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
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.
In the Tunisian case, a regional counter-terrorism analyst evokes a desire for radicalism:
You have a great number of Tunisians because, having overthrown their own dictator, they think it’s their duty to do it [in Syria] – these are the modern Che Guevaras. It’s the same for the Libyans.
According to this analysis, those disappointed with the meagre returns of the democratic transition (particularly economically) might have sought fame and fortune with the new group, keeping the early revolutionary flame of 2011 through a more radical option than the prevailing mood of political compromise could offer. A similar pattern arguably took place in Morocco after the dissipation of the 20 February protest movement by the end of 2011, when a small number of its adherents, searching for an alternative, saw in ISIS a truly radical option that could prevail where reformism had failed.
2.Security vacuums and favourable political contexts
The prevailing security disarray and the fall of the Ben Ali and Qadhafi regimes played an important role in permitting many individuals from Libya and Tunisia to go abroad, reaching higher numbers than previous waves of foreign fighters and drawing from a more sociologically diverse recruitment pool. The security apparatuses of both countries either collapsed or, for an extended period of time, largely were unable to function properly. Once-feared intelligence and security agencies lost the ability to monitor militant groups even as they emerged from the underground and sought to impose themselves as political (and in the case of Libya, also military) actors. State authority was weakened and the capacity to gather information and act on it was disrupted.
Even governments from countries that did not experience regime change preferred to see those inclined toward violence go abroad rather than stay home. Algeria and Morocco already had developed policies to deal with the jihadist movements in response to internal crises, albeit of different scopes – the devastating insurgency of the 1990s for Algeria and the 2003 Casablanca bombings for Morocco. They had had some success in either co-opting and “de-radicalising” jihadist Salafis or killing, imprisoning and driving into exile unrepentant ones. Security agencies were not weakened – indeed they had been strengthened in the preceding decades, especially in their understanding and even infiltration of jihadist groups.
In Morocco, where the 20 February protest movement never seriously threatened a monarchy that had deftly, and rapidly, offered constitutional reforms, stabilising domestic politics – and if necessary exporting any jihadist threat – nonetheless was a priority. As a Moroccan participant in these protests who later became an ISIS supporter in prison put it:
At first, Arab countries permitted travelling, and several religious scholars issued fatwas permitting jihad in Syria. This helped youth to travel there because Arab states gambled on overthrow of the Assad regime as well as bringing all jihadists in one place to destroy all of them.
In other words, the flipside of these security measures at times was turning a blind eye to those who sought jihad abroad, in the process getting rid of them and providing an outlet for the local Salafi-jihadist scene by giving them an opportunity to fight abroad.
At least for those countries that had experienced a change of regime, some analysts argue that a novel factor was the political influence of Islamists whose solidarity with the Syrian rebels (echoed by many Western capitals as well as Arab Gulf states) manifested itself far more openly than would have been conceivable under the fallen regimes. In Tunisia, for example, Ansar Sharia’s recruitment was tolerated by the troika government (2011-2013) led by the Islamist party An-Nahda alongside the non-Islamist parties Ettakatol and Congrès pour la République. This happened notwithstanding their stated opposition to, and intellectual battles with, jihadists, giving some cover (either actively encouraging or looking the other way) to pre-ISIS foreign fighter recruitment networks. It likely contributed to mainstreaming elements of the jihadist narrative via the endorsement of the political and religious legitimacy of travelling to combat the Assad regime. Although the vast majority of Tunisian foreign fighters in Syria joined the rebel side (whether jihadist or non-jihadist), some also fought on the regime side – reflecting how Tunisians often projected the Syrian conflict onto a domestic canvas, as an extension of the Islamist/anti-Islamist polarisation experienced at home.
Recruitment of foreign fighters to various groups operating in Syria during this pre-ISIS period (carried especially by Salafi groups such as Ansar Sharia) also was facilitated by the Tunis embassies of countries backing the Syrian rebels as well as Gulf-financed religious charities. Investigations into the 2011-2013 period suggest that in Tunisia at least, local and international networks supporting the supply of foreign fighters to various Syrian groups (jihadist and non-jihadist) operated on a logistical level, facilitating the delivery of passports, subsidising travel costs, recruiting from prisons, etc. Given the absence of controls at Tunis’ international airport, the fact that Tunisians (like Moroccans) did not need a visa to go to Turkey, and the low cost of financing the trip, reaching Syria was relatively easy. Although much of this type of recruitment ended in 2013 after the UN Security Council listed the Nusra Front as a terrorist organisation and the emergence of ISIS, it contributed to the large pool of Tunisian fighters present in Syria, many of whom ended up in ISIS.
3.Pre-existing networks and locales of radicalism
The individuals who initially sought to fight in Syria and ended up forming a “fourth wave” of transnational jihadist violence followed a trend established with the movement of fighters to Afghanistan and Iraq in earlier decades. Often, veterans of these conflicts played a role in urging younger volunteers to make the same trip. Recruitment networks piggybacked on well-established, pre-existing Salafi-jihadist networks, but also localised nodes of militancy. These are often in historically marginalised areas with a history of dissidence and alienation from the central state, where the role of the informal or criminal economy is strong and the rule of law relatively weak.
Ansar Sharia, the most important Salafi-jihadist group to emerge in Tunisia after the 2011 uprisings, made use of the connections of its leader, Seifallah Ben Hassine (better known by his nom de guerre Abu Iyadh), a veteran jihadist with close ties to al-Qaeda leaders from his time in Afghanistan in the 1990s and who served as the former emir of the Tunisian Combatant Group. Abu Iyadh founded Ansar Sharia soon after he and many other jihadists were released from prison starting in January 2011, after the first post-Ben Ali government granted a series of amnesties. Indeed, as in Syria and Iraq, prisons were an important source of networking and recruitment in Morocco, Libya and Tunisia.
Like al-Qaeda-linked groups elsewhere, Ansar Sharia in Tunisia was initially selective in its recruitment: it required ten recommendations, did not promise compensation and recruits were expected to pay their own costs. It recruited largely on behalf of like-minded jihadist groups, generally affiliated with al-Qaeda – including the Nusra Front (jabhat an-nusra). Given stringent screening, these recruits were “few in number but of high quality”.
Ansar Sharia (and similar groups) most easily could spread their message and seek recruits in the long-marginalised southern and interior provinces – for instance in towns such as Ben Guerdane, on the Libyan border, where the local economy is dominated by smuggling and state authority is relatively weak, or Sidi Bouzid, the interior town where the December 2010 protests began. Likewise, the poor urban periphery of major cities – whose inhabitants often are originally from the south and interior – is another important source of recruits.
It was not just groups such as Ansar Sharia that found it easy to operate in deprived neighbourhoods. Other, more diffuse streams of recruitment to Syria existed. After the 2011 uprising and the spike of illegal migration to Europe that accompanied it, criminal networks that specialised in facilitating it began to diversify their business, recruiting fighters for non-jihadist groups in Syria such as the al-Farouq Brigades (kataib al-farouq) and Descendants of Saladin Brigade (liwa ahfad Salaheldin) – both associated with the Free Syrian Army. These recruiters – who later developed links with some of the jihadist groups and arms smugglers operating in Tunisia – reportedly were paid $3,000 per recruit. In a sense, the closure of Europe and dwindling prospects there allowed Syria to emerge as another “market” for Tunisians seeking to improve their lot, a trend ISIS would later tap into.
In Libya, pre-existing jihadist groups and the areas in which they operated once again come to the fore. Detainees from groups such as the Libyan Islamist Fighting Group (LIFG, known locally as al-jamaa al-libiya al-muqatila), a jihadist group whose leadership comprises Afghanistan veterans from both the anti-Soviet jihad and Taliban periods, were released during the uprising. The mass release of prisoners during and after the 2011 uprising allowed a suppressed network of people inclined toward jihadism to re-emerge. This network played an important role in the overthrow of the Qadhafi regime, often building relationships with more moderate Islamists and non-Islamists in the crucible of the 2011 conflict that have lasted to this day. Seized ISIS documents show that Derna, in eastern Libya, long a bastion of the LIFG and the site of a failed insurgency in the 1990s, is the major city of origin for Libyan foreign fighters. Likewise, other areas with a history of jihadist activity – such Ajdabiya, Benghazi and Nawfiliyya – became prime recruitment nodes for foreign fighters and, later, hubs for ISIS activity.
Well-established networks of Moroccans who previously had fought in Afghanistan or Iraq urged young men to follow in their footsteps, recruiting a new generation of foreign fighters. Members of the Joint committee of defence of Islamist detainees (CCDDI, Coordination commune pour la défense des détenus islamistes) – an advocacy group created by Salafi and former jihadist detainees imprisoned in the 2000s – was for instance instrumental in building a network of recruitment for those who want to travel to Syria. Some of its members – especially veteran fighters of Afghanistan or Iraq – were active in recruiting young foreign fighters.
An ISIS supporter who was imprisoned for attempting to join the group noted that he had been inspired by previous generations of foreign fighters, seeing it as part of tradition of participation in righteous causes:
The first group travelled to Syria to support oppressed people after they witnessed the carnage committed by Bashar al-Assad against his own people. The main difference between those that went to Afghanistan in the 1980s and the new generation is that [the latter] are more passionate, and many are only recently reborn to religion.
The role of pre-existing jihadist groups is one reason recruitment was initially particularly strong in the north of the country: among prominent Moroccan foreign fighters in ISIS, many come from northern towns such as Tangier, Tetouan, Fnideq, or al-Hoceima. The region – a predominantly Amazigh (Berber) area named after the Rif mountain chain – has a history of jihadist activity as well as of neglect and anti-state contestation. The northern cities also had established salafi-jihadi groups. For instance, Sheikh Omar al-Hadouchi and Sheikh Mohamed al-Fizazi – prominent Salafi preachers – have been active in spreading jihadist ideology in this region since the late 1990s.
Even so, regional origins diversified after ISIS’ emergence, a sign of its ability to appeal beyond pre-existing jihadist networks. The recruitment cells that operated were far less likely to be associated with al-Qaeda – for one Moroccan analyst, “it is as if after 2014 al-Qaeda disappeared and is replaced by ISIS”. The proliferation of new, smaller cells suggests new jihadist activity rather than the extension of pre-existing networks, as had tended to be the case in 2011-2013. A similar pattern could be seen elsewhere – for instance in Tunisia, where the ISIS label briefly acquired a certain glamour among urban youth. The lack of requirement of religious knowledge or known practice of piety by ISIS recruiters also made the group more accessible, less “elitist” than pre-existing, al-Qaeda-oriented, groups.
The link between regional marginalisation, poverty, state neglect, petty criminality and jihadist recruitment is not straightforward or direct.However, those factors can create an enabling environment that can facilitate recruitment, particularly if socio-economic conditions are perceived to be a result of structural injustice. Poverty in absolute terms, in other words, does not correlate with the propensity to join a jihadist group – but the perception of relative poverty, interpreted as the result of a political choice or historic injustice, often does.
It is striking that many of the areas of the Maghreb that have provided above-average number of foreign fighters to ISIS share some commonalities, including a perception of relative deprivation and a history of state violence or marginalisation, and are ongoing sites of political contestation. That last factor – the existence of political contestation – is key and differentiates these areas from others, which may suffer similar levels of marginalisation but have not articulated an anti-state (or anti-central government) political narrative around it. Northern Morocco, southern Tunisia and parts of eastern Libya share such features. In other words, much as conflict zones provide ideal conditions for recruitment to jihadist groups, areas where a deep-seated, even if latent, political conflict exists helps to pre-dispose inhabitants toward such revolutionary causes.
III.ISIS Targets the Maghreb
Beyond its role in recruiting fighters for battle in Syria, ISIS and its affiliates have carried out operations in a variety of ways, ranging from the capture and governance of territory in Libya, to operating a guerrilla group in mountainous areas in Algeria and Tunisia or simply as an underground presence in Morocco. In all of these countries, ISIS-affiliated groups have planned attacks targeting civilians, although it has yet to succeed in carrying any out in Morocco. They also adapted their approach to distinct political contexts: in Tunisia, for example, ISIS affiliates sought to disrupt the transition, exploiting dissatisfaction with its pace and direction; in Libya, they used the opportunity of war and chaos to seize territory. The following sections describe ISIS’ presence and tactics in the four Maghrebi countries.
A.Libya: the Beachhead
If the foreign fighter phenomenon was the first vector that connected Maghreb countries to the emergence of ISIS, the latter’s decision to target Libya as its first major area of expansion outside of Iraq and Syria demonstrated a clear intention to widen its caliphate to North Africa. In a January 2015 essay disseminated online, an ISIS supporter claiming to be in Libya wrote:
As well as the harmonious social makeup of Libya, and the fact that 99 per cent of [its population] is made up of Maliki Sunnis – aside from the Ibadhia minority – by the grace of God to Libya, God bestowed upon this country a strategic position and immense potential. These are things from which it would be possible to derive great benefits if they were efficiently exploited. Unfortunately, some supporters do not recognise the extent of the Libyan arena, the proliferation of variant weaponry within it, its geographic dimensions and its critical environs. Sufficed to say, Libya looks upon the sea, the desert, mountains, and six states: Egypt, Sudan, Chad, Niger, Algeria and Tunisia.
Crucial to the ability of ISIS’ strategy to expand in Libya, at least after mid-2014, were the divisions between rival governments and parliaments. The General National Congress (the parliament elected in July 2012) and its Government of National Salvation in Tripoli on the one hand, and the House of Representatives (the parliame