Mapping the Islamist threat across Africa

By Nicholas Norbrook
Posted on Friday, 11 March 2016 15:58

Tunisia, sick man of jihadism
“Look! We can follow the attacks in real time. It’s like being on the front lines!” says a pro-IS shopkeeper, flicking though his twitter feed, in the documentary Salafistes. Unlike Algeria and Morocco, Tunisia has not controlled travel to conflict zones. When islamist party Ennahda was in power after 2011 it encouraged young people to fight in foreign wars. How did this progressive country of just 11 million people send so many to fight for IS? Some point to the fierce repression of islamists, others to the high education levels that help plug well-connected youth into the global jihadi movement. There is also high unemployment, and despair at seeing how founding father Habib Bourguiba’s vision was betrayed by corrupt elites. The current government appears unable to get a grip on the interior ministry, with incoherent responses to the attacks on Sousse beach and the Bardo museum.

IS picks Libya as fall back
Many groups struggle for power in Libya. Scores of militia, some islamist in inspiration, are battling to control territory. Two rival parliaments compete for power, one having fled tripoli for Tobruk, the other around Benghazi. Strongmen from the army have rallied local support. Of the Islamists, some are long-standing and linked to Ansar al-Sharia. Others are more recent, with iS importing battle-hardened fighters from Syria in 2015, sometimes clashing, sometimes making common cause with local Islamist groups. AQIM has bases in the desert in the south and also around Ajdabiya.

State of desperation in Mali
There are many layers to Mali’s crisis. The state has been hollowed out by a decade of drug money in the army and criminals in high places recycling cash into the Bamako property market. In march 2015, gunmen burst intoLa Terrasse restaurant in Bamako. It was assumed they were from the same groups that seized northern Malian cities in 2013 and temporarily imposed Sharia law. But a high-level security insider at the un tells The Africa Report there are claims that the La Terrasse attack was a settling of scores between a member of the political elite and a business partner. While they scrap, islamist groups like Ansar dine and the Front de Libération du Macina continue to act with impunity in the north and centre of the country.

Somalia pulls Kenya into the quagmire
The IS and Al Qaeda rivalry for African hearts can be seen in the Horn, too. Here, Al Qaeda is still strong. “If you belong to another group, go where you belong,” said an Al-Shabaab leader recently. “If you have a different flag, take it with you. It doesn’t work here, and you will be beheaded, even if you have a big beard.” One small faction has declared its support for IS, mostly Kenyans. They have better access to television and internet and are therefore more exposed to the IS communications machine, which by some accounts makes up 2% of the group’s $2bn annual budget.

Mokhtar belmokhtar leader, Al-Mourabitoun
The one-eyed Algerian fought in Afghanistan and in the Algerian civil war before becoming the link between Al Qaeda and its franchise in the Maghreb, AQIM. In 2012, he split from AQIM after falling out with rival AQIM leader Abou Zeid. His latest group, Al- Mourabitoun, claimed responsibility for recent attacks on hotels in Burkina Faso and Mali. Making his fortune at
the head of a criminal-religious network, with Stratfor estimating that it earns about $3m per hostage taken, Belmokhtar has taken a more violent turn – perhaps reflecting an ongoing struggle for influence with the IS rebels.

Middle Eastern blowback
The Soufan Group report on the foreign fighters in IS makes tough reading for North Africa. This grisly ‘Internationale’ is made up of around 30,000 fighters, including more than 8,000 from the Maghreb, the second-largest supplier of foreign troops after the Middle East. Some 6,000 of those troops are from Tunisia. The Tunis government admits that there are also 700 women who have made the trip to IS-controlled territory. They are often from coastal hubs neglected by the state – from Benghazi and Derna in Libya, from the small Tunisian town of Ben Gardane and the Tangier region in Morocco. A leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi, was said to have quipped: “If Ben Gardane
had been located next to Fallujah, we would have liberated Iraq.”

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