North Africa has traditionally been a region in which Al-Qaeda, particularly its regional franchise, Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), has been dominant. However, the rise of Islamic State (IS) caused deep divisions within Al-Qaeda affiliated groups, as well numerous defections to IS. Although the growth of IS has been met with a heavy security response in some countries, the group retains the capacity to exploit grievances on the part of local populations in areas that escape the full control of the state. In addition, IS territorial losses in Syria and Iraq have seen Al-Qaeda affiliated groups attempt to assert their presence in North Africa.
Two North African countries that have witnessed particularly intense competition between IS and Al-Qaeda are Algeria and Egypt. In Algeria, IS affiliated groups have been all but defeated, restoring AQIM’s preeminence in the country. IS presence in Egypt is still strong, although it increasingly competes not just with Al-Qaeda loyal groups, but also jihadi groups that emerged following President Mohamed Morsi’s ouster and the subsequent crackdown against Muslim Brotherhood supporters.
Algeria is AQIM’s birthplace and historical base. It emerged in 2007, when a local jihadi group, the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC), pledged allegiance to Al-Qaeda in an effort to boost its relevance. The group, subsequently known as AQIM, was divided into a number of katibats (branches) that focused their activities on different parts of Algeria. The most active of its branches were those in northeast Algeria, mostly in the mountains of Kabilya, and the Southwest, notably in the Sahara.
While the northeastern katibat remained primarily focused on carrying out attacks on state targets, the Sahara branch increasingly became involved in smuggling activities and kidnapping for ransom, often in the Sahel where states struggled to control their territories and smuggling networks were well established. The success of the Sahara branch led to competition between the leaders of the northeastern and Sahara branches of AQIM, leading the leader of the latter, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, to break away from AQIM in 2012 and to form his own group, al-Muaqioon Biddam (‘Those Who Sign Their Name in Blood’).
Al-Muaqioon Biddam’s efforts to make its mark led to the worst terrorist incident the country had witnessed since AQIM first emerged in 2007. In January 2013, hostages were taken at the Tigaotourine gas facility in In Amenas, resulting in the death of 39 civilians, most of whom were foreigners. The attack not only exposed the vulnerability of Algeria’s hydrocarbon sector to terrorism, but also damaged its reputation as a relatively safe country, causing some companies to pull out of Algeria and concerns about the safety of their foreign workers to mount.
The incident prompted Algerian authorities to undertake a major re-assessment of the threat posed to the country by terrorism, leading to massive counter-terrorism operations across the country. In light of the security response to the In Amenas attack, Al-Muaqioon sought to consolidate its presence in the Sahel, merging with the Mali-based Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) to form a new group, Al-Mourabitoun.
Having already lost one of its most active branches, AQIM fragmented yet further as a result of a series of defections to IS. In September 2014, a splinter group of the AQIM branch responsible for the central zone of Algeria, Jund Al-Khalifa (Soldiers of the Caliphate), defected to IS. The group subsequently sought to raise its profile and capitalize on the IS brand name by capturing and beheading a French national, Hervé Gourdel, who had been hiking in northeast Algeria. After Jund Al-Khalifa announced in late December 2014 the creation of a Wilayat Al-Jazair (Algeria Province), it went on to carry out several attacks, including one on a police station in February 2017.
A number of other AQIM affiliated groups also split from AQIM to join IS, including a group called Ansar al-Khilafa operating in the Skikda Province in eastern Algeria and Al-Ansar al-Khilafa in northwestern Algeria. The very same year, members of AQIM’s Al-Ghuraba Brigade, which was active in Constantine, followed suit and subsequently carried out some small-scale attacks against security forces, as did AQIM’s al-Ansar Brigade in Central Algeria. Several members of AQIM’s Al-Feth Brigade also changed sides in 2017.
Although these defections generated alarm in Algeria and abroad about the growth of IS presence in the country, the latter’s rise was short lived. The Algerian security forces rapidly launched a concerted campaign of elimination against Jund al-Khalifa, killing its leader and decimating the group. A manhunt against the Al-Ghuraba Brigade got underway and the group possesses no significant operational capacity. Other groups that broke away from AQIM and proclaimed their allegiance to IS comprise only a few dozen militants each and thus pose only a minimal threat. Indeed, the limited manpower of these groups have made them relatively easy to downgrade.
Eradicating the more firmly entrenched AQIM has proved much harder task, however. As the threat from IS has waned, AQIM has attempted to re-establish its preeminence, intensifying its operations in Algeria. It also joined forces again with Al-Mourabitoun in 2015, which helped to increase its credibility and strength. The merger allowed AQIM to capitalize off Al-Mourabitoune’s high profile attacks in Mali, Burkina Faso and Ivory Coast, and to demonstrate its staying power vis-a-vis IS.
Al-Mourabitoun has since combined forces with Mali-based Ansar Dine and The Macina Liberation Front to form a new AQIM-loyal group, Jamaat Nusrat al-Islam wal Muslimeen (JNIM), which poses a particular threat to Mali and West Africa. Given Mali’s weak state capacities, JNIM’s presence in the country is cause for concern for Algeria too.
Across the border in Libya, AQIM has also strengthened its presence during the course of the civil war. It has deftly tapped into domestic conflict narratives and established a firmer footing by supporting local jihadi groups. This strategy has given it a more discrete, and potentially more sustainable, foothold in Libya than IS, which could compromise Algeria’s security in the future. IS militants in Libya, who are regrouping following the liberation of Sirte, are also an ongoing cause for concern for the authorities in Algiers.
Islamic State has had more success in gaining a foothold in Egypt. At present, it poses the greatest threat to the country. As in Algeria, IS first appeared in Egypt as the result of a defection by a previously Al-Qaeda affiliated group, Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis (‘Supporters of Jerusalem, ABM’), which was active on the Sinai Peninsula. Following its pledge of allegiance to IS in November 2014, ABM became known as Wilayat Sinai (Sinai Province). Although the group is estimated to comprise only 1000 members, the loss of IS territory in the Middle East and Libya now makes it one of the most successful IS franchises.
Alienation of the Sinai’s local Bedouin population from the Egyptian state has made the Peninsula fertile ground for jihadi groups, like Wilayat Sinai. The Bedouin who live there tend to feel more affinity with people to their east than those who inhabit the mainland. This, combined with the Israeli occupation of the Sinai from 1967 to 1982, has typically prompted the authorities in Cairo to view the Sinai Bedouin with suspicion, banning them from serving in the military or security services, and even going so far as to appoint their representatives to the People’s Assembly. The grievances of the Bedouin and their antipathy for the Egyptian state has rendered them vulnerable to radical Islam, creating a permissive environment for groups like Wilayat Sinai
Despite having deployed over 20,000 troops from the mainland to combat the group, Wilayat Sinai remains active in North Sinai, where it has been traditionally based, and has even been expanding its reach into South Sinai. The group has been primarily engaged in an insurgency against security forces. Yet, as its downing of the Russian Metrojet flight in 2015 and attacks on a guard post near St. Catherine’s Monastery in South Sinai and the Sufi al-Rawda mosque in North Sinai in 2017 demonstrate, Wilayat Sinai is also seeking to hurt the tourism industry, upon which the Egyptian economy depends heavily, as well as to ferment sectarian tension in the country.
IS is also active on the mainland, where a separate IS affiliated group, called Islamic State in Egypt, emerged in 2015. Although the mainland offers a less favourable environment than the Sinai Peninsula, the group has been fairly active. Its first attack was against the Italian consulate in July of that year. It has since targeted symbols of the state, as well as Coptic Christians in Cairo, the Greater Cairo area, Alexandria and Upper Egypt. Islamic State cells are also present in the Western Desert and have been behind attacks, including the recent armed ambush of buses carrying Coptic Christians.
As in Algeria, Al-Qaeda affiliated groups have sought to reaffirm themselves in Egypt as IS came under pressure in Iraq and Syria. After having been driven into hiding by Wilayat Sinai four years ago, Al-Qaeda loyal Jund al-Islam has reappeared on the Sinai Peninsula, presenting itself as a challenger to Wilayat Sinai and clashing with the latter’s militants in October 2017. In the Western Desert, a small but operationally capable AQIM affiliated group, Ansar al-Islam, has also emerged, killing 54 members of the police force in an armed ambush that same month.
In addition to the challenge posed by IS and increasingly audacious Al-Qaeda affiliated groups, Egypt has seen several jihadi groups form after the ousting of Morsi and the harsh crackdown on Muslim Brotherhood sympathizers. The most significant among them are Hasm (‘Decisiveness’) and Liwaa al-Thawra (‘Revolution’s Brigade’). Their support base is believed to be Muslim Brotherhood members who came to advocate violence in response to the ouster of Morsi and subsequent repression of islamists of all colours. Both are focused on overthrowing the Egyptian regime rather than global jihad, and have accordingly targeted state symbols on mainland Egypt – Hasm in Central Egypt, Cairo and Giza and Liwaa al-Thawra in Greater Cairo and the Nile Delta.
Although AQIM’s dominance in the country has been re-established, it is unlikely to launch high-profile attacks on Algerian soil, given robust counter-terrorism measures in the country. The group is more likely to attempt to consolidate its presence in Mali and West Africa, as well as in Libya, where its affiliates can operate more freely. Libya is also concerning, because of the regrouping of IS in the country.
Although the Algerian authorities have increased the military presence along the Malian and Libyan borders to prevent infiltration of militants and weapons into Algeria, the weak state capacities of Libya and Mali mean that Algeria still remains vulnerable to the groups. Ultimately, greater regional cooperation to tackle the drivers of radicalisation and violent extremism will be needed to diminish the threat posed by AQIM and IS affiliated groups to Algeria over the longer term.
In Egypt, IS continues to pose a considerable challenge. Despite a massive campaign against Wilayat Sinai by Egyptian security forces, the group maintains significant operational capacity. Although Egypt was not one of the main contributing countries of foreign fighters to IS, the return of battle experienced fighters is a growing source of concern for the authorities, particularly since “returnees” are already suspected of having been involved in terrorist attacks in Egypt. Increased competition with Al-Qaeda affiliated groups could also drive Wilayat Sinai and IS in Egypt to perpetrate more spectacular attacks in the future.
Instead of weakening Wilayat Sinai and IS on the mainland, the government’s heavy-handed approach to tackling violent extremism risks generating increased support for IS and Al-Qaeda affiliated groups, as well as those with more domestically oriented objectives, such as Hasm and Liwaa al-Thawra. Hard security approaches that are unaccompanied by softer measures designed to address the causes of radicalisation, are only likely to push youth vulnerable to radicalization into the arms of Egypt’s numerous jihadi groups, further perpetuating the risks posed to the state by jihadi groups.
Dr. Lisa Watanabe is a Senior Researcher at the Center for Security Studies (CSS) at ETH Zurich.
Photo CC BY 2.0 Jemal Ould Mohamed Oumar