving a ransom in these regions, of which only nine have been registered since the beginning of 2022, these figures remain a small – but noteworthy – proportion.

In September 2022, suspected JNIM operatives kidnapped an elderly Fulani man in Tanguieta, Atacora, demanding a ransom of 10 million CFA Francs (FCFA), equivalent to over €15 000. There were two further similar incidents in the summer of 2023 in which JNIM elements are reported to have abducted members of the Fulani community in Cobly and Materi, demanding a ransom of FCFA 6 million and FCFA 5 million respectively. Finally, in October 2023, a ransom of FCFA 15 million was demanded by JNIM militants after they kidnapped another Fulani person in Materi.17

Notably, in each case set out above, the victim was a pastoralist. These kidnappings were clearly well prepared: they targeted individuals that were known to be wealthy, they were most likely spied on for several days prior to the abductions, and the ransom negotiations took place directly between the victims’ families and the perpetrators.18

VEOs are not the only – or perhaps even the primary – actors behind kidnapping for ransom in northern Benin, however. Since 2016, Benin has been experiencing waves of kidnap for ransom, a phenomenon originating in Nigeria but that has spread throughout northern Benin, as well as northern Togo and Ghana.19 Here too, pastoralists are among the primary targets, often wealthy families that own or trade cattle.

Until recently, kidnap for ransom was predominantly an intra-Fulani phenomenon targeting, as mentioned, herders. But since the implantation of VEOs in Benin from 2021 onwards a wider range of profiles have been targeted in instances of kidnap for ransom, including a local official,20 a school director21 and a businessperson.22 This triggered concerns among government officials about potential links to VEOs.

There are multiple signs that some of the kidnappings for ransom in northern Benin have been conducted by Nigerian actors: victims have been taken back into Nigeria, a Nigerian telephone number provided for ransom negotiations, and ransoms demanded in Naira.23 The relationship between VEOs – operating both in Benin and Nigeria – and the Nigerian criminal bandits believed to be behind these kidnappings is not always clear.

Some analysts believe such kidnapping in Benin’s Alibori and Borgou departments may be financing violent extremism in Nigeria, and there are several indications of a bigger overlap of areas of operation between violent extremists and criminal actors in Benin and Nigeria than is generally thought. This includes the recorded presence of VEOs in Nigeria’s Kanji National Park Forest in Nigeria as well as in the Foret de Trois Rivieres between Alibori and the Borgou.24 This, in turn, could suggest some degree of interaction between the different armed actor types.

Kidnap for ransom: a flexible source of income

Despite the relatively limited use of kidnap for ransom by VEOs in northern Benin, there are many documented instances across West Africa and the Sahel in which non-state armed groups have enhanced reliance on illicit economies as other sources of financing have dwindled. Kidnapping, which does not require considerable levels of expertise or local knowledge is often well positioned as an alternative to other financial flows.

Examples include the case of Chadian rebel groups when Sudan cut off their financing;25 Ambazonian separatists as diaspora support began to dry up;26 and even as far as the Philippines, where the Abu Sayyaf terrorist group (currently known as the Islamic State – East Asia Province, although now de facto defunct) turned to kidnap for ransom as a means of financing once their primary source of funding – al-Qaeda – was cut off.27

Non-state armed groups can move flexibly between different illicit and licit economies for financing purposes. In north-west Nigeria, for example, cattle stocks depleted over time and buyers were more reluctant to purchase stolen cattle; as a result, bandits increasingly turned to kidnapping for ransom to replace the dwindling cattle rustling revenue stream.28

Different drivers require different responses

The kidnapping phenomenon in northern Benin, as across the region more broadly, is extremely complex. Incomplete information, overlapping drivers of behaviour and a constellation of distinct but increasingly intertwining non-state actors renders tracking and understanding kidnapping dynamics incredibly complicated, thus also making mitigation more difficult.

There is no single strategic logic behind the use of kidnapping. While it is sometimes used as a source of financing – as is most commonly analyzed – it is often perpetrated for more strategic purposes by JNIM, including for recruitment, as well as for punishment and intimidation.29 These differing purposes render different typologies of profile vulnerable to attack. Tracking overlaying motivations, and ensuring a more nuanced understanding of the kidnapping market, is a central step in shaping responses and protection structures.


  1. Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ACLED), https://acleddata.com

  2. Flore Berger, Lyes Tagziria and Aziz Mossi, Hostage to violent extremism: Kidnapping in northern Benin, OCWAR-T research report, forthcoming. 

  3. The risk of violent extremist groups expanding into coastal West Africa had been well-documented in the preceding years. See for example, International Crisis Group, The risk of jihadist contagion in West Africa, Africa Briefing N°149, 20 December 2019, https://icg-prod.s3.amazonaws.com/s3fs-public/2023-05/b149-jihadi-west-africa.pdf

  4. While there is overwhelming evidence demonstrating the escalation in violence over the past two years, the considerable increase shown by data is influenced in part by the increased levels of reporting in the country. 

  5. Interview with community leaders, Tanguiéta and Matéri, June 2023. 

  6. Interview with a community leader, Matéri, June 2023. 

  7. According to one, ‘We have caught a few cases of women going to grind cereals three times a week, so a significant number of times, more than is needed to feed her family only, so we know she’s bringing it to these people [the armed actors].’ Community resilience to violent extremism and illicit economies, GI-TOC Community Resilience Dialogue, Natitingou, October 2023. 

  8. It is important to note that in Atacora there is often also an ethnic dimension to the selection of kidnapping targets by VEOs. Virtual exchanges with northern Benin security expert, November 2023. 

  9. ACLED. 

  10. Ibid. 

  11. Phone interview with an NGO supporting communities facing VEO threats in Atacora and Alibori, 28 June 2023. 

  12. For further analysis of the WAP complex see: Antônio Sampaio et al, Reserve assets: Armed groups and conflict economies in the national parks of Burkina Faso, Niger and Benin, GI-TOC, May 2023, https://globalinitiative.net/analysis/armed-groups-conflict-economies-national-parks-west-africa/. In Nigeria, forests such as the Kainji National Park, among others, play an important role in kidnapping incidents. 

  13. Ibid. 

  14. Interview with community leaders, Atacora and Alibori, June 2023. 

  15. Observatory of Illicit Economies in West Africa, The strategic logic of kidnappings in Mali and Burkina Faso, Risk Bulletin – Issue 4, GI-TOC, June 2022, https://riskbulletins.globalinitiative.net/wea-obs-004/03-the-strategic-logic-of-kidnappings-mali-burkina-faso.html

  16. Virtual exchanges with northern Benin security expert, November 2023. 

  17. ACLED. 

  18. Interviews with Fulani community leaders, political and security authorities, Atacora and Alibori, June 2023. 

  19. Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung, The jihadist threat in northern Ghana and Togo: Stocktaking and prospects for containing the expansion, Promediation, March 2022, https://www.kas.de/documents/261825/16928652/The+jihadist+threat+in+northern+Ghana+and+Togo.pdf/f0c4ca27-6abd-904e-fe61-4073e805038a

  20. Matin Libre, Commune de Nikki: Le chef de l’arrondissement central enlevé, 18 January 2022, https://matinlibre.com/2022/01/17/commune-de-nikki-le-chef-de-larrondissement-central-enleve/

  21. Banouto, Bénin: un directeur de collège enlevé à Kétou, les ravisseurs réclament 20 millions de CFA, 24 March 2023, https://www.banouto.bj/article/securite-humaine/20230324-benin-un-directeur-de-college-enleve-a-ketou-les-ravisseurs-reclament-20-millions-cfa

  22. Banouto, Bénin: des IANIs enlèvent un homme d’affaires à Savè, 7 March 2023, https://www.banouto.bj/article/securite-humaine/20230407-benin-des-hommes-armes-enlevent-un-homme-d-affaires-a-save

  23. These incidents largely take place at a different location, namely further south in the Borgou and Collines departments (although some cases have been reported in Alibori, again, mostly on or near the Nigerian border). Interview with security officials and family members of kidnapping victims, Alibori, June 2023. 

  24. Sahara Reporters, ISWAP terrorists want to establish caliphate in Niger, claim they were sent by God – Official, 23 November 2023, https://saharareporters.com/2021/11/23/iswap-terrorists-want-establish-caliphate-niger-claim-they-were-sent-god-%E2%80%93-official

  25. Alexandre Bish, Soldiers of fortune: The future of Chadian fighters after the Libyan ceasefire, GI-TOC, December 2021, https://globalinitiative.net/analysis/chadian-fighters-libyan-ceasefire/

  26. Eleanor Beevor and Ladd Serwat, Ambazonian separatists: Non-state armed groups and illicit economies in West Africa, GI-TOC and ACLED, forthcoming. 

  27. McKenzie O’Brien, Fluctuations between crime and terror: The case of Abu Sayyaf’s kidnapping activities, Terrorism and Political Violence, 24, 2 (2012), 320–336. 

  28. Observatory of Illicit Economies in West Africa, In north-western Nigeria, violence carried out by bandit groups has escalated so fast that killings now rival those that take place in Borno state, where extremist groups hold sway, Risk Bulletin – Issue 1, GI-TOC, September 2021, https://riskbulletins.globalinitiative.net/wea-obs-001/03-bandit-killings-in-northwestern-nigeria-rival-borno-state.html

  29. Flore Berger, Lyes Tagziria and Aziz Mossi, Hostage to violent extremism: Kidnapping in northern Benin, OCWAR-T research report, forthcoming.