The Islamic State’s Varying Fortunes in North Africa
The jihadist group that calls itself the Islamic State has increasingly set its sights on expanding into North Africa. The eighth issue of the group’s English-language magazine Dabiq was suggestively titled “Shari’ah Alone Will Rule Africa,” with the cover displaying a photograph of the Great Mosque in the Tunisian city of Kairouan. This signaling left no room for doubt about the Islamic State’s designs on the region.
The Islamic State has devoted considerable resources to its expansion, whether through mergers and acquisitions with existing jihadist groups or by encouraging splinter groups and defections from rival jihadist entities. Several reasons exist for the Islamic State to expand its territorial holdings outside of Syria and Iraq. First, expansion serves its propaganda needs, as it blunts any territorial losses that the group may experience in Syria and Iraq, and allows the Islamic State to maintain the image of momentum and strength that is so integral to its recruitment strategy. Second, expansion improves the group’s resilience. Just as al-Qaeda’s affiliate strategy has complicated U.S. counterterrorism efforts, the Islamic State’s movement into new arenas allows the group to withstand counter-network operations against one of its nodes. Abu Arhim al-Libi, an Islamic State propagandist, acknowledged this in a long analytical piece posted in January 2015 discussing the group’s expansion into Libya. Al-Libi noted that “the strategic location of Libya means that it could relieve the pressure being felt by the State of the Caliphate in Iraq and ash-Sham.” Third, the Islamic State’s expansion into North Africa and other arenas legitimizes the group’s claim to be a caliphate. Its defining and most appealing characteristic (to jihadists) is its control over, and governance of, territory. This is evidenced by the group’s slogan, baqiya wa tatamaddad, or remaining and expanding. Fourth, expansion into new theaters strengthens the Islamic State’s hand against al-Qaeda in the competition for leadership of the transnational jihadist movement. With every new gain, the Islamic State reinforces the perception that it is ascendant while al-Qaeda stagnates and declines.
North Africa is among the most promising theaters for the Islamic State’s expansion, with an appealing location at the crossroads between Europe, the Sahel, and the Middle East. The group could potentially use the region as a springboard for further expansion into Africa and a staging ground for attacks in Europe. Several specific conditions in North Africa are favorable to the Islamic State. First, North Africa is home to a number of regional jihadist organizations that the group can try to recruit into its orbit. Much of the Islamic State’s growth outside the Syria-Iraq theater has come as a result of the self-declared caliphate’s ability to convince other jihadist groups, including Nigeria’s Boko Haram and Egypt’s Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, to enter its network.
Second, the civil conflict in Libya and deterioration of state institutions has provided the Islamic State an opportunity to establish a foothold. Civil conflict often benefits violent and extreme actors, and the Libyan civil war has been particularly conducive to the Islamic State’s growth because the country’s two competing governments have focused their military resources on one another, and have largely turned a blind eye to the Islamic State unless provoked. Because of this permissive environment, the Islamic State has begun to conceive of Libya as an alternative destination to Syria and Iraq for its foreign fighters: A recent article in Dabiq remarks that “Libya has become an ideal land of hijrah for those who find difficulty making their ways to Sham, particularly those of our brothers and sisters in Africa.”
Third, the Islamic State can capitalize on the post-Arab Spring flow of weapons and growth of ungoverned and weakly-governed spaces. For example, during the rebellion against Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi in 2011, large amounts of high-caliber weaponry were removed from Qaddafi’s arsenals, resulting in a proliferation of weapons throughout the region. Many of these looted arms made their way into the hands of militant groups. Moreover, post-revolutionary governments in Libya and Tunisia have struggled to project power over the entirety of their territories. Both of these trends benefit the Islamic State.
The Islamic State’s growth has been particularly worrisome in Libya, with its toxic blend of civil conflict and weak governance. The group was never as militarily strong there as some observers believed — a fact underscored by the deep setbacks it has recently experienced in Derna — but the group has made real advances, and Libya is the Islamic State’s most significant foothold outside of Iraq and Syria. The Islamic State also may experience a surge of support in Tunisia, as the vast majority of the approximately 3,000 Tunisian foreign fighters who traveled to the Syria-Iraq theater fought with the group. Though the top-tier leaders of major Tunisian jihadist organizations are loyal to al-Qaeda, the fact that so much sympathy for the Islamic State exists at the foot soldier level makes the group’s growth in the country likely. But while the Islamic State is in a strong position in Tunisia and Libya, it is not faring well in Algeria, where recent counterterrorism operations dealt the group a significant blow. Absent major defections from other jihadist organizations, it will take the Islamic State some time to reestablish a foothold in that country. Let’s look more closely at this proto-Caliphate’s expansion into Libya, Tunisia, and Algeria.
Background on the Islamic State’s Expansion into Libya
The Islamic State’s growth in Libya is an indirect outcome of the toppling of Qaddafi and the ensuing collapse of what remained of the Libyan state, as well as the participation of many Libyan volunteers in the Syrian civil war. In the early years of that war, hundreds of Libyan citizens joined Sunni militant groups fighting Bashar al-Assad’s regime. The Islamic State, then limited to Syria and Iraq, recruited directly from Libya. For example, Turki al-Binali, now one of the Islamic State’s most prominent religious scholars, traveled to the city of Sirte as early as June 2013 to recruit Libyans.
In 2012, a group of Libyan foreign fighters in Syria established the al-Battar Brigade, and in the spring of 2014, hundreds of al-Battar fighters began to return to Derna. Upon their return, these fighters established the Islamic Youth Shura Council (IYSC), which immediately began recruiting other Libyans to join the Islamic State, targeting secular activists and other opponents for assassination, and imposing sharia in areas it controlled. IYSC’s entrance into Derna was not well-received by Derna’s already established militant groups, including the Abu Salim Martyrs Brigade.
IYSC solidified its ties with the Islamic State in September 2014, when two emissaries from the group in Syria, Abu al-Bara al-Azdi and Abu Habib al-Jazrawi, traveled to Derna to secure IYSC’s pledges of allegiance to the self-proclaimed caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. In early October, a group of IYSC militants publicly pledged allegiance to Baghdadi, and announced that the territory held by the group would be known as Wilayat Barqa (the province of Barqa). A larger ceremony to announce the Islamic State’s expansion into Derna was held in November. At around the same time, Libyan militants announced that the Islamic State had divided Libya into three provinces: Fezzan (southern Libya), Tripolitania (the ancient province encompassing Tripoli and western Libya), and Barqa.
The relationship between the Islamic State in Libya and the organization’s senior leadership in Syria and Iraq was formalized in November 2014, when Baghdadi released an audio statement accepting the pledges of allegiance from Libya. For several months, the Barqa Province was the only noticeably active caliphate cadre in Libya, a situation that changed in January 2015 when fighters from the Islamic State’s Tripolitania Province carried out a high-profile attack against the Corinthia luxury hotel in Tripoli. The Tripolitania Province continued to make headlines in February 2015 with the gruesome beheading of 21 Egyptian Christians seized from the town of Sirte. The group also captured several buildings in Sirte in February, the first time it had taken territory outside of Derna. Sirte remains contested, with the Islamic State facing off against forces from the Libyan Dawn faction for control of the city. However, the organization has recently experienced a complete reversal in Derna, as we discuss below.
The Islamic State’s Structure and Strength in Libya
The Islamic State has developed a hierarchical leadership structure in Libya that resembles the group’s organizational structure in Syria and Iraq. The organization’s top officials in the country are non-Libyans. Most of them were dispatched to Libya by the Islamic State’s central command, thus giving the group’s leadership in Syria and Iraq the opportunity to maintain some degree of command and control over its Libyan affiliate.
The aforementioned Turki al-Binali, a Bahraini national, is believed to be the leader of the group’s North African “provinces.” Al-Binali has spent significant time recruiting in Libya in recent years. Below him on the organizational chart is Abu Nabil al-Anbari, who likely serves as the Islamic State’s top commander in Libya. Al-Anbari is, as his name suggests, an Iraqi who previously fought with al-Qaeda in Iraq, and served time in Abu Ghraib prison in the early years of Iraq’s Sunni insurgency. Some news reports claim that al-Anbari was imprisoned with Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, suggesting that he has deep and longstanding ties to the Islamic State’s leadership. Before serving as a commander in Libya, al-Anbari was the Islamic State’s emir in the strategic Salahuddin province in Iraq.
Below al-Anbari, the Islamic State has appointed commanders for its three administrative provinces in Libya. Abu Talha al-Tunisi is believed to be the emir of Tripolitania province, while Abu al-Bara al-Azdi serves as the emir of Derna. The aforementioned Abu Habib al-Jazrawi also has a high-ranking position in Derna. The identity of the emir of the Islamic State’s Fezzan province is unknown.
There are differing views on the Islamic State’s manpower in Libya. Patrick Skinner, a former CIA case officer, estimated in February 2015 that the Islamic State has from 1,000 to 3,000 fighters in Libya. Some U.S. intelligence officials estimate that up to 5,000 militants in Libya self-identify as Islamic State members. The Islamic State’s fighting force in Libya includes local recruits, foreign fighters, and former members of other militant groups. The Islamic State has recruited from local populations in Sirte, Benghazi and Derna, particularly targeting for recruitment members of other Libyan militant groups, including Ansar al-Sharia in Libya (ASL). A number of former ASL members in Sirte joined the Islamic State’s ranks in the city, though some Sirte-based ASL members opposed affiliating with the Islamic State, resulting in a dispute that divided the group. The Islamic State netted a major defection from ASL in April 2015, when Abu Abdullah al-Libi, one of ASL’s top religious scholars, renounced his ties with ASL and pledged his allegiance to the Islamic State. He brought with him a cadre of ASL fighters, according to jihadist social media sources.
The Islamic State’s capabilities and tactics in Tripolitania Province
The Islamic State’s area of greatest strength in Libya is Sirte, where the group is in a strong military position. Sirte is one place where the Islamic State has taken advantage of the Libyan civil war to strengthen its hand: Dawn did not make defeating the Islamic State in Sirte a top priority, as it viewed the rival Dignity coalition as a larger threat, though this may now be changing.
Though the Islamic State does not control Sirte, in recent weeks the group has made serious inroads in the city and the surrounding areas. In late May, Islamic State forces seized control of the Gardabya air base 12 miles south of Sirte. Islamic State fighters are also believed to have regained control of Nawfaliya, a town east of Sirte. In early June, Islamic State fighters continued their march, overtaking the town of Harwa.
In addition to its military operations in and around Sirte, the Tripolitania Province has conducted terrorist attacks and raids across western Libya. The group’s operational reach extends to Misrata and Tripoli, the two largest cities controlled by the Libya Dawn faction.
The Islamic State’s capabilities and tactics in Barqa Province
The group’s prospects for growth in so-called Barqa Province are less promising than in Sirte and western Libya — although the possibility that the Islamic State might surge fighters from Sirte into Barqa Province should not be discounted. Fighting between the Islamic State and another militant group in Derna, the Derna Mujahedin Shura Council (DMSC) — a coalition comprised of several militant factions, including groups with ties to al-Qaeda such as ASL and the Abu Salim Martyrs Brigade — has eroded the Islamic State’s foothold in the city.
After the Islamic State carried out shows of force in Derna in October and November 2014, news outlets erroneously claimed that the group had established full control over the city. In reality, control of Derna was divided among several militant groups. Recent developments have underscored that the Islamic State’s presence amounted to less than the “complete control” that one major outlet reported. The group’s troubles in Derna began in April, when it attempted to stamp out dissent among the influential al-Harir family, resulting in clashes between locals and Islamic State militants. The DMSC issued a “final warning” to the Islamic State.
In early June, Islamic State militants killed Nasir Atiyah al-Akar, a senior DMSC leader with longstanding ties to al-Qaeda. Clashes broke out between the Islamic State and DMSC immediately after al-Akar’s death. On June 9, Islamic State militants killed Salim Darbi, the commander of the Abu Salim Martyrs Brigade and the head of the DMSC. In response, the DMSC launched an offensive to oust the Islamic State from the city. The DMSC defeated the group in most of Derna, and the Islamic State is now confined to limited areas in and around the city. The fact that the organization was so easily forced out of Derna suggests that it did not control Derna to begin with.
The Islamic State’s capabilities in Fezzan Province
Little is known about the Fezzan Province group, which has been largely inactive since it was established. The group has claimed responsibility for a small number of attacks, including a January 2015 raid on a Libyan military unit near the southern town of Sebha and the beheading of a group of Ethiopian Christians in April 2015. There is no publicly available information on the size or principal location of the Fezzan Province group.
The Islamic State’s Bid for Prominence in Tunisia
Tunisia has emerged as an important theater in the ongoing competition between the Islamic State and al-Qaeda. Both Ansar al-Sharia in Tunisia (AST) and Katibat Uqba ibn Nafi (KUIN), Tunisia’s most prominent jihadist groups, are affiliated with al-Qaeda, though AST has not made its ties with al-Qaeda public for strategic reasons. However, the Islamic State intends to insert itself into the country and disrupt al-Qaeda’s hegemony over the Tunisian jihadist community.
In March 2015, “Jund al-Khilafa in Tunisia” emerged to claim responsibility (falsely) for the terrorist attack on the Bardo Museum in Tunis. In May 2015, a group calling itself Tunisian Mujahedin pledged allegiance to the Islamic State. Though little is known about the composition of these groups, the Islamic State further telegraphed its intentions regarding Tunisia when it released the aforementioned eighth issue of Dabiq, showcasing the Great Mosque in Kairouan on its cover.
Despite reports to the contrary, the leadership of AST and KUIN remain aligned with al-Qaeda. KUIN quelled rumors about its possible defection to the Islamic State by reaffirming its pledge of allegiance to al-Qaeda following the death of its commander Khaled Chaib (a.k.a. Luqman Abu Sakhr) in March 2015. Thus, the Islamic State’s best chance of making significant inroads in Tunisia is at the foot soldier level more than the leadership level.
The Islamic State’s biggest advantage over al-Qaeda in Tunisia is the former’s dominance of the Tunisian foreign fighter community. Tunisia’s approximately 3,000 foreign fighters who went to Syria and Iraq had a sour experience with al-Qaeda’s affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, which is believed to have discriminated against them. Thus, the overwhelming majority of Tunisian foreign fighters in that theater joined the Islamic State.
The bifurcation between leaders and foot soldiers in the Tunisian jihadist community has created a tense dynamic. While al-Qaeda seeks to preserve its stronghold in Tunisia and regain the loyalty of the rank-and-file, the Islamic State seeks to break into the Tunisian jihadist market by capitalizing on its influence among foreign fighters and low-level operatives. In an effort to win adherents, the Islamic State has sometimes exaggerated its exploits in Tunisia, including claiming to have carried out the Bardo Museum attack in March 2015. The Tunisian government later concluded that KUIN was responsible.
The Islamic State’s Setbacks in Algeria
The Islamic State has significantly declined in Algeria in recent weeks due to a highly successful policing operation. The group emerged in Algeria in mid-2014, when the “center zone” of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, which was based in the Kabylie coastal mountain region, announced that it was defecting and joining the Islamic State. The commander of the unit, Gouri Abdelmalek, declared that al-Qaeda had deviated “from the true path,” and announced that his group would now be known as Jund al-Khilafa (Soldiers of the Caliphate). Days after Jund al-Khilafa was formed, the group posted a video of its beheading of Hervé Gourdel, a French hiker whom it had kidnapped.
The Islamic State’s Algeria branch was never well-positioned to endure a great deal of attrition because, even at its peak, Jund al-Khjlafa only had about twenty to thirty fighters. In December 2014, the Algerian army killed Gouri Abdelmalek and two other militants in a raid in the Boumerdès region east of Algiers. But an even deadlier blow to the Islamic State occurred in May 2015, when Algerian security forces launched a large-scale military operation against a high-level meeting of Jund al-Khilafa militants in the Bouira region. The Algerian operation not only killed about two dozen fighters at minimum — well over half of its ranks — but also new emir Abdullah Othman al-Asimi and five of Jund al-Khilafa’s six military commanders. Algerian security forces were able to kill three more Jund al-Khilafa fighters the following day.
The May 2015 operation imposed significant attrition on the Islamic State’s Algerian branch at the leadership and foot soldier level. Indeed, the Islamic State in Algeria is essentially irrelevant from a strategic perspective unless it can rebuild its in-country capabilities. While there is a significant likelihood that the group will try to mount a resurgence in Algeria, the country’s security forces will be proactive in trying to prevent its reemergence.
The Islamic State’s expansion into North Africa threatens to exacerbate insecurity in a region already experiencing significant tumult. However, the group’s North Africa operations are currently facing significant challenges following its military losses in Derna and Algeria’s successful counterterrorism operations against the organization.
Indeed, the Islamic State’s recent experiences in Algeria and Derna underscore the challenges that the organization will face as it seeks to expand into new theaters in North Africa and beyond. While the Islamic State is able to mobilize a small subset of the jihadist community, the group lacks power in many new theaters relative to other players — and yet is exceedingly aggressive. As such, these nascent “provinces” are vulnerable to attack both from state security forces and rival jihadist groups like al-Qaeda. In order to overcome these initial barriers to entry, the Islamic State will either have to collaborate more closely with local jihadist forces — something that the group has been reluctant to do to date — or muster a force capable of overpowering its opponents. A third alternative for the Islamic State is to slowly and cautiously develop its clandestine network in new theaters, refraining from boldly claiming its presence as it has been wont to do in Syria, Iraq and other areas. The adversity that the Islamic State has encountered in Derna and Algeria stands in stark contrast to the unprecedented success that the group experienced when it stormed through Iraq in the summer of 2014. The Islamic State’s future in the region and beyond may hinge on how it responds to these increasingly evident challenges.
Daveed Gartenstein-Ross is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), the chief executive officer of Valens Global, and an adjunct assistant professor in Georgetown University’s security studies program. He is the author or volume editor of eighteen books and monographs. Nathaniel Barr is an analyst at Valens Global. A graduate of Brandeis University, he has co-authored four monographs. The authors would like to thank Paxton Roberts, a research intern with FDD, for designing the graphic that accompanies this article.