The impact of ISIS’ mentoring of North Africa’s jihadist groups

Photo courtesy of www.thedailysheeple.com
Photo courtesy of www.thedailysheeple.com

By Alex Waterman

By supplanting al-Qaeda as a major influence on North African jihadists, ISIS poses a threat to volatile and fragile North African states. Recognising the reasons for ISIS’ influence with North Africa’s youthful population of would-be jihadists is essential to blocking its expanding influence.

The key jihadist insurgencies in North Africa are choosing to pledge allegiance to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). The Islamic fundamentalist group that had declared an Islamic State, or caliphate, in territories its solders have captured in Iraq and Syria has inspired tactics and propaganda of the African insurgencies it is mentoring, and also provides practical support by training and giving experience to fighters who then carry out in Africa what they learned on the battlefields of the Middle East. ISIS’ goal in North Africa is to assist insurgency groups to establish Islamic states in their respective countries. These states would then become part of a larger Islamic caliphate that, as envisioned by ISIS, would dominate the globe in time. North African Islamic states would be strategic allies to ISIS as it controls its own state from the remnants of Iraq and Syria.

Born out of the former Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) affiliate group, incubated in the Syrian Civil War and having swept into Iraq to exploited dissatisfaction of the alienation of Sunni tribes, the Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi-led ISIS insurgent organisation at the end of October 2014 controlled a belt of territory from Kobane, a Syrian town on the Turkish border, to the outskirts of Baghdad, Iraq. Notorious for its brutality and executions of Western hostages, ISIS has also gained concerned notice in the Western world for its ability to recruit members from Western countries such as Britain, Australia and the US. Considering the instability that has swept across much of North, West and East Africa in recent years and the economic and military power of ISIS in comparison to its rival al Qaeda, ISIS is a formidable security threat to the North African region.

Factional power struggles and infighting between jihadists sworn to IS and more conservative al- Qaeda affiliates fuelled a rivalry exacerbated by al-Qaeda’s disavowal of ISIS militants in Syria in February 2014. The resulting global power struggle between al-Qaeda and ISIS that resulted offers an opportunity for ISIS to deepen ties with insurgents on the African continent if they continue to pursue a policy of wooing these groups in 2015.

This article is extracted from the January 2015 edition of IOA’s Africa Conflict Monitor (ACM). The essential +/-70 page monthly report that dissects conflict developments and trends across the African continent to guide businesses, governments, academics and other stakeholders in Africa’s growth and stability.

Current ACM subscribers include AFGRI, AngloAmerican, BP, CNN International, eNCA, Halliburton, IBM, KPMG, MSF, various international government departments and major universities around the globe, ranging from UCT here in South Africa to MIT in Boston, USA.

Using North Africa as an ‘incubator’ for likeminded jihadists

North Africa has proved to be an ample supplier of ISIS fighters. Huge flows of foreign fighters who are willing and enthusiastic volunteers from Egypt, Tunisia and elsewhere to join ISIS in battle in Syria have had the inevitable effect of engendering closer ties between local jihadist groups and ISIS. Tunisian government sources, for example, have released their findings that 2,560 of their own citizens have fought in Syria. Of these fighters, 80% are believed to have been recruited into ISIS. Given Tunisia’s distance from Syria, that number is surprising, and is higher than the number of Saudi Arabian and Jordanian citizens fighting in Syria. More alarming for the Tunisian government is the fact that, firstly, these official estimates are likely on the conservative side. Estimates from other sources suggest that up to 5,000 Tunisians have joined ISIS. Secondly, steps to cut off emigration to the Middle East by suspected ISIS fighters have resulted in 9,000 Tunisians having been prevented from travelling to Syria, presumably to fight. Not just Tunisia is providing ISIS fighters. Algeria and Morocco have also witnessed large numbers of their own citizens leaving to fight with ISIS.

In a related development, North Africa provides fertile recruiting ground for the Algerian group Soldiers of the Caliphate in Algeria, a former faction of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).  In September 2014 the group broke away from AQIM and declared allegiance to ISIS after AQIM’s leader, Abdel Malek Droukdel, renewed AQIM’s allegiance to al-Qaeda and in so doing rejected ISIS’ vision for an Islamic Caliphate. The Soldiers of the Caliphate in Algeria, led by Gouri Abdelmalek, declared in a statement that it was “following the orders of (ISIS) caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi” when, on 24 September, 10 days after pledging its allegiance to ISIS, its fighters seized and beheaded a French citizen, Herve Goudel. The group justified the killing as retaliation for French participation in the aerial campaign against ISIS. In fact, the act was a duplication of the type of gruesome publicity-seeking beheadings that as a particularly grisly gimmick has given ISIS a windfall of attention it seeks.

However, repeating a pattern of internal struggles and group rivalries played out within and between ISIS and al-Qaeda, and which are so at odds with the ideal of a unified caliphate existing under Islamic Law, pro-ISIS groups in Tunisia and Algeria also engaged in power struggles. During the closing months of 2014, public feuding and even skirmishes occurred between al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, the al-Nusra Front, and ISIS-affiliated jihadists. As 2015 dawned over North Africa, momentum amongst rival jihadist groups seemed to favour the younger, more vibrant ISIS supporters who might eventually supplant the old guard of al-Qaeda comrades in AQIM. However, the feuding is a distraction from what should be the main preoccupation of the jihadists, which is the overthrow of North African governments in preparation of the Islamic caliphate. North African governments and civilians who are targets of terror activities are relieved to be spared the ravages of fully-focused terror groups. Further, the power struggles between the two jihadist groups inspire little confidence in the groups’ leadership abilities and competency to govern.

Gauging the threat posed by Libya and Egypt’s local jihadists

Libya has served as part of a widespread arms trafficking route linking the Sahel, West Africa and the Middle East that supplies jihadists. The activity has flourished since the fall of the Gaddafi regime in 2011 and has also provided a potential weapons resource for jihadists continent-wide. The 2012 Benghazi US Embassy attack underlined the presence of Islamist militias in the country. Subsequent instability in Libya throughout 2013 and 2014 allowed Islamist groups such as Ansar Al Sharia and the Libyan Revolutionary Operations Room (LROR) to establish themselves. While claims linking these Islamist groups to al-Qaeda have remained unproved and perhaps spurious, Ansar al Sharia’s declaration of a caliphate in Benghazi, and the Ansar-backed Shura Council of Islamic Youth’s (SCIY) pledge of allegiance to the ISIS, suggest that the Libyan groups are strongly inspired by and may be developing ties with al-Baghdadi’s ISIS organisation. Furthermore, there is evidence to suggest that Ansar al Sharia has sent fighters to engage in combat alongside ISIS. A Libyan militia known as the al-Battar Brigade fought alongside IS in Syria. Reports circulated in October 2014 that the al-Battar Brigade in fact returned from Syria at that time, having experienced combat, and established itself in Benghazi. The reports suggest that Islamist groups in Libya are directly benefitting from these veterans made battle-hardened by ISIS. Evidence also points to a degree of operational cooperation, although the extent of this coordination is yet to become clear.

The case of jihadist groups in Egypt, particularly Ansar Bayt al Maqdis in the Sinai Peninsula, is perhaps indicative of the broader impact that ISIS is currently having on African jihadism. The ISIS influence upon Sinai jihadists bears marked similarities to the way in which Boko Haram has endorsed and ‘copies’ ISIS in Nigeria, including embracing ISIS tactics. However, while Boko Haram may release ISIS-like videos declaring the establishment of a caliphate in north-eastern Nigeria, as the group did in September 2014, there is no significant contact between the geographically-distant groups. ISIS is a source of inspiration for Boko Haram in the same way that ISIS inspires Egypt’s Sinai jihadists – at a distance. For example, Ansar Bayt al Maqdis, which unleashed a violent response to the ouster of Muslim Brotherhood President Mohamed Morsi in 2013, has increasingly engaged in ‘copycat’ violence modelled after the ISIS example. The ISIS beheading on video gimmick was copied by Ansar Bayt al Maqdis when it decapitated four Egyptians suspected to be Israeli ‘spies’ and posted the video  on YouTube in October 2014. The group also engaged in ongoing violent attacks against government targets as a demonstration of supposed strength. Although Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis formally pledged its allegiance to ISIS, there exists tactical differences between the ways in which the group seeks to obtain its goals. Unlike ISIS, Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis is reluctant to target civilians.

Meanwhile, the Soldiers of the Caliphate in Egypt in September 2014 declared its allegiance to ISIS and expressed its intention to attack US interests. However, no subsequent action has been taken against US interests. Evidence is lacking that operational ties have developed between ISIS and any of the Egyptian insurgent groups. Non-tactical support in the form of the inspiration ISIS offers is plentiful.

This article is extracted from the January 2015 edition of IOA’s Africa Conflict Monitor (ACM). The essential +/-70 page monthly report that dissects conflict developments and trends across the African continent to guide businesses, governments, academics and other stakeholders in Africa’s growth and stability.

Current ACM subscribers include AFGRI, AngloAmerican, BP, CNN International, eNCA, Halliburton, IBM, KPMG, MSF, various international government departments and major universities around the globe, ranging from UCT here in South Africa to MIT in Boston, USA.

Ideation will not be enough to make ISIS affiliates effective in their jihadist goals

If ISIS appears to have primarily influenced African jihadists on an ideational rather than operational level, this is primarily due to the nature of the conflicts in which the North African jihadists are engaged. The groups are essentially fighting in local conflicts, whereas ISIS’ end-game is to establish a regional dominance. However, the significant financial, military and political growth of ISIS and the cases of its developing ties with Algerian, Egyptian, Libyan and Tunisian Islamic militants show closer and practical ties are likely to develop between ISIS and these groups in the near future. If ISIS, itself a former al-Qaeda affiliate, is able to supplant al-Qaeda as the Middle East’s paramount jihadist organisation, then ISIS may develop relations with the emergent ‘Sons of the Caliphate’ groups in a similar fashion to the way in which al-Qaeda provided financial, spiritual and logistical support to such African affiliate groups as AQIM in Algeria and al-Shabaab in Somalia. AQIM statements condemning the US airstrikes against ISIS may suggest that al-Qaeda is in fact already being supplanted by its rival ISIS. Attempts are being made by al-Qaeda to stem an exodus of defections of former affiliated groups across Africa. In 2014, though, the tide turned in ISIS’ favour, with more pledges of allegiance from former al-Qaeda affiliates and more slavishly violent ‘copycat’ acts emerging.

While rivalries between terror groups may seem good news to North Africa’s governments and potential civilian victims of their terror acts, a shift from radical extremists to extreme extremists is a troubling development for the region and international partners with stakes in North Africa. Violently bloody as is al-Qaeda’s terror playbook, the group’s acts are motivated by the rationale of its political beliefs. ISIS seems motivated by publicity-seeking and the acquisition of territory to empower a dictatorial leadership. ISIS’ professed goal of a state of religious purity is sought through a wanton disregard of human life and a lack of empathy toward human suffering that characterises the psychopath. The December 2014 release of an ISIS manifesto that approves of the rape and enslavement of underage girls who are “nonbelievers” is typical. North African states and their allies must devise a rational programme to counter the ISIS cruelty-laced challenge.


(1) Alex Waterman is a Research Associate with IOA’s Conflict and Terrorism unit with a focus in insurgencies, civil wars and counterinsurgency strategy. ACM analyst Sandile Lukhele also contributed to this article.