The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) (aka the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant [ISIL]) is expanding beyond the Levant. Establishing Wilyat Sinai (the Province of Sinai) was just the start, and now the group is determined to expand into all of North Africa. What happened in Sirte yesterday is just one episode in a series geared toward launching an “ISIS Spring” on the African continent.
Wilayat Sinai was launched on November 2, 2014; today, it is Wilayat Sirte’s turn and tomorrow it will be Wilayat Algeria and Wilayat Rabat. Rather than a mere possibility, this is a reality that seems to be etching itself into the sprawling map of North Africa, where thousands of miles of borders cover a vast expanse of unruly desert terrain.
This area has been a breeding ground for takfiri thought, fostered by influential states like Saudi Arabia with money, preachers, literature and so on. In the 1980s, it was a major source of manpower for the jihadists in Afghanistan, known as the Arab Afghans. In the 1990s, it served as a stage for those who fought their national armies in an attempt to Islamize the countries of the region.
In the last decade, takfiri militants moved to Iraq to fight the US occupation of Muslim land, before moving to Syria to participate in the war to topple Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The name they go by and the banner under which they fight do not matter. In the past, al-Qaeda was the top takfiri group in the world. It became a model with its own framework, operational mechanisms and jihadist approach, until its strongholds in Afghanistan fell and it became a brand name used by every takfiri group that decided to take up arms and engage in terrorism anywhere in the world. Today, the model has changed and the new brand is ISIS, a group born in Iraq as the country became a magnet for takfiris from all over the world, including African jihadists.
One cannot talk about jihadist salafism and its history without focusing on Egypt. The phenomenon is not new to Egypt, and the activities in the Sinai do not constitute a unique case, isolated from the rest of the country. Cairo took up an approach of exporting the damage since the assassination of late Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, who provided support for the so-called mujahideen before getting killed by one of them. Egypt, however, became a target of jihadist activities in the last two decades before the crisis of the “Arab Spring,” with operations that targeted mostly tourist sites before escalating to a gradual state of engagement with the Egyptian army in conjunction with scattered rocket attacks on Israel. Eventually, these groups left Israel alone and focused on Egyptian forces as the primary enemy. Other major Egyptian takfiri groups include Ajnad Misr (Soldiers of Egypt) and Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis (Supporters of Jerusalem).
The significance of the Libyan case is that extremist groups went from operating in the shadows to operating openly, after seizing control of vast areas including cities and strategic roads that link the Mediterranean to the Sahara Desert. This was made possible mainly by the state of lawlessness in Libya after the fall of Muammar Qaddafi’s regime, and the absence of forces capable of asserting authority over Libyan territories.
Just as the presence of takfiri groups in North African countries is not new, Algerian, Tunisian and Libyan groups have been pledging allegiance to ISIS for some time now. On September 12, a group of extremist militants calling themselves Soldiers of the Caliphate in Algeria, led by Khaled Abu Suleiman, announced joining ISIS and pledged allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi after splitting from al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), which is led by the Algerian national Abdelmalek Droukdel. There is another group called Soldiers of the Caliphate in Algeria, previously called al-Furqan Brigades, which operated under the banner of AQIM. In Tunisia, the Uqba bin Nafe Battalion led by the Algerian national Luqman Abu Sakhr, known for its close ties to the Tunisian group Ansar al-Sharia, led by Abu Ayyad, and its Libyan branch, led by Mohammed al-Zahawi, pledged allegiance to ISIS.
This means that the battalion pledging allegiance to ISIS has links to extremist groups active in Libya. However, Libya is unique as it remains the largest haven for terrorist groups affiliated with ISIS, after being the main reservoir and source for all kinds of groups fighting in Syria. There are also groups operating publicly in Chad to the south, in addition to Niger and Mali all the way to Mauritania. These countries have the Sahara Desert in common, but there are other countries as well, so it is more accurate to say it is where the Sahara Desert and the Sahel intersect.
In light of the absence of accurate information, we can only construct a time frame that enables us to draw a rough picture indicating that the actual emergence of these groups coincided with the changes in the Arab world, as well as the French Operation Serval in northern Mali.
North Africa is once again at the heart of the international conflicts that comprise the war on terror. These wars are fueled by other factors such as disputes over borders and the natural resources they contain, further complicating the scene, and turning North Africa into an important area witnessing conflicts at the international level. In addition, Western countries have used the weak central authorities in beforementioned countries to justify establishing military bases, thus procuring the military tools they need for the future.
The crisis does not end there. To the south, Boko Haram has taken this phenomenon to a whole new level, amid international silence and Arab nonchalance. A new Agence France Presse report about Boko Haram says that the number of its members, its structure and its sources of funding are unknown according to military experts. Further, it became clear last week that this group is capable of launching several attacks in different areas using different methods at the same time, such as suicide attacks in Nigeria, attacks by boat in Chad, as well as ground attacks in Niger, Cameroon and Nigeria.