The Spectre of Terrorism and the Islamist Challenge in North Africa

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Written by Dr. Valentina Bartolucci, Guest Contributor

North Africa remains afflicted by the spectre of terrorism, and there are indications that the threat is on the rise. There is no state in the Maghreb region which has not experienced it, and the worsening socio-economic conditions in the region have stimulated the development and spread of terrorist recruitment networks in neighbouring countries. Furthermore, the political impasse in the Middle East between Israel and Palestine, as well as geostrategic interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan by a coalition of actors including the U.S., the UK, and their allies, has further fuelled the rise of political and violent extremist terrorist movements in the region. In particular, the 2003 U.S.-led operation in Iraq fuelled violent extremist ideologies and boosted jihadist recruitment. According to some analyses, between 2006 and 2007 almost one third of foreign fighters in Iraq was North African.

The Inter-University Center for Terrorism Studies reports that terrorist attacks by violent North African groups in the past ten years increased more than 500 percent from their low point in the period, to reach 204 attacks in 2009. For decades, North African states have been overlooked by European and American academics and policy makers; yet in the last few years, those states, together with Chad, Mali, and Niger, have emerged as one of the most worrying strategic challenges to the international community.

In particular, Algeria has long been a focal point of domestic terrorism, and is now a major source of international terrorism. According to Archer and Popovic, Algeria is “arguably the cause of the terrorism in the wider Saharan region”. Two Algerian terrorist groups are U.S. State Department Designated Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTOs): the Islamic Armed Group (GIA) and Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). The Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC)—a local Algerian Islamist group turned pan-Maghreb jihadi organisation—has openly stated its allegiance to the goals and tactics of al Qaeda.

AQIM is one of the most vocal and active terrorist groups in North Africa. It has taken responsibility for a number of terrorist incidents in the region, and it looks in recent years as though it has been trying to pursue a more global strategy. Furthermore, as a result of the increased difficulties encountered in northern Algeria and in line with the AQIM’s emir Droukdel’s regional ambitions, its operations have moved into Mali, Niger, and Mauritania, with wider aspirations. During 2012, AQIM carried out 125 attacks in Algeria.

Similarly, the violent events of last decade have led to the end of Moroccan ‘exceptionalism’ in terms of vulnerability to terrorist planning and attacks. The Casablanca bombings of 16 May 2003—in which 12 suicide bombers killed 33 people in co-ordinated strikes—demonstrated that this was no longer the case. On 11 March 2007, there was a suicide bombing marking the three-year anniversary of the Madrid explosions. On 10 April 2007, three suicide bombers attempted an explosion inside an Internet café, and on 11 April 2007, two suicide bombers detonated their devices near the U.S. Consulate. Morocco is also increasingly seen as a ‘producer’ of terrorist violence internationally, especially after the involvement of Moroccans in major terrorist events in Spain and elsewhere. According to some analysts, Moroccan immigrants in Europe have been implicated in a number of failed terrorist plots, were reported to have carried out several suicide attacks in Iraq, and were also implicated in the murder of Theo Van Gogh. The most recent terrorist attack in the country took place on 28 April 2011 at a very popular café in the world-famous Djelma el-Fna square in Marrakech; seventeen people were killed. AQIM denied direct responsibility. On 5 February 2011, twenty-seven people were arrested under suspicion of involvement in the planning of terrorist attack in Morocco and in other countries. In December 2012, an al Qaida cell that was allegedly recruiting young Moroccans to join the group in Algeria and other affiliates such as MUJAO in northern Mali was dismantled, and members of Ansar al-Sharia, a new offshoot organization, were arrested on suspicion of plotting major attacks throughout the country.

Furthermore, although terrorism is less evident in Tunisia than in surrounding states, there are signs that the threat level is on the rise. Following the departure of long-time President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in January 2011, domestic tensions between Islamists and secularists have burgeoned. Islamists and secularists have grown increasingly polarized and Salafist agitation and violence have increased. In the last few years, Tunisian security forces have eliminated several plots by al Qaeda-linked militants. On 11 April 2002, a truck bomb targeted a synagogue on the island of Djerba, killing 21 people. The Islamic Army for the Liberation for the Holy Sites, allegedly connected to al-Qaeda, claimed responsibility. In recent years, a number of Tunisians suspected of ties to al Qaeda have been arrested in Spain, Italy, France, Germany, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Mauritania, and the U.S. Moreover, Tunisia shares an extensive border with Libya, and it has been reported that some of the Libyan arms and militants who fought against Gaddafi’s regime have been imported to Tunisia to prepare for the next battle. Worryingly, Libya’s ideological, religious, ethnic, and tribal fragmentations as well as pervasive violence make it a fertile ground for violent extremist groups. By January 2013, continued kidnappings, assassinations, and bombings underlined the country’s political and economic instability. Faced with concerns over Mali’s political situation, Libya vowed cooperation against violent extremism and terrorism with other Maghreb states and France.

The uprisings that erupted in Tunisia, then continued in Egypt, Libya, and beyond raise questions as to what extent violent groups will attempt to take advantage of further regional destabilisation. While effective counter-terrorism efforts gave the illusion of diminishing the immediate threat of terrorism in the region, the spread of violent extremism ideology is striking, with new venues popping up on a daily basis—all exhorting Muslims to join in holy war. North African counter-terrorism strategies have been generally effective in breaking up terrorist cells, but sometimes to the detriment of human rights. States in the region, however, are becoming more aware that heavy-handed measures can backfire, and some of them are also focusing on religious education (including Morocco, Tunisia, and Libya) to attempt to prevent people from embracing Salafi Islam.

This brief survey across North Africa reveals a story that is more complex and nuanced than one might otherwise assume. The continent is at a crossroads. Africa is on the verge of either falling into the dragnet of terrorists or of realising its true democratic potential. The current political situation in the region is unclear, and deep, long-term socio-economic problems remain—problems that have been, and continue to be, obscured by the fight against terrorism and this needs to be urgently addressed. Moreover, we must be mindful when discussing North Africa to avoid lumping all countries together in a homogenous solution. In fact, all countries consist of very different histories and likely trajectories.

Finally, the fear of Islamist radicalism should be re-contextualised. Even if violent components are present in all countries, political Islam in the region has a long history of pacifism. Following the historical repression of Islamists and its consequences, it can be argued that a different approach, based on dialogue and mutual comprehension with secular parties rather than open confrontation, is necessary to avoid a new spiral of violence.

Dr. Valentina Bartolucci is a Lecturer at the University of Pisa (Italy) and at the Marist University, NY (campus of Florence).

This article was originally published in the special annual G8 Summit 2013 edition and The Official ICC G20 Advisory Group Publication. Published with permission.

Photo: Charles Roffey (cc).