With the self-proclaimed Islamic State besieged in Mosul and on the defensive in parts of Syria, the future of the group’s network beyond its core territory has been thrown into question. At its peak in 2014 and early 2015, the Islamic State established affiliates across the Middle East and North Africa that it labeled “provinces,” or wilayat, rapidly increasing its operational reach and influence. But with its senior leadership now facing considerable pressure in both Iraq and Syria, it is unclear whether the Islamic State will be able to maintain communications and organizational ties with these affiliates abroad. Moreover, as the Islamic State continues to lose territory, its allies may try to distance themselves from the group’s flagging brand.
The Islamic State’s recent travails in North Africa offer a telling snapshot of the challenges it is likely to face in maintaining its global presence. In the past six months, it has suffered both military defeats and defections in North Africa, leaving its network in the region fragmented. The biggest blow to its regional ambitions was the loss of the central Libyan city of Sirte, the Islamic State’s most promising outpost beyond Syria and Iraq. Meanwhile, jihadi factions in Tunisia and Algeria, facing intense pressure from state security forces, are wavering in their commitments. These developments will likely benefit al-Qaida, which is positioning itself to absorb the Islamic State’s defectors.
The defeat in Sirte derailed the Islamic State’s North African expansion strategy. Sirte had been its primary hub in North Africa, with the group investing considerable resources in the city. In 2015 and early 2016, senior leadership sent several high-ranking officials from Syria and Iraq to reinforce operations there, including Abu Omar al-Shishani, at the time the Islamic State’s most influential military commander; Turki al-Binali, a prominent religious official; and Abu Ali al-Anbari, who is believed to have served as Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s deputy until his death in March 2016. The Islamic State reportedly redirected several hundred foreign fighters originally destined for Syria and Iraq to Libya. These measures suggest that the Islamic State viewed Sirte as a beachhead from which to expand its presence into other parts of North Africa—and possibly even as a fallback option should Raqqa and Mosul fall.
Sirte also functioned as a command-and-control hub for the Islamic State’s activities in Africa, with the leadership there providing strategic guidance, and possibly material support, to provinces elsewhere on the continent. Though information on links between Sirte and other “provinces” is limited, multiple sources alleged that the Islamic State’s West Africa Province, a jihadi group based in northern Nigeria, answered to a Libya-based commander and sent dozens of militants to fight in Libya. Sirte-based commanders also likely supervised Islamic State operations in Sebratha, a town in western Libya that became a hub for militants planning operations in Tunisia. Similarly, Egyptian security officials claimed that Wilayat Sinai militants received instructions from Libya.
The Islamic State’s collapse in Sirte could constrain the group’s efforts to preserve ties with its remaining followers in North and West Africa. Without the city, the Islamic State’s central command may find it difficult to communicate with supporters in the region. It may also struggle to provide material support to its allies, as it no longer controls a territorial sanctuary in North Africa from which to deploy militants, weapons and funds. This could, in turn, result in the fragmentation of the group’s network in North and West Africa; if militants in the region are unable to communicate with the Islamic State’s central leadership, they may become disillusioned and break away from the group.
Evidence suggests that militant factions in North Africa are already reconsidering this relationship. Jihadis aligned with the Islamic State in both Tunisia and Algeria have reportedly weighed the possibility of joining—or, in some cases, rejoining—al-Qaida. Challenges in communication after the fall of Sirte may have factored into the militants’ calculations, though there is no open-source information indicating that this is the case. Another possibility, however, is that Islamic State factions in the region are experiencing a case of “buyers’ remorse” as they watch the group’s physical caliphate slowly contract. Indeed, opportunistic jihadis may feel increasingly tempted to jump ship and find another patron.
This may be the case in Algeria, where al-Qaida has sought to capitalize on the Islamic State’s setbacks. El Khabar, an Algerian media outlet, reported last August that al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) had initiated a program, known as Munasahah, or rehabilitation, in which al-Qaida clerics communicated with Algerian Islamic State members, often via SMS, and tried to persuade them to join al-Qaida. The clerics have convinced at least 10 Algerian militants to defect, according to El Khabar. With the Islamic State on its last legs in Algeria—dozens of its fighters, including the group’s Algerian emir and several other top commanders, were killed by the Algerian military in 2015—al-Qaida may view the rehabilitation initiative as an opportunity to absorb the Islamic State’s remaining network in the country.
Al-Qaida may have found a similarly fertile recruiting ground among pro-Islamic State factions based in the mountains of western Tunisia. The Tunisian news source Akher Khabar reported last May that some Islamic State supporters wanted to join Katibat Uqba ibn Nafi (KUIN), al-Qaida’s Tunisian affiliate, because the Islamic State affiliate in the western mountains was struggling to raise revenue and move weapons and materiel between different cells. Tunisian security officials independently confirmed in private discussions that some militants in the western mountains are now seeking an alliance with KUIN, and that the balance of power in the region has shifted decisively in al-Qaida’s favor. These developments demonstrate that although the Islamic State was able to win over a sizable number of Tunisian foot soldiers, it never succeeded in crippling al-Qaida’s organizational structure in the country.
It would be premature to sound the death knell for the Islamic State in North Africa. Though the group lost its Sirte stronghold, dozens or perhaps even hundreds of fighters escaped the city and will likely seek to rebuild their networks elsewhere. Indeed, the group’s forces in Libya already seem to be reorganizing; on Jan. 18, U.S. aircraft bombed Islamic State training camps located in a “remote desert area” south of Sirte, killing as many as 85 militants.
But with the Islamic State on the ropes in Syria and Iraq, as well as in Libya, the group’s North African network is prone to splintering and internal discord. As the Islamic State struggles to present an image of strength globally, and as it experiences difficulties in resourcing its provinces outside Syria and Iraq, its North African allies will be increasingly likely to seek alternative sources of support. This isn’t necessarily limited to North Africa: Militants in Afghanistan, West Africa and the Sahel—three key areas where the Islamic State has tried to extend its influence—may develop similar doubts about remaining with a group whose global appeal is waning. If that happens, al-Qaida will be waiting in the wings, ready to exploit its rival’s decline.
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