Is an ‘Islamic State in the Maghreb’ following in the footsteps of ISIS?

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A fighter of Libya's Fajr Libya group (Libyan Dawn) fires his gun during clashes in the hill village of Kikla, southwest of Tripoli on October 21, 2014. The internationally recognised Libyan government called for a civil disobedience campaign in Tripoli until its forces retake the capital from militias who seized it. (Photo: AFP-Mohammed Turkia)

By: Adam al-Sabiri

Published Thursday, October 23, 2014

The Arab Maghreb (North Africa) and the world have been expecting for a while an Islamic State in the Islamic Maghreb (ISIM-Damis) to be declared formally in the footsteps of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). If anything, such a move would demonstrate the failure of the international campaign led by the anti-ISIS coalition. Indeed, one of the direct outcomes of this campaign was the emergence of new ISIS-inspired groups that have pledged allegiance to the radical Islamist organization.

Algiers – Public opinion in the Arab Maghreb and the world has shifted its attitude vis-à-vis the so-called Arab Spring, from initial support and praise, to criticism and disillusionment, as things took a turn for the worse with the emergence of terrorist and criminal factions. Instead of seeking to replace dictatorial regimes, these factions declared war on everything and everybody in their way, and became a major headache for the entire world.

Regardless of who supports and finances it, this scourge has quickly revealed the Arab Spring to have been nothing more than the first chapter of a drive to fragment Arab countries and alter the global balance of power, at the hands of armed groups that entrench sectarian and ethnic fault lines, obliterate minorities, and threaten the countries that oppose them and blackmail others for purely financial purposes: enter the terrorism that has no religion, no color, and no boundaries.

A majority of observers believe the Arab Maghreb is on the cusp of a new wave of terrorist groups, moving beyond al-Qaeda of Bin Laden, Zawahiri, and Abdelmalek Droukdel, to Baghdadi’s ISIS and its legitimate offshoot ISIM, which has been at the center of a lot of speculation since the international coalition declared war on ISIS’ caliphate. The designation ISIM itself carries significant connotations that portend a radical shift in the landscape of terrorist organizations operating in North Africa and the Sahel.

Recently, the UN envoy to Libya, Bernardino Leon, cautioned against ISIS operations spreading to Libya. Leon revealed there were reports indicating some groups affiliated to ISIS had started operating in the North Africa region, and said these groups must be isolated and combated, which as Leon explained was another good reason for the conflicting parties in Libya to reach a settlement.

Leon’s statement suggests the Arab Maghreb is fast becoming the main source of support for ISIS outside Iraq and Syria. The Maghreb could also become a future fertile ground for terrorism, in the event the international coalition defeats Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s organization.

This trend began with Algerian, Tunisian, and Libyan terrorist groups pledging allegiance to ISIS. On September 12, a number of extremist elements declared they would be joining ISIS and swore allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, after splitting from al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), which is led by the Algerian Abdelmalek Droukdel. The new group calls itself the Soldiers of the Caliphate in Algeria, and is led by Khaled Abu Suleiman. The group recently kidnapped and beheaded a French national in central Algeria, with the move being seen as its initiation.

But some see another side to the relationship between the Soldiers of the Caliphate in Algeria and ISIS, including Algerian security expert Ali Zaoui. Speaking to Al-Akhbar, Zaoui denied the reports about the links between the new group and ISIS, saying the group is actually the Furqan Brigade of the AQIM. The group, he continued, wanted to take advantage of the media attention ISIS has received to split from al-Qaeda and declare allegiance to Baghdadi, even as it is ideologically at odds with him. Zaoui said the move was to get attention by riding on ISIS’ coattails.

For his part, former Algerian army officer Bin Omar bin Jana, said that the Soldiers of the Caliphate is looking to gain a foothold in Algeria, taking advantage of the refugees entering the country from various nationalities and for various reasons, to recruit them as part of a multinational terrorist group, which would then serve as an extension for ISIS in the region.

In Tunisia, the Uqba bin Nafi Brigade, led by Algerian terrorist Luqman Abu Sakhr, declared allegiance to ISIS in a video posted on websites affiliated to extremists nearly a month ago. This development was confirmed by the Tunisian authorities, when the spokesperson for the Ministry of Interior Mohammed Laroui said pro-ISIS elements in the Ansar al-Sharia» group – in reference to the Uqba bin Nafi Brigade – had declared an emirate in southern Tunisia as part of the Islamic State emerging in Iraq and Syria.

Interestingly, the Uqba bin Nafi Brigade is affiliated to AQIM as well, and has close ties to the Tunisian terrorist group Ansar al-Sharia led by Abu Ayaz, and its Libyan branch led by Mohammed al-Zahawi. In other words, the extremist groups operating in Libya now have a bridge to ISIS.

Another factor confirming ISIS’ presence in Tunisia and the region is the fact that the Algerian army has apprehended one of the most prominent leaders of the Uqba bin Nafi Brigade, a Mauritanian known as Safiuddin al-Mauritani. The latter was active in Mali before he slipped into Tunisia along with a number of Tunisian terrorists nearly a year ago. Algerian security sources told Al-Akhbar that the Mauritanian terrorist was on his way to northern Mali, to meet with terrorist leaders in the area, in preparation for a meeting for senior terror leaders in Tunisia, where a new pro-ISIS group would be formed under the name of the Islamic Caliphate in the Islamic Maghreb.

What the above indicates is that ISIS’ ideology is becoming entrenched in the Arab Maghreb, all the way to Mauritania on the Atlantic Ocean. Mauritanian security sources said that ISIS is trying to gain a foothold in the country as well, indicating that members of the group have recently sought to recruit four Mauritanian youths via the internet.

Although the same sources stressed that ISIS’ areas of operation are geographically distant from Mauritania, they said that there are strong indications the group is using different approaches to have cells operate in Mauritania. The sources pointed out that the counterterrorist operation in northern Mali led by a French-African alliance had galvanized Mauritanian youths with terrorist tendencies and brought them closer to groups like ISIS.

Libya: a special case

Libya remains the largest reservoir of recruits for ISIS, as it has been the main reservoir for various militant groups in Syria since the start of the uprising there more than three years ago.

This is if we go by the testimony of one of the most prominent Libyan warlords: In a previous interview with the mayor of Tripoli Mahdi al-Harati, widely viewed as the right-hand man of Abdel Hakim Belhadj, former president of the Military Council in Tripoli, and current leader of the Libyan al-Watan Party, Harati said that he personally moved fighters from various countries of the Maghreb and Europe into Syria to “continue what we started in Libya.” Harati said he leads a group called al-Ummah Brigade, which operates out of Libyan coasts and airports controlled by the warlords of the February 17 conflict and runs training camps preparing recruits before they travel to Turkey and then Syrian.

With the situation in Syria changing and the emergence of ISIS there, leading to violent clashes between various militant groups in Syria with different goals and ideologies, the picture became quite blurry for fighters originating from the Maghreb region. Some of these individuals decided to return home, while others chose to go to where they had first set out from, that is Libya.

These fighters joined the armed militias and extremist groups in Libya, while others founded a new organization called al-Battar, which is known for its brutality and ferocity thanks to the skills its combatants obtained while fighting for ISIS and al-Nusra Front. Al-Battar and other terrorist factions like Ansar al-Sharia are attracting pro-ISIS elements. According to Libyan sources, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi asked these elements to deploy to the Libyan front to counter the attacks by the Libyan army led by Khalifa Haftar as part of Operation Dignity seeking to “purge Libya of terrorists.”

In this regard, Algerian security expert Ali Zaoui said, “The Libyan arena is becoming an arena for the conflict between the arms of al-Qaeda, whether AQIM or global terrorist groups, which threatens to bring about a new terrorist paradigm in the near future.” Zaoui added, “Al-Qaeda could disappear to make way for the more extremist ISIS,” pointing out that Libya, where he said law and order were non-existent, would be the next front. The Algerian expert put the number of fighters returning from Syria and Iraq at around 13,000.

In the same vein, the Washington Institute for the Near East classed the Libyan city of Darnah as a de facto part of the Caliphate State. A report by institute said, “A relatively new global jihadist group in Libya – Majlis Shura Shabab al-Islam (the Islamic Youth Shura Council), or MSSI – announced...that its claimed territory in the city of Darnah was now part of the ISIS ‘caliphate.’” The report continued, “MSSI's move suggests a potential future approach to expansion that differs from al-Qaeda's franchising model,” saying that the group had carried out public executions in a football stadium on August 18.

The leaders and fighters of MSSI are likely to be returnees from Syria and Iraq, and also from al-Battar and Ansar al-Sharia.

Who are the candidates for the upcoming post of emir of ISIM?

Ali Zaoui believes that Mokhtar Belmokhtar is one of the strongest candidates for the post of emir of the upcoming ISIM for a number of reasons, most notably his great ambition to become a global terrorist leader. This is why Belmokhtar had split from AQIM, according to Zaoui, after AQIM leader Abdelmalek Droukdel refused to give him a more senior position.

Zaoui pointed out that Belmokhtar, who is the current leader of the group known as al-Murabitun in southern Libya, has yet to pledge allegiance to ISIS. The Algerian security expert explained that Belmokhtar is biding his time, waiting to see the outcome of his efforts with various terrorist groups in Libya.

Zaoui also nominated Abu Ayaz, leader of Ansar al-Sharia (Tunisia), who is currently in Libya. Abu Ayaz has strong links to Libyan terrorist groups and warlords, and had helped them recruit fighters during the Libyan uprising and at the start of the conflict in Syria.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.


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