TSG IntelBrief: The Islamic State’s Potential to Expand to North Africa
November 24, 2014

The Islamic State’s Potential to Expand to North Africa

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Bottom Line Up Front: 

• An increasing number of extremist groups in North Africa are pledging allegiance to the Islamic State; however, most of them are small and have no institutional links to its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi

• North Africa has a more homogeneous society and most countries have strong militaries, making it unlikely that the experience in Iraq and Syria can be replicated in the region

• A significant number of foreign Islamic State fighters come from North Africa and will eventually return home, where concern will continue to be their likely attempt to establish Islamic State-linked groups in the region.

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Earlier this month, the Sinai-based militant group Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis swore allegiance to the so-called Islamic State. Over the past few months, Ansar had entertained close relations to the Islamic State—though leadership west of the Nile is less enthusiastic—and adopted many of its tactics, such as publicized beheadings. Its members have also admitted to receiving funding from the Islamic State.

The pledge of allegiance was a strategic move to reinforce the group’s power and reach just after a U.S. airstrike may have critically wounded the Islamic State’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. The incident angered violent extremists in the region and is likely to trigger an increasing number of fighters to support, at least rhetorically, the Islamic State network. Ansar’s pledge of allegiance is reinforcing fears that the Islamic State might soon expand into North Africa. In an audiotape released earlier this month, Baghdadi reaffirmed his intention to enlarge the Islamic State to other regions. North Africa has a particularly high number of foreign Islamic State fighters and a following of several groups in the region.

Last month Libya’s “Shura Council of the Islamic Youth” in Derna, an extremist hotspot in the northeast, pledged allegiance to the Islamic State. Until now the Shura Council of the Islamic Youth has not managed to monopolize power in the city, but actually consists of a still limited support base estimated at about 500 individuals. The group includes people who split from local militias as well as former Libyan fighters for the Islamic State. The gradual return of more Islamic State fighters is, however, likely to grow. Earlier this month Baghdadi accepted the allegiance as part of his expansion efforts. While relations between the Islamic State and Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis have been close for months, institutional links between the group in Derna and Baghdadi are unlikely to exist beyond the former Islamic State fighters that joined the group. This is also true for the other North African groups that support Baghdadi.

In mid-September the “Soldiers of the Caliphate of Algeria” pledged allegiance to the Islamic State and beheaded a French tourist. This occurred just after Baghdadi had called upon his followers to kill Americans and other Westerners fighting against the Islamic State in the U.S.-led military coalition. Yet the killing of the Frenchman seemed opportunistic rather than an attack in joint coordination with the Islamic State. Indeed, the group intercepted the French tourist while he was on a hike. However, the event risks inspiring similar attacks in the region. Significantly, it led to the creation of yet another Islamic State-affiliated group, known as the “Soldiers of the Caliphate in Egypt.” The latter declared in a statement that it aims to attack Egyptian security forces, embassies and foreign nationals, particularly from the U.S.

In Tunisia, the victory of a secular party in last month’s parliamentary ballot as well as the Sunday election of a secular president (to be determined after a runoff; Tunisia’s main Islamist party Ennahda did not present a candidate) might further incite violent extremist groups to carry out attacks against the state and Western targets. The main groups in Tunisia include Okba Ibn Nafaa as well as Ansar al-Sharia’s radical wing. Okba Ibn Nafaa—which is particularly active in the mountainous Chaambi region close to the Algerian border—has voiced its support for the Islamic State. The head of Tunisia’s Ansar al-Sharia, Abou Iyadh (Seifallah Ben Hassine), has also expressed support for Baghdadi, but has yet to pledge allegiance. Instead, he called for different Sunni extremists groups in North Africa to unite, fearing that their fracturing might weaken their actual impact in the region. Indeed, the main violent extremist movements in North Africa, including al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb as well as al-Mourabitoun of Mokhtar Belmokhtar—who was responsible for the January 2013 In Amenas, Algeria, gas plant attack—remain deeply skeptical of the Islamic State. This is mainly because in Iraq and Syria the Islamic State is fighting against the Qaeda-linked al-Nusra Front.

It is therefore unlikely that the experience of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria can be repeated in North Africa. The population in North Africa is rather homogeneous, consisting mainly of Sunni Muslims—in contrast to the sectarian tensions that have facilitated the rise of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. Moreover, the governments in North Africa, especially in Egypt and Algeria, have well-developed military capacities and decades-long training in cracking down on extremist Islamists, which will make it difficult for the Islamic State to grow beyond small groups. However, a high number of North Africa citizens (up to 10,000), especially from Libya and Tunisia, are currently fighting for the Islamic State and might eventually return home. The potential growth of Islamic State-linked groups that seek to mimic the Islamic State’s violent tactics and prepare attacks at home will continue to be a concern for regional states.

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