By Tuva Julie Engebrethsen Smith
The Islamic State (IS) continues to expand its offensive operations, and is fast gaining support outside Iraq and Syria. Next on its agenda seems to be the North African region. However, is the ground fertile enough for the IS to find roots in Libya, Tunisia, or Egypt? And do African leaders have anything to worry about?
The IS seems unstoppable and is spreading into North Africa – a region marked by poor governance and a large number of violent extremist groups. In fact, research conducted by the Soufan Group estimates that North Africa is the region with the highest number of foreign fighters joining the IS, the reason being “incomplete political reforms that have failed to redress serious societal issues, persistent high unemployment, and a failure to cope with the apparent high levels of disaffection, despair, and anger.” The threat from the IS is not potential, it is already there.
The Libyan state has been rather weak after Muammar Gadhafi´s fall in 2011. This has given space for Gadhafi’s Islamist opponents, who had earlier gone to Syria to participate in the anti-Bashar Assad jihad, to return and secure a foothold in the Libyan city of Darnah. Several militias are presently ruling in Darnah, with the Islamic Youth Shura Council being the most important one. Furthermore, the militia group, Majlis Shura Shabab al-Islam (MSSI), also recently established in Darnah and pledged its support to the IS. Training camps with at least 200 militants have been established in the hills outside of Darnah, according to Davis Rodriguez, commander of AFRICOM.
According to Noman Benotman, President of Quilliam Foundation, the Libyan IS faction is now in total control of Darnah and is managing the administration of the city, its courts, education and local radio. It has also expanded westwards in the towns of al Bayda, Benghazi, Sirte, al-Khums and Tripoli. The ground in Libya is evidently fertile enough for an IS expansion, as these examples demonstrate. The militia are not different from the IS in Iraq and Syria, and if voices of criticism are raised, they can expect being hunted down and beheaded by these Islamic fighters.
As such, Darnah is the first city in the region to become an IS-controlled territory. This is however not surprising as Libya has become an important source of weapons in the post-Arab Spring setting, and provides perfect conditions for the IS to further augment its revenues from this oil-rich country.
Of the approximately 50 countries struggling to prevent people joining the IS, Tunisia is the largest source of foreign fighters joining the IS. The official estimate is that, as of April 2014, a total of 3,000 fighters have joined the IS. Post-Arab Spring Tunisia has found it rather difficult to establish a balance between freedom and public security. Social unrest and new religious freedom have enabled radical preachers to stoke the religious fire among disillusioned youth who are easy targets for jihadist training in Syria. According to Marwen Jedda, a human rights lawyer representing Islamist clients, “for many of these young men, death in Syria is a lot better option than staying here and going to prison, and being tortured and harassed”. Tunisian fighters are attracted by their possible liberation from poverty and the promise of a good life in the Islamic Caliphate as emphasized by the IS in its propaganda.
As for Egypt, its Interior Minister Major General Muhamed Ibrahim argues that the country is not likely to fall to the seductive IS ideology. However, the military has faced difficulties in containing Islamist extremists in the Sinai. For instance, the IS affiliate group, Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis (ABM), allegedly swore allegiance to the IS in early November 2014. It has also led aggressive attacks against Egypt’s military and civil servants, and episodes of beheadings and the broadcasting of videos, though less professional in comparison with IS videos, have appeared. Additionally, a former Muslim Brotherhood member stated in an interview with Al-Monitor that there are many people with faith in the IS and that if the government were to attempt to restrict their travel to Syria, they will form IS units in Egypt itself.
The Sinai Peninsula is strategically important to the IS since it serves as a bridge between two continents. A firm foothold in Egypt is thus desirable as Sinai can serve as a launching pad for terrorist attacks against Western nationals in, for instance, Israel and at popular Egyptian tourist attractions like Sharm el-Sheikh and Mount Sinai. As pointed out by Der Spiegel, “Conditions in the Sinai are perfect for Islamic State: It is bitterly poor, largely lawless, a hub of drug, weapons and human trafficking, and it is populated by Bedouins, who oppose the government in Cairo. But moderate Islamists and regime critics across Egypt make for attractive IS targets: They are brutally oppressed by the Egyptian military and many of them are in prison.”
A concern worth highlighting is the problem of copycats. African rebel groups have been witnessing the “success” of the IS in expanding their hold over territories in Syria and Iraq and are thus trying to copy the IS. Further, the threat of the IS in Libya, Tunisia or Egypt has the potential to grow because there seems to be a generation gap between the older jihadists continuing to support the al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and the younger jihadists determined to break away from AQIM and pledging allegiance to the IS. The ‘jihad-generation’ seems highly determined and attracted to the brutality of fighting, as well as the wealth and way of life that the IS Caliphate has to offer. There is no worry about finance and education, as the Caliphate provides these. After all, the IS has proved rather capable of achieving its stated goals including the ability to gain control over substantial territories and build up a large army of domestic and foreign fighters.
Analysts like Thomas Joselyn, senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, argue that there is little doubt that the IS will gain foothold in this region due to its “close” connections with the al-Qaeda movement. On the other hand, people joining the IS are generally younger and arguably with looser bonds to al-Qaeda affiliate leaders compared to the older generation. And it is this generation, the young social media adept generation that the IS strategically targets. In the eyes of this jihad-generation, already existing extremist groups in North Africa have failed to improve the situation, while the IS characterizes success, wealth, order, and the “perfect life”.
As such, the ground in Libya, Egypt and Tunisia is more fertile for the IS than what the leaders of these countries might wish it to be. The IS threat in North Africa is not a future possibility but a present reality
Tuva Julie Engebrethsen Smith is a Researcher (IReS) at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies (IPCS), New Delhi. She can be contacted at tuva.engebretshen [at] gmail.com
Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India