The Rise of ISIS in the Maghreb?

Opinion

The Rise of ISIS in the Maghreb?

Geoff D. Porter

08 Oct 2014

The struggle between ISIS and al-Qaeda for leadership of the global jihadi movement is dividing the militant community in Algeria. In the wake of a new group announcing its formation by the murder of a French tourist, Geoff D. Porter examines the dangers this development presents.

In late September 2014, a new jihadi organisation calling itself Jund al-Khilafa fi Ard al-Jazair (The Caliphate's Soldiers in the Land of Algeria) announced its formation in Algeria. The group captured a French tourist named Hervé Gourdel in Algeria and murdered him three days later, raising questions over the danger the new organisation presents.

Jund al-Khilafa consists of former members of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) who broke from the group over its decision to remain allied to al-Qaeda under the leadership of Ayman al-Zawahiri. In contrast, Jund al-Khilafa has pledged its support to the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS).

Violent Islamism, including jihadi activities, are not new to Algeria, having first appeared in the wake of the aborted 1991 elections that an Islamist political party was expected to have won. Violence in Algeria escalated with the return of Algerian mujahideen who had fought against the Soviet Union. As a consequence, the leader of Jund al-Khilafa, Abdelmalek Gouri, is known to Algerian security services.

Also known as Abou Slimane, Gouri had been previously a member of the Groupe Islamique Armé (GIA), a violent Algerian Islamist group that combated the Algerian state during the 1990s. Gouri remained violently involved with the organisation when it evolved into the Groupe Salafiste pour la Prédication et le Combat (GSPC) in 1998 and then again when the GSPC became AQIM in 2007.

"A debate has unfolded among jihadis whether to remain with al-Qaeda or join ISIS"

In a video in which Jund al-Khilafa reaffirmed its allegiance with ISIS' leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, roughly thirty men of varying ages areshown, with their faces exposed and holding various weapons. Jund al-Khilafa's appearance fits into a wider trend in jihadi circles. Since the emergence of ISIS (and its predecessor organisations), a debate has been unfolding among jihadis around the world about whether to remain allied with al-Qaeda or to join ISIS, which has been repudiated by al-Qaeda's Zawahiri. The debate hinges on issues ranging from the legitimacy of declaring the revival of the Islamic caliphate to questioning Zawahiri's leadership capacity. AQIM's leader Abdelmalek Droukdal remains committed to al-Qaeda and to Zawahiri. Gouri, however, was not the first of Droukdal's followers to switch allegiance to Baghdadi. An AQIM affiliate in Tunisia, the Uqba ibn Nafi Brigade, had earlier announced its intentions to ally with ISIS. Similarly, Ansar al-Sharia in eastern Libya said that it is considering swearing allegiance to Baghdadi. In the Libyan town of Darna, a group calling itself the Islamic State of Libya staged a parade, shouting slogans and waving ISIS flags.

 

As much as Zawahiri's leadership of the global jihadi movement has been contested, Droukdal himself has had difficulty controlling his organisation. The emergence of Jund al-Khilafa is the simply the latest evidence of this. Internal AQIM communications from 2012 show that Droukdal had a fractious relationship with Mokhtar Belmokhtar, then the leader of one of AQIM's units in the Sahara. Belmokhtar eventually quit AQIM and created his own organisation in December 2012 called al-Muaqioun Biddam (Signatories in Blood).The group was responsible for the January 2013 attack on the Tigantourine Gas Facility in southern Algeria.

Gouri has followed a similar strategy – breaking with AQIM, having been a close aide to Droukdal, and then carrying out an audacious attack in order to establish his group's independent jihadi bona fides. However, while Belmokhtar had an established record as an independent leader with an ability to raise his own funds, it is unclear whether Gouri will be able to sustain his group independently without the support of AQIM. Despite Jund al-Khilafa's intentions to stir chaos in the short term, its long term viability is called into question by the uncertainty about Gouri's ability to lead and fund the group.

While Jund al-Khilafa's emergence is certainly disturbing, the actual threat that it poses depends on how one assesses the risk. Given Algeria's long history combating violent Islamist and jihadi organisations, the emergence of a new group poses little danger to the viability of the Algerian state, nor does it jeopardise its stability in any way. First, the group appears to be small, with fewer than fifty members. Second, the group's movements are likely constrained to a limited area of operations in the mountainous Kabylia region of eastern central Algeria. Third, in the coming weeks, Algerian security services will likely degrade whatever limited capabilities the group has. Algeria has already deployed 1,500 troops to counter Jund al-Khilafa.

Nonetheless, the murder of Hervé Gourdel demonstrates that the group does pose a meaningful risk to non-Muslims, expatriates and Algerian security personnel who travel in its area of operations. Unlike jihadi groups elsewhere, whether allied with ISIS or committed to al-Qaeda, Jund al-Khilafa is unlikely to be able to use hostages as a way of generating revenue through the payment of ransoms. Algeria maintains a strict policy against the payment of ransoms and it is likely that, were further individuals to be captured by Jund al-Khilafa, they would suffer the same tragic fate as Gourdel. Thus the emergence of Jund al-Khilafa represents a worrying development in Algeria, but not one that poses as significant a risk as the emergence of ISIS itself.

The views expressed by this author remain solely their own and are not to be taken as the view of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation. 

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