The Islamic State Deepens Its Presence in North Africa


Institute for Contemporary Affairs
Founded jointly with the Wechsler Family Foundation

Vol. 15,  No. 21    July 2, 2015

  • Terrorist attacks carried out by Islamic State militants in the North African states illustrate the advance that the IS has achieved during the past year in this part of the world, as much as the vulnerability of these states’ security.
  • Three North African states – Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia – are under attack by the Islamic State.
  • North Africa’s younger jihadist generation has become emboldened to break away from al-Qaeda, seeking instead to join Baghdadi’s Caliphate in order to benefit from its success and wealth.
  • The eventual return of thousands of volunteers experienced in urban warfare, weapons and explosives as well as believing suicide bombings are the ultimate way to achieve personal heavenly bliss, are all new elements that will have an impact on the stability of these regimes.
Terrorist in Tunisia (credit: Sky News)

Terrorist in Tunisia (credit: Sky News)

The terrorist attack on June 26th, 2015 perpetrated by the Islamic State (IS) militant Seif el-Din Rezgui (alias Abu Yihya al-Kayrawani) in the southern Tunisian city of Sousse in which 38 tourists (mostly British citizens) at the Imperial Marhaba Hotel died while dozens were injured, comes barely three months after the attack at the Bardo Museum in Tunis on March 18 in which 21 tourists were killed by three Jihadists identified with the Islamic State. The Tunisian government responded by raising the level of alert of its armed and security forces and by a swift order to close more than 80 mosques described as “radical.”1

Nonetheless, these two events, together with other terrorist attacks carried out by IS militants in the North African states, illustrate the advance that the IS has achieved during the past year in this part of the world, as well as the vulnerability of these states’ security.

Three North African states – Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia – are under attack by the Islamic State. They are facing hard times in their effort to thwart the IS’ plans to create havoc as a prelude to toppling the regimes and establishing an Islamic caliphate that is part of the Caliphate heralded by Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi in Mosul in mid-2014.

The Islamic State has become as much of a social phenomenon in North Africa as it is already in many parts of the world, to such an extent that soccer fans in Moroccan stadiums loudly shout slogans such as “Daesh! Daesh!” and “Jihad! Jihad!”

The Islamic State has rallied North African jihadists for three main reasons: The new offshoots of the Al-Qaeda organization now have access to a new “franchise,” whereas Al-Qaeda’s brand is already “taken” by earlier and rival groups. The second reason is the immense success of the IS in Syria and Iraq and the almost automatic allegiance of various jihadist groups in the Muslim world to the emerging Caliphate. The third reason is the “latest fashion” acquired by any group identifying itself with the IS.2

Out of the thousands who volunteered for jihad, about 5,000 fighters from North African countries have joined the ranks of IS and Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria and Iraq. The biggest contingent is composed of Tunisians (3,000), followed by Moroccans (1,500) and Algerians (500-800). These numbers exclude the European fighters of North African origin (mostly from France and Belgium) who are estimated at 1,500-2,000 volunteers.

Oddly enough, the Tunisians comprise the largest contingent of the jihadist fighters in Syria and Iraq, followed by the Saudis (2,500) and the Libyans. All in all, the North Africans who have joined the militants in the fight against the regimes in Syria and Iraq represent roughly 50 percent of the foreign fighters.

Ironically, most of North Africa’s jihadist groups were hesitant to associate themselves with the Islamic State until the United States commenced its military intervention in Iraq and Syria in August 2014. Jihadists such as Abdel Malek Droukdel from AQIM (Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb), Mohammed Zahawi from Libya’s Ansar al-Sharia, and Algerian Mokhtar Belmokhtar (nicknamed Mr. Marlboro) from al-Mourabitoun, who fought alongside Bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, had refused, sometimes openly, to pledge allegiance to the Islamic State — even after it captured large swathes of territory in Iraq in June 2014 and declared a caliphate. Recently however, most of the jihadi organizations have changed their positions and have sworn allegiance to the Islamic State: The two most prominent examples are Libya’s Ansar al-Sharia and Mokhtar Belmokhtar’s al-Mourabitoun (Belmokhtar was reportedly killed by a U.S. drone attack in June 2015, a report denied afterwards).3

The Elusive Mokhtar Belmokhtar of Algeria

The Elusive Mokhtar Belmokhtar of Algeria

Moreover, North Africa’s younger jihadist generation has become emboldened to break away from al-Qaeda, seeking instead to join Baghdadi’s Caliphate in order to benefit from its success and wealth. Rather than deterring these groups, the U.S.-led coalition’s sporadic airstrikes in Iraq and Syria seem to have afforded the Islamic State with even more legitimacy in the eyes of North Africa’s jihadists.4

The North African countries are not only exporting manpower to the IS and Jabhat al-Nusra. The fact that this phenomenon occurs in these three North African states is an expression of a social and religious trend which is threatening their domestic stability:

Tunisia:  The “Okba Ibn Nafe” Brigade, named after the Arab conqueror of North Africa (622-683), declared its allegiance to the Islamic State on September 20th, 2014. Until then the jihadi group claimed to be part of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). Well entrenched in the Jebel Chaambi hills, Okaba Ibn Nafe militants have staged numerous terrorist attacks against Tunisia’s security forces in this area close to the Algerian border; the latest was conducted in June 2015 in the area of the southern town of Sidi Bouzid.5

Algeria: Established by a group of dissidents from AQIM, the group has renamed itself Jund al-Khilafah (Soldiers of the Caliphate). It gained public attention when it kidnapped a French tour guide, Herve Gourdel, who according to the IS “tradition,” was beheaded in front of video cameras. A week earlier, the group’s chief Abd el-Malek Gouri (alias Khaled Abu Slimane) swore allegiance to the IS. Slimane was killed in December by Algeria’s special forces.6

Morocco: Since April 2011, Morocco has been under jihadi attacks. First identified with Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, the jihadi groups gradually changed their allegiance with the establishment of the Islamic State.

In December 2014, a jihadi group by the name of “Soldats du Califat au Maghreb Al-Aqsa” [Soldiers of the Al-Aqsa Caliphate of North Africa] threatened in a video to carry out massacres in Morocco. Morocco’s security agencies succeeded in a very short time to arrest three members of this group. However, this was only a symptom of the malaise Morocco was experiencing.7

In January 2015, the Ministry of Interior announced the capture of a terrorist cell active in Meknes, El Hajeb and Al Hoceima, whose members were involved in the recruitment of volunteers to the Islamic State. In the same month, Moroccan security services caught an Algerian by the name of Hocine Dahous, a high ranking official in the Algerian Jund al Khalifa organization in a small place called Beni Drar, not very far from the northeastern border town Oujda, 15 kilometers from the Algerian border. His main mission was enrolling Moroccan volunteers and training in Algeria before assigning them subversive tasks inside Morocco.8

In February 2015, the Spanish intelligence services informed Morocco about  Mohammad Hamdouch, (nicknamed Kokito Castillejos ) a jihadist from the town of Fnideq (not very far from Tetouan in the northern part of Morocco) fighting with the Islamic State who openly expressed threats of perpetrating attacks in Rabat with the goal of installing an Islamic caliphate in Morocco. The Moroccan security agencies acted as a result and succeeded in dismantling a network which enlisted mainly women volunteers for Jihad.9

Following a “Royal Instruction” a new security agency was established on March 20, 2015 by the name of Bureau Central des Investigations Judiciaires (BCIJ) [Central Bureau of Judicial Investigations] whose mission was to strengthen the judicial arm of government in view of the rising terrorist threat in Morocco. The BCIJ was subordinated to the Directeur General de la Surveillance du Territoire (Director General for the Surveillance of the Territory), responsible for domestic security.10

It was no coincidence that on the day after the BCIJ inauguration and barely a month after the Bardo attack, the Ministry of Interior announced a crackdown on a jihadi group affiliated with the Islamic State whose activities spread all over the entirety of Moroccan territory: Agadir, Tanger, Laayoune, Boujaad, Tiflet, Marrakesh, Taroudant, Ain Harouda and Laayoune. Eleven members of the group who were funded by money transferred by the IS were responsible not only for the enrollment and transfer to Syria and Iraq of Moroccan volunteers, but also according to Moroccan security sources, their main mission was to create a state of havoc in Morocco as a prelude of a jihadi takeover of Morocco. According to the information, the Moroccan security forces discovered a weapons and ammunitions cache in the southern town of Agadir. The group was planning to assassinate political, military and civilian figures as well as launch terrorist attacks on strategic targets by the means of suicide bomb cars and other sophisticated devices.11

The Moroccan security services succeeded in the course of 2014 to neutralize 119 attacks with explosives, 109 assassination attempts, seven kidnapping schemes and 41 attempts of armed robbery.12 All in all, 147 terrorist incidents involving 323 individuals were brought before the Moroccan justice system in 2014, more than double the incidents that occurred a year before.13

The Attacks Creep Closer to Europe

No doubt, the jihadist trend in North Africa has created a real threat to the regimes. The eventual return of thousands of volunteers experienced in urban warfare, weapons and explosives, as well as believing suicide-bombings are the ultimate way to achieve personal heavenly bliss, are all new elements that will have an impact on the stability of these regimes. The civil war in Algeria which took place in the 90’s had a very heavy human toll (more than 200,000 killed). However, unlike the past, the jihadi fighters cannot compare to the simple combatants that fought the Algerian army at that time. Most probably, this could mean a heavier toll.

Unlike Iraq and Syria, the three North African states are at the very doorsteps of Europe. Destabilizing these regimes could have dire consequences not only on Europe’s own stability, but also on the energy routes so crucial to Europe.

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Notes

Tunisia terror attack: the radical mosques that bred gunman Seifeddine Rezgui, http://www.smh.com.au/world/tunisia-terror-attack-the-radical-mosques-that-bred-gunman-seifeddine-rezgui-20150629-gi073c

Terrorisme : qui sont les groupes jihadistes attirés par l’État islamique en Afrique ? http://www.jeuneafrique.com/34037/politique/terrorisme-qui-sont-les-groupes-jihadistes-attir-s-par-l-tat-islamique-en-afrique/

3 See more at: http://jcpa.org/article/north-african-fighters-in-the-syrian-and-iraqi-conflict/#sthash.ZpEKKV0b.dpuf

4 ibid.

http://www.jeuneafrique.com/34037/politique/terrorisme-qui-sont-les-groupes-jihadistes-attir-s-par-l-tat-islamique-en-afrique/;  http://ara.reuters.com/articlePrint?articleID=ARAKBN0OW1EH20150616

6 Ibid.

7 Daesh menace le Maroc d’un massacre ,http://germanpages.de/index.php/politics/daesh-menace-le-maroc

Maroc : une cellule terroriste qui voulait s’attaquer à des touristes démantelée http://www.afrik.com/maroc-demantelement-d-une-cellule-terroriste-qui-voulait-cibler-des-touristes

L’Etat islamique menace d’envahir Rabat et d’instaurer un califat au Maroc http://www.bladi.net/daesh-califat-maroc,41219.html

10 BCIJ: Le Maroc Renforce Sa Gouvernance Sécuritaire, http://www.le360.ma/fr/politique/bcij-le-maroc-renforce-sa-gouvernance-securitaire-35261

11 Tout Sur La Nouvelle Cellule Terroriste Démantelée Ce Dimanche, http://www.le360.ma/fr/societe/exclusif-tout-sur-la-nouvelle-cellule-terroriste-demantelee-ce-dimanche-35379

12 Le Maroc Face à la Daesh Connection, http://www.jeuneafrique.com/38888/politique/le-maroc-face-la-daesh-connection/

13 Maroc : Les Nouvelles Filières de Daesh, http://www.jeuneafrique.com/225442/politique/maroc-les-nouvelles-fili-res-de-daesh/

 

Col. (ret.) Dr. Jacques Neriah

Col. (ret.) Dr. Jacques Neriah, a special analyst for the Middle East at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, was formerly Foreign Policy Advisor to Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Deputy Head for Assessment of Israeli Military Intelligence.