By Ben Schaefer, Columnist
Photo by: Associated Foreign Press
With the recent fall of the Islamic State (IS) in Iraq and Syria, the time is ripe to speculate on the caliphate’s next moves. Discord and chaos in North Africa—from Libya’s fractured political landscape to Tunisia’s returning foreign fighters—leads IS analysts and foreign policy practitioners to hypothesize a potential shift in IS-focus from the Levant to the Maghreb. This prophecy turns on several pivotal factors, which, if addressed by North African governments, could prevent IS from establishing a foothold in the region.
Proponents of the idea that the Islamic State will gain a broader foothold in North Africa posit that porous borders and weak security coordination between governments will allow IS to gain control of vast swaths of ungoverned territory.[i] North African governments have a history of mutual suspicion and poor security in the deserts that comprise the majority of their borders.[ii] Violent non-state actors, smugglers, and all manner of criminals exploit these borders to traffic weapons, drugs, and even people to and from sub-Saharan Africa and into Europe or the greater Middle East.[iii]
Terrorist organizations such as al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) exploit these ungoverned spaces to turn a profit on some of the same illegal activities—with particular success in kidnapping and extortion.[iv] In fact, between 2008 and 2013, AQIM earned about $92 million on ransom payments alone.[v] While IS would need to compete with preexisting terrorist organizations like AQIM for resources and personnel, it would be able to capitalize on some of the same tactics these groups use to turn a profit in the region. There are some indications that IS has already set up checkpoints to intercept goods flowing north toward the Mediterranean coast.[vi]
Besides illicit trade, IS seeks to gain control of North Africa’s oil wealth to turn a more legitimate profit, as it did in the Levant. Libya’s descent into chaos after the Arab Spring of 2011, and its subsequent civil war, have left its vast oil fields loosely guarded and ripe for conquest by IS affiliates.[vii] Armed clashes between IS fighters and Libyan forces occurred in Libya’s Oil Crescent—the region where the country draws the majority of its petroleum—as recently as February 3, 2018.[viii] One month prior, United States Africa Command spokesperson Robyn Mack stated that IS’ priorities in Libya included building up its security infrastructure and launching attacks—including attacks on oil fields.[ix]
Finally, a major cause of concern among the Maghreb states is the return of thousands of foreign fighters from Iraq and Syria. These fighters are returning to their North African homes in record numbers defeated but not de-radicalized.[x] Some analysts speculate that foreign fighters will engage in terrorist attacks across the region or use the Maghreb as a launch pad for further attacks in Europe.[xi] A recent list released by Interpol specifies 50 IS fighters trained in the Levant who are believed to have crossed into Europe by boat from Tunisia.[xii] As more foreign fighters return to North Africa from the Middle East, there is a greater chance that some of these fighters will slip through Europe’s border with the waves of migrants already crossing the Mediterranean, or build a base of support for radical ideology at home.
Despite all of these indicators, there are reasons to doubt the establishment of a more robust IS presence in North Africa in the months to come. Many returning jihadists are disillusioned with fighting or simply war-weary after their years in Iraq and Syria.[xiii] Further, many North Africans who left to fight with IS were killed and will not return at all. Estimates cannot accurately pinpoint exact casualty figures or how many returning fighters will lay down their weapons permanently, but these numbers will be a prominent factor in determining whether IS can continue to build its caliphate in the Maghreb.
Moreover, AQIM has long held the Maghreb as its territory. While IS managed to pull some of AQIM’s members into its own ranks at its inception, many of these defectors have either been killed in various skirmishes or are being recruited back to AQIM.[xiv] [xv] Competing with a major terrorist rival for resources such as personnel, oil fields, smuggling routes, ransom demands, and extortion of local populations will prevent IS from reaching its full profit potential.
Finally, regional governments, the European Union, and the United States have not been idle on this issue. The most stable Maghrebi states—Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia—have had moderate success at keeping IS at bay within their respective borders.[xvi] The United States and the European Union have provided the region with logistical and kinetic support through air strikes on known operatives.[xvii] Even so, lax security, mutual distrust, and the long-standing Libyan power vacuum are all factors that increase opportunities for IS to quickly establish a territorial foothold.
The weeks and months ahead will be pivotal for North Africa. If IS sympathizers and foreign fighters see an opportunity to retake territory, they may have the capacity to do so. Regional governments must put their rivalries aside to combat this threat, which knows no borders or boundaries. Libya poses the greatest challenge, where competing governments are preoccupied with fighting each other and might fail to stymie IS’ attempts to assert power in forgotten or contested spaces. IS captured Libyan territory before—notably taking control of Sirte in 2016—and might reclaim those areas again.[xviii]
If regional governments can help one another to combat IS’ threat by sharing intelligence on fighters’ movements and increasing border security to contain threats, IS may find its regional overtures blocked and quietly succumb to the war-weariness many of its fighters are already feeling.
[i] Yaya J. Fanusie and Alex Entz, “Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb: Financial Assessment,” CSIF: Terror Finance Briefing Book, (December 2017): 13.
[ii] Jamie Dettmer, “North Africa Braces for Impact as Islamic State Fighters Return,” Voice of America, December 19, 2017, https://www.voanews.com/a/north-africa-braces-impact-islamic-state-fighters-return/4170589.html.
[iii] Mark Shaw and Tuesday Reitano, “The Political Economy of Trafficking and Trade in the Sahara: Instability and Opportunities,” Sahara Knowledge Exchange: The World Bank (December 2014): 11.
[iv] Fanusie and Entz, “Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb,” 3.
[v] Rukmini Callimachi, “Paying Ransoms, Europe Bankrolls Qaeda Terror,” The New York Times, July 29, 2014, https://www.nytimes.com/2014/07/30/world/africa/ransoming-citizens-europe-becomes-al-qaedas-patron.html.
[vi] Bennett Seftel, “ISIS Festers and Grows Lawless in Libya,” The Cipher Brief, January 26, 2018, https://www.thecipherbrief.com/isis-festers-grows-lawless-libya.
[vii] Khalid Mahmoud, “Exclusive – AFRICOM Expects ISIS Attack on Libya’s Oil Crescent,” Asharq Al-Awsat, January 3, 2018, https://aawsat.com/english/home/article/1131771/exclusive-africom%C2%A0expects-isis-attack-libya%E2%80%99s-oil-crescent.
[viii] Reuters Staff, “At Least Five Killed in Clashes Near Libyan Oilfield: Local Official,” Reuters, February 3, 2018, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-libya-security/at-least-five-killed-in-clashes-near-libyan-oilfield-local-official-idUSKBN1FN0HJ.
[ix] Mahmoud, “AFRICOM Expects ISIS Attack on Libya’s Oil Crescent.”
[x] Agence France-Presse, “Estimated 6,000 IS Jihadists Could Return to Africa,” eNCA, December 11, 2017, https://www.enca.com/africa/estimated-6000-is-jihadists-could-return-to-africa-au-warns.
[xi] Dettmer, “North Africa Braces for Impact as Islamic State Fighters Return.”
[xii] Lorenzo Tondo, “Interpol Circulates List of Suspected ISIS Fighters Believed to be in Italy,” The Guardian, January 31, 2018, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/jan/31/interpol-circulates-list-of-suspected-isis-fighters-believed-to-be-in-italy.
[xiii] Dettmer, “North Africa Braces for Impact as Islamic State Fighters Return.”
[xiv] Djallil Lounnas, “The Impact of ISIS on Algeria’s Security Doctrine,” Middle East Policy XXIV, No. 4 (Winter 2017): 124.
[xv] Jason Burke, “Al-Qaida Moves in the Recruit from Islamic State and its Affiliates,” The Guardian, January 19, 2018, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/jan/19/al-qaida-recruit-from-islamic-state-affiliates-isis.
[xvi] “How the Islamic State Rose, Fell and Could Rise Again in the Maghreb,” International Crisis Group, Middle East and North Africa Report, No. 178 (24 July 2017): 21-24.
[xvii] Nathan A. Sales, “Beyond ISIS: Countering Terrorism, Radicalization, and Promoting Stability in North Africa,” Subcommittee on the Near East, South Asia, Central Asia, and Counterterrorism, Senate Committee on Foreign Relations (December 6, 2017): 5-6.
[xviii] Aiden Lewis and Ulf Laessing, “Militant Threat Hangs over Islamic State’s former Libyan Stronghold,” Reuters, November 10, 2017, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-libya-security-sirte/militant-threat-hangs-over-islamic-states-former-libyan-stronghold-idUSKBN1DA1ZF.