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The Islamic State in the Maghreb  

Zacharias P. Pieri

On June 29, 2014, The Islamic State (IS), also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), Islamic State of Iraq and the Islamic Levant (ISIL), and Daesh, proclaimed the establishment of a caliphate in areas straddling Iraq and Syria. IS is a Sunni Muslim extremist movement that was under the leadership of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi until his killing in 2019, and it is driven by a vision to unite all extremist Muslims under its caliphate, which was grounded in Syria. IS was, for a period, the most robust and adept insurgent force in Syria and Iraq, and by 2015, it controlled a landmass and population larger than that of many existing states. At the height of its power, it included a vast coastline in Libya, a portion of Nigeria’s northeast where affiliated Boko Haram declared an Islamic territory, and a city in the Philippines. Beyond this, IS was able to establish franchises in different parts of the world including North Africa and the Sahel. Leaders of IS called on extremist Muslims from across the world to leave their homes, and to travel to the so-called caliphate to take up residency there as jihadists and citizens of a proto-state. Those that could not physically join were encouraged to participate online, and others were instructed by Sheikh Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, the IS’s chief spokesman, to find an infidel and smash his head with a rock. IS, from its inception, has looked to the Maghreb and the Sahel as strategic geographic areas for the expansion of its ideology, incorporation of territory into its caliphate, and operational purposes. It is clear that the notion of an Islamic state was popular for a segment of the population in the Maghreb, with many leaving the countries of Libya, Tunisia, Morocco, and beyond to join, train, and fight with IS in Syria and Iraq. Tunisia had the highest number of IS foreign fighters, estimated at approximately 6,000; Morocco had 1,200; Libya and Egypt had 600; and Algeria had 170. Returning fighters are destabilizing North Africa. Libya was an early focus of IS due in part to the fall of the Gadhafi regime in 2011, and the ensuing political chaos, which caused a weak and fragile state. Libya served as the first addition to the territories of IS’s caliphate outside Syria and Iraq. Tunisia faced several large-scale attacks linked to IS activities in the country. In 2015 a number of terrorist attacks were carried out, including the massacre of 38 tourists at a beach resort in Sousse, the bombing of a bus containing presidential guards in Tunis, and an attack on the Bardo museum in Tunis. Algeria has had to monitor the country’s borders to prevent the entry of jihadists affiliated with IS who operate in neighboring countries. At the time of writing, concerns were being raised about different franchises of IS that are seeking to better integrate and to take advantage of insecurity in the Sahel, especially around the borders of Mali, Burkina Faso, and into Niger and Nigeria.