Islamic State Eyes North Africa: Hot Issue on Global Agenda
Peter KORZUN | 10.04.2017 | WORLD

Islamic State Eyes North Africa: Hot Issue on Global Agenda

The Islamic State (IS) fighters are trying to flee Mosul. No doubt, the US-supported Iraqi forces will establish control over the city pretty soon. At first, IS militants will leave Iraq for the province of Deir-ez-Zor, Syria, to intensify fighting there. But with Syria no longer a safe haven, they’ll have to move elsewhere looking for weak points, like the countries of Maghreb.

Roughly, 8-11 thousand jihadi fighters come from Maghreb countries. The numbers vary according to different estimates. Some of the militants will lose lives on the battlefield, some will lay down their arms, but a large part will continue the efforts to reach the coveted goal of establishing a caliphate. With the battle experience received in Syria and Iraq, these seasoned fighters will pose a great threat to the stability of their respective homelands.

It has already started. Algeria faces a security challenge. The war against jihadism has turned Algeria into one of Africa’s top military powerhouses. In the past 20 years, Algeria has spent more on its military than all three of its immediate neighbors — Mo­rocco, Libya and Tunisia — com­bined.

Algeria is a country with a 1,200 km coastline. If waves of asylum seekers hit Europe from there, the Old Continent will be in real trouble. Besides, the country is a key supplier of oil and gas to the West. The implications of internal conflict in Algeria could be a real nightmare. Russia helps to prevent it and, thus, save Western Europe.

At least 6 thousand of IS fighters are Tunisians. Some of them hold prominent positions in the IS and the Nusra Front (Jabhat Fatah al-Sham) in Syria. Many Tunisian extremists are affiliated with Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, which is active in a half-dozen countries across North Africa. Tunisia is at odds over what to do if and when they come home. These fighters would have the capabilities and cultural familiarity to potentially create a formidable and sustained destabilizing force in Tunisia. Meanwhile, Tunisian security forces break up one IS recruiting cell after another.

Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco face threats from the East as well as from the South, where they have to counter the emerging «Sahara-Sahel Front». Islamists from Mali, Niger and Mauritania are regrouping to expand the zone of influence. For instance, Al-Qaeda militants have recently attacked a Malian army post near the border of Burkina Faso.

In North and West Africa, Al Qaeda is on the rise again. Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) has withstood the chokehold of the Algerian security services, US drones, and the French-led intervention in Mali, to launch a range of attacks in recent years, whether storming a beach resort in Ivory Coast or conducting a low-level insurgency in northern Mali.

A number of terrorist groups operating in Mali and neighboring areas – Ansar Dine, al-Mourabitoun, the Massina Brigades, the Sahara Emirate – united this February into one organization called Nusrat-ul-Islam. The newly formed group pledged allegiance to Taliban leader Mullah Haibatullah, al-Qaida leader Ayman Al-Zawahiri and the leader of al-Qaida's North African franchise Abu Musab Abdul Wadud.

Al-Qaeda and its affiliates are challenged by the IS. In November 2016, the Islamic State in Greater Sahara was formed, led by Adnan Abu Walid al-Sahrawi.

The IS militants may regroup in the war-torn Libya. This country is probably the weakest link among Maghreb states. Defense officials have said the hardline Sunni Muslim militants are considering moving their headquarters to that country. A US military intervention is an option. According to Gen. Thomas D. Waldhauser, head of the Pentagon’s Africa Command, «The instability in Libya and North Africa may be the most significant near-term threat to U.S. and allies’ interests on the continent». Russia has been asked to intervene by Libyan political and military leaders.

The armed forces of Maghreb countries are getting prepared. The Moroccan military has just held exercises Flintlock-2017 with the US. Weapons systems, like, for instance, Russian Mi-28N Night Hunter attack helicopters, are procured to make the counterterrorist operations more effective. On March 15th, 2016, King Mohamed VI visited Moscow to sign several important agreements, including the agreement on mutual protection of classified information on military and military-technical matters and the declaration on the fight against international terrorism. Morocco is interested in strengthening its military capabilities with Russian weapons.

Last year, Russia provided Algerian and Tunisian authorities with intelligence and military aid to strengthen counterterrorism efforts. The package included Russian high-resolution satellite imagery of key Algerian border crossings with Tunisia, Libya, Chad and Mali. The imagery has enabled Algerian authorities to thwart several attempts by terrorists and insurgents to infiltrate Algerian borders. Algeria has shared this data with Tunisia.

Russia has close military cooperation with the states of the region. A country with a significant Muslim minority, about 10% of its popula­tion, it has been battling jihadists in the Caucasus for a number of years. It understands the problem and has vast experience to share. Unlike the US and other Western powers, Russia does not accompany its aid with lectures about human rights or political demands pushing for «democra­tic reforms». As Rus­sian armaments have proven themselves on the battlefield, it seems likely that Maghreb governments under terrorist threat will increasingly turn towards Moscow.

Today, Islamists of all kinds, especially the IS, are emerging as a very serious threat for the United States, its NATO allies and Russia. Despite the existing differences on Ukraine and a host of other issues where Russia and the West are on opposite side of the barricades, cooperation on fighting the threat is possible and necessary. After all, the enemy is common and its deadly activities go far beyond the scope of a regional threat.

Russia and the West could coordinate activities in Libya. Sharing intelligence and cooperating in joint special operations against key targets could be a start of a broader process. Russia and the US-led West could launch preliminary talks on the wording of a hypothetical UN Security Council resolution to make it approved if an international effort will be required to keep the region from abyss.

North Africa should not become a divisive issue to complicate the relations between Russia and the West. The situation calls for cooperation and dialogue. The IS will soon become a thing of the past if Russia and the West set aside what divides them and concentrate on what brings them together. This approach will benefit all. 

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