How the Islamic State Rose, Fell and Could Rise Again in the Maghreb

The Islamic State (ISIS) is in sharp decline, but in its rout lie important lessons and lingering threats. This is true for the four countries of the Maghreb covered in this report, Algeria, Libya, Morocco and Tunisia, which constitute a microcosm of ISIS’ identity, trajectory and shifting fortunes to date. Those countries possess two unwanted claims to fame: as a significant pool of ISIS foreign fighters and, in the case of Libya, as the site of ISIS’ first successful territorial conquest outside of Iraq and Syria. The pool is drying up, to a point, and the caliphate’s Libyan province is no more. But many factors that enabled ISIS’s ascent persist. While explaining the reasons for ISIS’ performance in different theatres is inexact and risky science, there seems little question that ending Libya’s anarchy and fragmentation; improving states’ capacities to channel anger at elites’ predatory behaviour and provide responsive governance; treading carefully when seeking to regiment religious discourse; and improving regional and international counter-terrorism cooperation would go a long way toward ensuring that success against ISIS is more than a fleeting moment.

Its operations in the Maghreb showcase ISIS’s three principal functions: as a recruitment agency for militants willing to fight for its caliphate in Iraq and Syria; as a terrorist group mounting bloody attacks against civilians; and as a military organisation seeking to exert territorial control and governance functions. In this sense, and while ISIS does not consider the Maghreb its main arena for any of those three forms of activity, how it performed in the region, and how states reacted to its rise, tells us a lot about the organisation.

To much of the outside world, Tunisia is known equally for its relatively successful democratic transition as for the fact that it boasts the highest ratio per capita of people who have joined ISIS to fight outside their country. That dubious distinction has prompted head scratching, as has to a lesser extent ISIS’s ability to recruit foreign fighters in neighbouring countries. As Crisis Group’s earlier report on ISIS, Exploiting Disorder, laid out, reasons for ISIS’ success in some arenas and failure in others defy generic explanations.

But its ability to recruit in these countries suggests a series of factors that gave rise to a more conducive environment: a demand for a quasi-revolutionary, anti-establishment discourse and practice, especially among young people who blame their relative deprivation on structural injustice (chiefly Tunisia); a security apparatus in disarray (Libya and Tunisia); the ascent and subsequent reining in of a more political, pragmatic form of Islamism (Tunisia); the presence of pre-existing networks of a jihadist or militant variety (Libya, Tunisia and Morocco); and either lack of regional or international coordination or, worse, regional actors backing rival groups (Libya). Progress has been made to address several of these matters, but not all, and almost certainly not in a sustainable manner.

Many of those same factors likewise would seem to explain ISIS’ focus on Tunisia in carrying out several dramatic terrorist attacks in 2015-2016. Its propaganda emphasised perceptions of injustice shared by large swathes of the population – particularly those from marginalised regions and poor urban peripheries that most often encounter state brutality, corruption and social exclusion. ISIS also appeared determined to disrupt the country’s fragile and contested democratic transition, take advantage of the security forces’ disorganisation and play on the feeling among some Islamists that the transition had betrayed their aspirations and that secular forces had forced upon political Islamists ignominious compromise.

Libya tells another, even more striking side of the story. There, the instability resulting from the uprising, the country’s ensuing fragmentation, the struggle among powerful militias and competing interference by various regional actors produced an enabling context not only for recruitment, but even more so for ISIS’ territorial expansion. Libya illustrated what Iraq and Syria proved: that jihadists’ influence is more a product of instability than its primary driver. The fact that, with Western assistance, Libyan forces were able to oust ISIS from Sirte shows that superior military force can vanquish the organisation, a reality that has also been made evident in Mosul, Iraq, and will be soon in Raqqa, Syria. But that this was achieved without curing the problems that originally led to ISIS’ emergence is reason to worry.

What’s apparent from the Maghrebi experience is that state responses focused on security and military steps can work. ISIS essentially has been rolled back in Libya, and both Algeria’s and Morocco’s robust security services were able to contain its rise within their borders. But what’s also apparent is that such responses only can go so far, and that the following other dimensions need equal attention:

  • Resolving Libya’s conflict or, at a minimum, diminishing the country’s fragmentation, both to prevent ISIS remnants from regrouping inside the country or using it as a springboard to attack fragile states in the region.

  • Increasing the capacity, and political willingness, of state elites to address local grievances and latent conflicts in inclusive ways in order to channel popular frustration away from violent options, especially in youth constituencies that feel that their poverty and marginalisation are a function of structural iniquities and self-enrichment by corrupt and brutal elites;

  • Avoiding the temptation to over-regulate the religious sphere in an effort to combat jihadism; instead, allow for the expression of non-violent religious forms of contestation; and

  • Ensuring greater regional and international counter-terrorism cooperation and, in the case of Libya in particular, halting the intense regional tug-of-war between Egypt and the UAE on the one hand, and Qatar and Turkey on the other.

Out of ISIS’ likely defeat in the region and beyond will come some respite, but also new threats from the group’s remnants. Previous waves of transnational jihadism, after all, mutated or lingered as manageable nuisances for many years until a new window of opportunity appeared. The Maghreb has shown that it has, for the most part, resilient state capacity but also persistent tensions within societies and their elites, as well as between them. It is also surrounded by fragile states to the south. Vigilance about avoiding a next wave requires more focus on appeasing and channelling these tensions away from violence, not just post-facto security approaches.

Rabat/Algiers/Tripoli/Tunis/Brussels, 24 July 2017

I.Introduction

From its inception in 2013, the Islamic State (ISIS) has both recruited widely from the Maghreb and sought to build a presence there in multiple ways, from the creation of recruitment and operational cells to seizing and governing territory. In Libya, taking advantage of the anarchy and security vacuum created by conflict that started in mid-2014, it implemented the first extension of its territorialisation strategy outside of Iraq and Syria. In Tunisia, it has staged spectacular attacks aimed at undermining a democratic transition and made a failed attempt to seize control of territory. In western Tunisia and eastern Algeria, some of its affiliates, in some cases drawn from jihadists previously aligned with al-Qaeda, conduct low-level guerrilla warfare in hard-to-reach mountainous areas. In Morocco, it has tried but failed to carry out operations but recruited hundreds.

The relatively high numbers of Maghrebi fighters that have joined ISIS, particularly from Tunisia and Morocco, and its success in establishing itself in Libya, caused alarm in 2014-2015 that the group could further ensconce itself in the Maghreb and destabilise a region at the crossroads of Europe, the Middle East and Africa. Since then, however, ISIS has suffered setbacks in both its core territory in the Levant and in the Maghreb, as regional states, a variety of sub-state actors and international powers confronted it. The challenge is now to take advantage of these setbacks, including the potential elimination of much of ISIS’ leadership at local and global levels, to ensure that it is not given the opportunity to regroup or mutate into a new type of threat.

This report, based on Crisis Group’s field work in the Maghreb since 2011 and more focused research from 2015 till now, seeks to place the evolution of ISIS in the region and the reaction to it in context, highlighting where the group came from, how it adapted to various local situations, and how effectively states and non-state actors reacted against it. It first assesses the phenomenon of Maghrebi foreign fighters joining ISIS outside their countries, then turns to ISIS’ expansion in the Maghreb and the policies pursued by regional states to counter it. Finally, it suggests principles to consolidate achievements against ISIS and address some of the underlying violent conflicts or political and societal tensions that create an enabling environment for jihadist recruitment.

II.Maghrebi Foreign Fighters in ISIS

A.Putting a Number on Maghrebi Foreign Fighters

Since the outbreak of the Syrian uprising in 2011, tens of thousands of individuals have travelled to join rebel groups in Syria. Of these, an estimated 36,500 ended up joining the Islamic State (ISIS) and other jihadist groups once they imposed themselves as major actors in the conflict, particularly after 2013. Most of these foreign fighters are from the Arab world, and close to 8,000 from the four countries of the Maghreb (compared to 6,600 from Western countries) – although such numbers are estimates and thus inherently uncertain. Moreover, European countries with large immigrant populations of Maghrebi origin, such as France and Belgium, have also contributed high numbers of dual-nationality volunteers travelling to Syria especially and who, at some point in their trajectory, joined ISIS there. Maghrebi fighters have played an important role in the organisation, all the more remarkable given their home countries’ relative distance from ISIS’ chief theatre of conflict.

There are important variations among Maghreb countries. Tunisia has produced the highest ratio of foreign fighters per capita (6,000 individuals or 545 per million inhabitants, although this figure is likely exaggerated) of any country in the world, in both relative and absolute terms far more than both countries closer to ISIS’ initial conflict theatre (Saudi Arabia, Russia, Turkey and Jordan, which contribute the largest numbers of foreign fighters to ISIS after Tunisia – around 2,000-2,500 each) and the other major sources of Maghrebi fighters, Morocco (1,623 individuals according to Moroccan authorities, or 46 per million inhabitants, plus an estimated 2,000 Moroccans who also hold a European citizenship) and Libya (an estimated 600 individuals, or 100 per million inhabitants). Algeria is a regional outlier, having contributed very few nationals (78 individuals or less than 2 per million inhabitants, although an additional 200 or so hold a second nationality and came from Europe).

These numbers are, at best, approximate, but have implanted themselves – particularly in the case of Tunisia – in media and official narrative as representing a particular problem for the Maghreb. Moreover, given these relatively small numbers, even in Tunisia, it is perilous to seek broad societal explanations when personal circumstances, intensity of ISIS efforts or some other factor might have played a part in attracting individuals to the organisation.

Bearing those caveats in mind, it nonetheless remains likely that levels of ISIS recruitment in a particular country reflect multiple factors: the political and security context; the presence of pre-existing jihadist networks; the level of demand for a quasi-revolutionary, anti-establishment discourse and practice; particular local histories, etc. In the context of the collapse of Libya’s regime in 2011, the Libyan contribution to the foreign fighter phenomenon seems more understandable. Likewise, Tunisia’s high numbers, while surprising, arguably reflect strong militant, anti-state sentiment, as well as a situation of genuine revolutionary upheaval combined with multiple forms of marginalisation and social exclusion.

Morocco also presents somewhat of a surprise: despite a regime widely seen as legitimate by the population, a strong state in full control of its territory and a highly effective security sector, the number of its citizens who went to fight in Syria between 2011 and 2016 is greater than the total number of Moroccan foreign fighters since the first wave of Arab fighters to Afghanistan in the 1980s. Reasons remain unclear, though for some this suggests that the country’s apparent stability obscures socio-economic frustration and a desire among a part of the population, of which those that travelled to Syria are a small subset, for political radicalism that can only be satisfied abroad.

Algeria’s very low number, however, is perhaps most surprising of all considering the country’s history. An Algerian expert notes this anomaly, speculating it could be explained at least in part by a still-fresh national trauma:

Before, Algerians were in the lead compared to Moroccans and Tunisians – now for the first time they’re the lowest. Confrontation with Islamist armed groups has been going on basically since 1992. 200,000 people have been killed. After 25 years of war, joining Islamist armed groups is not that attractive anymore. There has been an exhaustion of the extremist reservoir.

For many observers, the reason for this low number is that the de-radicalisation strategies (together with ruthless policies to exterminate or drive away recalcitrant individuals) put in place when the Civil Concord was implemented after the end of the Islamist insurrection in 1999, including an amnesty for former members of Islamist groups that had fought the state, has worked (whatever negative effects it otherwise may have had).

In accounting for the relative numbers of various nationalities in ISIS, it is also important to keep in mind that many recruits joined the group from Syria when it emerged in 2013, not from their home countries – ISIS’ recruitment was in good part done in a theatre of war, not at home, creating an important link between the foreign fighter phenomenon of 2011-2013 (when many states, Arab and Western, either supported, downplayed or ignored the phenomenon) and the 2013-2016 period of ISIS ascendency. This occurred often en masse, because fighters from particular countries had already largely organised themselves into single-nationality brigades – such as Harakat al-Sham, a unit comprising some 800 Moroccans that provided already well-trained fighters to the group, or Katiba al-Battar al-Libi, a Libyan group.

B.Push and Pull Factors for Foreign Fighters

1.A market for revolutionary radicalism?

In the Maghreb as elsewhere, the emergence of ISIS spurred a second peak of departures for the Syrian (and now also Iraqi) arena after the initial one in 2011-2013. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, ISIS’ self-styled caliph, plausibly could claim not only to have achieved spectacular military victories where many other representatives of Sunni communities in Iraq and (mostly Sunni) Syrian rebels had failed, but also to have communicated in a novel way. Videos recorded by Tunisian or Moroccan ISIS fighters extolling achievements of the “caliphate” and the rewards that awaited those who joined it played a role in attracting new recruits. Even among jihadists there was something tantalising about both the medium and the message:

Zawahri’s videos are boring, whereas Baghdadi’s are inspiring. For ISIS supporters, Baghdadi is doing something concrete, controls territory, defies the entire world, unlike the old scholars of al-Qaeda who appear behind the times.