Maghreb provides jihadists with fighters. The terrorist groups finance themselves through drug trafficking and arms trade. Their main obstacle: Algeria.
Several factors suggest that the Islamic Maghreb is one of those areas throughout which ISIS might expand the boundaries of the recently established Islamic Caliphate.
This hypothesis is first of all supported by the militancy of thousands of North Africans in the IS ranks in Syria and Iraq (about three thousand Tunisians, two thousand Moroccans and six hundred Algerians).
Many of these jihadists are supposed to go back home bringing their criminal ideological baggage with them. There is a risk that these ‘carriers’ of terrorism will become operational in their countries of origin. The Moroccan authorities have recently arrested 200 of their citizens returning from Syria.
Secondly, the Islamic State is adding satellite ‘provinces’ to its organization in North Africa, after establishing strongholds all across Libya, which has become no-man’s land. Lately, some groups in Algeria such as Jund al-Khalifa, Ansar al-Khalifa al-Katibat Khourabà have abandoned AQMI (al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb) to join the Islamic State. After the death of Bin Laden, al-Qaeda lost much of its power, which shifted to lS. This terror group has become a big transnational of jihadism. Small terror entrepreneurs chase the ISIS logo to open a franchise with that brand for their ‘activities’ in other parts of the Muslim world. The ISIS black flag has become a guarantee for jihadist groups.
A third element confirming IS’ intention to spread its tentacles to north Africa is the proliferation of jihadist attacks in Tunisia and Algeria, such as that of the massacres of the Bardo Museum, last March, and at the beach resort of Sousse in Tunisia at the end of June. It is clear that IS wanted to attack a country which, since 2011, has been experiencing a long political transition strongly marked by internal political instability and at the same time affected by the chaos in Libya. But observers are mostly focused on Algeria, a strategic country where on July 17 of this year, nine soldiers were killed by jihadists and in April 2014, eleven soldiers died in an attack. However, despite the above mentioned tragic events, ISIS is unlikely to obtain in Algeria the success it achieved in Syria and Iraq. Algeria is in fact the real bastion against ISIS’ advance in Maghreb. This country already experienced terrorism in the nineties and defeated it.
The Algerian people are vaccinated against this evil and do not want to see violence again in the streets of their cities and villages. While in lraq and Syria there are Sunni clans and ‘tribes’ which have welcomed and supported lS’ militants, there are no friendly and protective contexts to date for jihadists in Algeria.
Moreover, the country is a solid state supported by a powerful army, perhaps even too much according to the standards of a democracy. The Algerian army is in fact the most influential political organization in the country. Algeria shares a 980 km border with Libya, land of arms and drug trafficking, and fighters but, paradoxically, this border is less permeable than the one which Syria and Turkey share. Syria, in fact, fights against jihadists who are trained in Turkey. However, as long a, IS operates in Syria and lraq, the jihadist factions present in the Maghreb countries, Algeria in particular, will play a minor role, as in the past. They will mainly recruit fighters for international terrorism.
It is worth remembering the Arab-Afghans, many of whom were North Africans who fought against the Soviets in Afghanistan. The small jihadists groups in Maghreb will also continue to manage drug trafficking, one of the largest businesses financing new and old jihadist groups. After the efforts to crack down on drug trafficking along the Caribbean Sea route, a part of this business has moved to West Africa. According to the UN, every year 35 thousand kilograms of cocaine destined to the European market pass through Africa and in particular through the borders of Mali and Libya where there are jihadists belonging to AQMI and IS.
Mostafa El Ayoubi