Over the past several months, the Islamic State (IS) cast its gaze outwards from Iraq and the Levant, opting to expand its caliphate to North Africa. Whether such inroads appeared through materiel and ideological support or through various splinter groups pledging bayat to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the black flag made its way to the Maghreb. However, while local sources’ response to these developments remains for the most part muted, the international response to a purported IS expansion campaign is irresponsibly hyperbolic. United States officials should move quickly to correct the anti-IS narrative to reflect basic truths: an IS decision to legitimize the North African groups would be an uncharacteristic strategic miscalculation, and North African governments stand far better prepared to combat Islamic extremism than do Iraq and Syria. Such a narrative adjustment will prevent ill-informed political calls for action in North Africa from translating into mission creep, protecting the priority mission in Iraq and Syria from harmful dilution.
The Islamic State’s current posture towards North Africa remains largely one-way: it views the Maghreb as a fertile ground for recruiting, and operates recruiting pipelines in Libya and Morocco to funnel disillusioned youth through Turkey into Syria and Iraq. Both nations present perfect opportunities for a group wishing to bolster its numbers via a pan-Islamic recruiting strategy. In Libya, Islamist groups boasting experienced militants threaten to oust the secular House of Representatives, while Moroccans remain one of the most represented foreign nationalities fighting in the ongoing Syrian Civil War.
Recent splinter group pledges of allegiance to IS came unsolicited and thus cannot be considered representative of any expansion effort. In addition, these groups lack the local support characteristic of a strong affiliate network and would likely harm IS should they be brought into the fold. Since IS possesses a reputation amongst its subjects for enforcing a brutal yet fair brand of order, incorporating North African groups with reputations for caprice and banditry would contradict the caliphate’s carefully curated public image. In Libya, the Islamic Youth Shura Council of Derna, a local force with the aim of bringing sharia law to the eastern coastal city, declared its annexation of the city for the caliphate, but IS has yet to comment. Such reticence may stem from the Council’s negative reputation amongst the populace, as their propensity for vigilantism and mass executions in soccer stadiums stand opposed to the Islamic State’s textbook insurgent strategy of building strong local relationships and directing aggression outwards .
Such a lack of local support will likely preclude Islamic State acceptance of Soldiers of the Caliphate in the Lands of Algeria as well. Perhaps the most notable North African splinter group to pledge allegiance to IS, Soldiers of the Caliphate is composed of veteran jihadists disillusioned with serving as Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb’s Central Region. They announced their split from AQIM in early September. Nominally, the group’s expertise and the propaganda victory of absorbing a former Al Qaeda cell should make it a prime candidate for IS affiliation. Yet Soldiers of the Caliphate’s brutal beheading of French tourist Herve Gourdel prior to establishing civilian support has made the group a prime enemy of the Algerian public.
IS continues to provide logistical and weapons support to North African groups, most notably in sending weapons to and encouraging Egypt’s Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis to carry out a campaign of terror in the Sinai. Still, the group has not obtained the level of traction to which Western sources attribute it. For example, the United Nations Special Mission in Libya envoy Bernardino Leon provided a stern warning that, barring reconciliation, the country would be an “open field” for IS militants. One must ask whether IS would take advantage of such an opportunity to make Libya part of its caliphate. At the moment, with its spurning of Derna’s Shura Council, it appears content to limit its non-recruitment operations within Libya to weapons smuggling across the border into Egypt in support of Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis.
Further alarmism appears in a recent Washington Times article, in which unnamed senior U.S. counterterrorism officials are cited as claiming a reconciliation between IS and AQIM is in the works. However, such a claim is rendered false both by recent anti-IS communiqués and reports of high-level jihadist meetings cementing AQIM’s support for the Nusra Front, a bitter IS rival. A delegation of AQIM and Ansar al Sharia leaders held a late 2013 meeting in Benghazi with Nusra Front representatives to discuss, among other things, directing foreign fighters from the Maghreb solely to the Nusra Front in a bid to curtail the Islamic State’s co-option of the Syrian conflict.
In addition, the sense of existential threat in the officials’ claims ignores the ability of North African nations to fight extremism. In recent weeks, Algeria made great gains hunting Soldiers of the Caliphate, Egypt killed a leader of Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis and signed a counter-terrorism training agreement with Libya, and Tunisia secured militant-harboring regions ahead of its upcoming elections. The trend looks set to continue, with Morocco arresting citizens intending to join IS and dismantling recruitment networks indicating a significant effort to stem the flow of jihadists out the country.
Such discounting of its allies’ robust ability to fight the spread of extremism threatens to derail the United States’ current offensive against IS in Iraq and Syria, a dangerous proposition given that campaign’s lack of discernible strategy beyond continued airstrikes. Allowing concerns about North Africa to expand the mission outside of its current theatre should be avoided at all costs. It would stretch U.S. air assets thin, hobble the international community’s larger fight against IS, and refocus attention away from the Syrian, Iraqi, and Kurdish populations that the campaign aims to protect.
Collin Hunt is a first-year student in the Elliott School of International Affairs’ Security Policy Studies program with concentrations in trans-national security and strategic communications: his current research focuses on jihadist groups and weapons smuggling in North Africa. Collin completed his undergraduate degree at Texas A&M University, studying politics and diplomacy of the Middle East and can be reached via Twitter at @hunt_collin and email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Armed Islamist fighters race near the Mauritania-Mali border on May 21st, by Jemal Ould Mohamed Oumar, is licensed under CC BY 2.0.