Report warns of looming jihadist threat in Maghreb
Tunis- The Maghreb has largely succeeded in deterring home-grown jihadists from returning to the region but it must prepare for a wave of fighters as the Islamic State loses territory and key leaders in Syria and Iraq, a report by the International Crisis Group said.
“The Islamic State (ISIS) is in sharp decline but in its rout lie important lessons and lingering threats. This is true for… Algeria, Libya, Morocco and Tunisia, which constitute a microcosm of ISIS’s identity, trajectory and shifting fortunes to date,” said the report titled “How the Islamic State Rose, Fell and Could Rise Again in the Maghreb.”
The report noted that the four Maghreb countries “possess two unwanted claims to fame: As a significant pool of ISIS foreign fighters and, in the case of Libya, as the site of ISIS’s first successful territorial conquest outside of Iraq and Syria.”
“The pool is drying up, to a point, and the caliphate’s Libyan province is no more but many factors that enabled ISIS’s ascent persist,” the report added.
Despite being pushed out of territory they once held in Libya, jihadists have been resilient. Libyan Defence Ministry spokesman Brigadier-General Mohammed al-Ghosari, who led the charge to defeat ISIS from Sirte stronghold in December, said that ISIS fighters were preparing to storm Sirte again.
“Al-Bunyan al-Marsous forces have been put on high alert in anticipation of an imminent ISIS attack on Sirte,” said Ghosari, who added that an armed convoy of 20 vehicles in Sabah district, west of Sirte had been deployed and that checkpoints were set up at the entrances to the city. Ghosari noted that forces were expecting attacks on Sirte from the south and east side of the city.
Tunisian Prime Minister Youssef Chahed, in an interview July 20, voiced his concerns that ISIS was looking to regain a foothold in Libya. “It looks like (ISIS) is setting up a new base in Libya to direct terror in North Africa and in Europe,” Chahed said. “I think this is the main threat in the region. I’ve also heard from a commander in Africa who said instability in North Africa and ISIS in Libya are probably the nearest-term threats to the United States and US-interests in the region.”
The Algerian Defence Ministry, on July 31, said that its troops had killed six suspected terrorists described as “dangerous” in the Gouraya forest in the coastal Tipaza area, west of Algiers.
Jihadists in Algeria have split into factions, including Takfir wal Hijra, the Islamic Salvation Army, the armed wing of the banned Islamic Salvation Front and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, which is competing with ISIS-affiliate Jund al Khalifa for recruits and resources.
Officials from governments in the Maghreb had yet to comment on the report but security forces were put on alert because of threat of jihadist returnees. Intelligence sources said Morocco set a “war room” with Spain and France to watch for renewed jihadist threats.
Algerian security expert Omar bin Jana, who has access to the security apparatus said: “The danger of the return of ISIS fighters to the Maghreb is real and Algeria has deployed the required intelligence and military forces to face this menace but the problem lies on the belt of instability and insecurity on its borders with Libya, Niger and Mali. He added that those countries were fragile and returning jihadists could establish support systems and be able to strike Algeria.
While the four Maghreb countries face varying degrees of risk from jihadist movements, they each have conditions that can facilitate the groups’ rise.
Paradoxically, the countries that have allowed self-described “moderate Islamists” to participate in elections have seen jihadists use their presence as a recruitment tool. In Tunisia, “moderate Islamists” failed to introduce a societal model that appealed to marginalised youth and were seen by radicals as straying from their goal of bringing religion and state together.
The International Crisis Group report said: “(ISIS)’s ability to recruit in these countries suggests a series of factors that gave rise to a more conducive environment: A demand for a quasi-revolutionary, anti-establishment discourse and practice, especially among young people who blame their relative deprivation on structural injustice (chiefly Tunisia).”
Their report noted that “a security apparatus in disarray (Libya and Tunisia); the ascent and subsequent reining in of a more political, pragmatic form of Islamism (Tunisia); the presence of pre-existing networks of a jihadist or militant variety (Libya, Tunisia and Morocco); and either lack of regional or international coordination or, worse, regional actors backing rival groups (Libya),” contributed to the region’s predicament.
Since last year when Libyan forces defeated ISIS in Sirte and Tunisian security services repelled hundreds of ISIS fighters attempting to establish a caliphate in the southern border town of Ben Guerdane, the Maghreb has staved off ISIS and improved security, particularly between Algiers and Tunis.
The Algerian Army played a leading role in anti-terror operations, deploying thousands of troops and significant military resources to the Libyan border.
While the International Crisis Group acknowledged that “progress has been made to address several of these matters,” it said considerable efforts were needed to resolve the issue in a sustainable manner.
“Ending Libya’s anarchy and fragmentation” and “improving states’ capacities to channel anger at elites’ predatory behaviour and provide responsive governance” were key steps, the report said.
“Treading carefully when seeking to regiment religious discourse and improving regional and international counterterrorism cooperation would go a long way towards ensuring that success against ISIS is more than a fleeting moment.”
As the region makes headway in countering terrorism, “the incentives for extremists to conduct ‘shock-and-awe’ attacks in the West and guerrilla pinpoint attacks in Libya are likely to grow as a way to maintain momentum and drive recruitment,” the report said.
“The Maghreb has shown that it has, for the most part, resilient state capacity but also persistent tensions within societies and their elites, as well as between them,” the report said. “It is also surrounded by fragile states to the south. Vigilance about avoiding a next wave requires more focus on appeasing and channelling these tensions away from violence, not just post facto security approaches.”