"Nascent" IS offers global brand recognition in Libya
At the beginning of December, General David Rodriguez, the military commander of AFRICOM, the Pentagon’s regional command for Africa, announced that Islamic State (IS, formerly known as ISIS) training camps had been set up in Eastern Libya. He argued that this was only a "nascent threat" at present, involving no more than "a couple of hundred" men.
AFRICOM, he went on to say, would monitor developments but did not anticipate any attack against the camps, which are apparently primarily concerned with “training and logistical support” at present. He concluded that those involved in these camps probably had not come from Syria
|The IS group offers an ideal alternative to a weakened and isolated al-Qaeda.|
or Iraq but were local extremists who were “trying to make a name or to make a connection” for themselves.
The general’s remarks were mystifying. They began with an assertion that Islamic State group militants had arrived in North Africa but concluded by dismissing the threat as no more than locals trying to attract attention.
They also highlighted a much wider confusion that goes back to the early days after the attacks on Washington and New York on September 11, 2001. That sparked a furious argument about whether al-Qaeda was a massive global organisation or a network of networks sharing common objectives.
Reality or imagination?
The ‘War on Terror’ certainly fragmented any global organisation that may have existed but the persistence of a universal extremist, anti-Western vision made it clear that the al-Qaeda salafi-jihadi ideal had become a kind of global brand.
Local, decentralised versions of the parent organisation multiplied – in Yemen, in the Maghreb and, most striking of all, in Iraq. There, of course, it was fed by the American-led invasion and the resentments of the Sunni community. At the same time, the targets of these localised groups grew in number, from primarily the West to local autocratic regimes, seen as the catspaws of Western powers.
The situation in the Maghreb, particularly in the Sahel – the southern edge of the Sahara desert – offers a paradigm of these developments and explains the ambiguities in General Rodriguez’s recent comments.
The story begins in the civil war in Algeria during the 1990s where activists in the Groupes Islamiques Armés (GIA) reacted against the indiscriminate violence it increasingly practiced and broke away as the Groupe Salafiste de Predication et du Combat (GSPC). In 2003, this group, under pressure from the Algerian army, expanded from Kabylia into the Sahelian regions of Northern Mali.
In September 2006, it sought, and received, recognition from al-Qaeda, thus establishing itself as al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghrib (AQIM), part of the global brand, rather than being simply an extremist group opposed to the government in Algeria. Still, Algeria remained its primary target.
The Arab Spring
Since then, its membership has broadened to include Mauritanians and Tuaregs and has been integrated into the vast smuggling networks across the Saharan region, the conduits from Africa and Latin America into Europe. Its non-Algerian members, resenting the parent organisation’s preoccupation with Algeria have formed two new organisations which remain on good terms with their parent. Others, dissidents like Mokhtar Belmokhtar, however, are prepared to challenge AQIM, as happened in January 2013 when the gas processing plant at In Amenas was attacked with the loss of thirty-nine hostages.
And, of course, the civil war in Libya in 2011, particularly the chaos that has followed it, has fed extremism in the region. This is true not least among the disgruntled Tuareg recruited by the Qadhafi regime who returned home in 2012 to create Azawad – their own state in Mali – upon which AQIM was to leapfrog to control towns along the Niger bend and even to threaten the government in Bamako.
This extremism expanded as arms from the defeated Libyan regime were trafficked as far afield as Syria. In Libya itself and in Tunisia, a renewed version of the global vision emerged in Ansar al-Sharia, more concerned with opposition to the state than with pre-emptive confrontation with the West. In the eastern town of Derna, more extreme versions also appeared, contesting control with an ever-weaker central government, challenged by militias vying with each other for power in Tripoli and Benghazi.
IS and North Africa
Al-Qaeda itself, isolated and weakened in Pakistan’s tribal North-West Frontier provinces, no longer served as a beacon to an ever-proliferating jihadi world. The IS group, however, revived in Iraq and revitalised by the civil war in Syria, offered an ideal alternative. It openly challenged al-Qaeda’s claim to global leadership, rejecting instructions to confine itself to Iraq, arguing that those directly engaged in jihad were the legitimate leadership for the global brand and that the Islamic Caliphate was the concrete proof of such legitimacy.
This has been seized upon in North Africa as groups in Derna and in Kabylia rally to its banner whilst, in the Sahara, a major tussle is underway for the loyalties of AQIM and its associated groups. In Derna, their writ has been enforced with public executions and in Algeria a Frenchman was beheaded last summer in a vain attempt to dissuade France from pursuing its campaign against AQIM and in support of the Malian government in Bamako.
Against that background, General Rodriguez’s comments become much clearer; it is the legitimacy bestowed upon decentralised groups by association with a global brand that is in question, not the construction of a new global organisation. And it is still an issue only involving the local arena of North Africa itself.
The question now would seem to be, for how long?