Though conflict in Syria and Iraq dominates headlines, the Islamist militants of North Africa still present a huge global risk. Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, highlights the major players and traces the complex allegiances and political imperatives operating in the region — and shares a very worrying prediction for Egypt’s near future.
Octavian Report: Can you thumbnail the landscape of Islamist militancy in North Africa at the moment?
Daveed Gartenstein-Ross: Looking at the three post-revolution countries (where we tend to be focused when we look at North Africa, rather than on Morocco and Algeria), I’ll take it from west to east.
In Tunisia, the biggest jihadist player is a group called Katibat Uqba ibn Nafi. They are a battalion of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, and essentially a successor to a group called Ansar al Sharia. Ansar al Sharia in Tunisia, or AST, was able to operate openly right after the revolution. Though AST proclaimed its allegiance to Al Qaeda’s ideology, it claimed not to be a part of the organization. When I did field research in Tunisia in 2013, I saw Ansar al Sharia members doing dawah work (or proselytism) quite openly within about ten feet of Western tourists strolling through the Medina of Sousse, unaware. Later that year, the situation changed after gunmen assassinated secularist politician Mohamed Brahmi (the second Tunisian politician murdered by Islamists in 2013) and a late July jihadist ambush in the Jebel el-Chaambi mountains in western Tunisia killed eight soldiers, five of whom had their throats slit. After these bloody incidents, the government clamped down on AST, but it wasn’t able to end militancy.
ISIS is also a big player in Tunisia even though the group doesn’t have a declared affiliate there. The Sousse beach attack that occurred in the middle of 2015, in which over 30 Western tourists were gunned down, was the work of ISIS. ISIS had a stronghold in Libya, in the city of Sabratha, which it used to plan attacks. Tunisia has the largest foreign fighter population in the world, and when Tunisians went to Syria to fight, they largely went over to the Islamic State, not to Al Qaeda, reportedly because the local Al Qaeda affiliate (Jabhat al Nusra) discriminated against Tunisians.
Libya is quite chaotic. The country was never put back together after NATO toppled Muammar al-Qaddafi. ISIS famously ended up taking control of Sirte (which they lost toward the end of 2016). But they’re far from the only jihadist player in Libya. At a national level, Ansar al Sharia in Libya (ASL), which is affiliated with Al Qaeda, is also significant. (Many analysts divide ASL into two separate groups, Ansar al Sharia in Derna and Ansar al Sharia in Benghazi). Then there are Islamist militant groups with strong local or regional roots. In Derna, for example, the Derna Mujahidin Shura Council is the strongest power in the city, and also has connections to Al Qaeda.
The Libyan civil war is often described as matching Islamists against secularists. That’s not really the best description of the key factors driving conflict in the country, but it is fair to describe many of the groups involved in the civil war as Islamist in orientation. The General National Congress (GNC) is accurately described as the more Islamist-dominated coalition. There is also a strong Islamist presence in the GNA, the Government of National Accord. The conflict in Libya is only growing increasingly complex.
In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood has been a big player since the Egyptian revolution, holding power until the coup that brought Sisi to power. You also have, in the north of Egypt, Wilayat Sinai, a jihadist group that’s affiliated with ISIS, which used to be called Ansar Beit al-Maqdis (ABM). It has been waging a low-level insurgency in the Sinai. There is also an Al Qaeda presence in Egypt. After ABM pledged bayat (an oath of allegiance) to ISIS, that caused a rift between the group’s Al Qaeda loyalists and those who supported the new allegiance to ISIS. Though it is somewhat of an oversimplification to think of these factions as neatly divided geographically, Western officials have said that the faction most opposed to the pledge to ISIS was based in the Nile Valley. That faction’s concerns relate to ideology, affinity, and also to strategy, as it is concerned that ISIS’s reputation and tactics will alienate Egyptians. So some Al Qaeda loyalists left ABM/Wilayat Sinai following its reorientation toward ISIS. There are also other Al Qaeda groups present in Egypt independent of that organization, though analysts have differing views about how strong Al Qaeda is in that country.
OR: How do you assess ISIS’s and Al Qaeda’s relative positions of power in the region?
Gartenstein-Ross: I’d assess Al Qaeda as far more potent in the region, with ISIS having a lot of potential in Tunisia and also probably being the more powerful player in Egypt, though that’s not entirely clear. In Algeria, there is a strong Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) presence. There was one group that splintered off from AQIM and joined ISIS, originally called the Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb Center Zone. They renamed themselves Jund al Khilafah after joining ISIS, and they gained notoriety by beheading a mountain climber named Hervé Gourdel, a Frenchman. After that, Algerian authorities clamped down on the group, and were able to kill or capture — but mainly kill — the vast majority of Jund al Khilafah members.
In Tunisia, as we discussed, Katibat Uqba ibn Nafi is the more powerful player. It’s possible that Tunisia could see a powerful ISIS emergence given foreign fighter dynamics, but the fact is that Tunisian foreign fighters largely going over to ISIS rather than Al Qaeda thus far hasn’t manifested in ISIS being stronger organizationally in Tunisia.
Al Qaeda is engaged in its own “de-radicalization” program aimed at ISIS members, trying to convince ISIS members to abandon the more extreme ISIS and come into the Al Qaeda fold. It’s a peculiar kind of de-radicalization program, obviously. The reports I have seen show that Al Qaeda’s program is being carried out in Algeria, but it is likely that one purpose is to guide some of the pro-ISIS Tunisians back to the Al Qaeda fold in order to stave off a potential challenge from ISIS in that country.
In Libya, ISIS had a very strong military presence. It still does — but they made the same mistake in Libya that they have made in places like Syria and Iraq. That is, ISIS made enemies of literally everyone in Libya. Even though there was a civil war in which both sides viewed fighting each other as a higher priority than fighting ISIS, ISIS made enough of a nuisance of itself that the warring factions were able to at least agree that pushing ISIS out of Sirte was worthwhile. At this point, I assess Al Qaeda as rather blended into the population in many parts of Libya, similar to the way in which they were able to naturally blend into the opposition in Syria. I think they’re in a stronger position in Libya than is ISIS, with a confidence level of about 75 percent.
In Egypt, Al Qaeda’s presence has been quiet. Some observers think that’s because they’re weak. That may or may not be the case. But ISIS’s Wilayat Sinai has clearly been the loudest faction. And though Morocco faces less of a jihadist challenge than the other North African countries, Al Qaeda appears to be more powerful there as well.
So in four of the five countries, Al Qaeda appears to be stronger than ISIS. The ISIS infrastructure that propelled its rise — the fact that it essentially had a state of its own in Iraq/Syria — is receding now. It seems like Al Qaeda will continue to be better positioned in the near term.
OR: What do the next five years look like for Egypt?
Gartenstein-Ross: We’re in an extraordinarily unpredictable time, not just in North Africa but throughout the globe. I think if you were to ask most experts what was going to happen in recent elections in Europe or the United States, they would have gotten it wrong. Yet the past year-plus of elections has fundamentally changed Europe’s direction and the U.S.’s direction. I’m hesitant to project out what’s going to happen with Sisi. My gut instinct is that he will probably still be in power, say, three years down the road. I would put the odds in favor of that. But because it’s an extraordinarily unpredictable time, rather than making specific guesses, I’ll map out a few dynamics and questions that will fundamentally shape Egypt’s future.
The first one is: what is the fate of the tourist industry in Egypt? In Tunisia, the government is existentially threatened by jihadist attacks against tourists. In 2015, Tunisia suffered through the Bardo Museum attack and the Sousse beach attack, which caused tourism to significantly decline — these attacks succeeded in scaring Western tourists away. Tunisia and Egypt are similar in the sense that both have very tourism-dependent economies. It’s an inherent fragility. If there are a few well-timed, well-placed attacks against tourist targets, that could do extraordinary damage to the Egyptian state. It might even put it into a vicious cycle, where jihadists are able to carry out a major attack, depress the economy, and then recruit off of the economic woes they themselves created.
The second thing is that the overall Egyptian economy is already doing poorly, and it will weaken the state vis-à-vis its competitors. Third, you have Sisi’s crackdown on the Brotherhood. One of the concerns observers have articulated is that Egypt’s current heavy-handed approach to counter-terrorism and to political Islam may cause fence-sitters within Islamist movement to end up turning to violence.
It may be slow, it may be fast, but I do think we’ll see an escalation in violence within Egypt, particularly outside of the Sinai region (which is already experiencing a lot of jihadist attacks). We’ve already seen bombings and assassinations in urban areas. I would expect, looking three years down the line, that the numbers killed in Egyptian sub-state violence are greater than today.
Though the uncertainties I described make me fairly hesitant to predict too much about the region, I’ll make one prediction for you: in Egypt or Tunisia we will see a major attack against a tourist target within the next five years. I have at least 70 percent confidence that will happen.
OR: What do you think the past two administrations got wrong about political Islam and jihadism in the region? How do we get the region more right going forward under Trump?
Gartenstein-Ross: Both the Bush and Obama administrations really started to get things wrong about the region once they hit their first crisis. With Bush, that first crisis came early in his presidency, the 9/11 attacks. Those attacks ended up swinging the debate about Iraq within the administration (which the doves had been winning prior to 9/11) in favor of the decision to go to war in Iraq. That was, as everybody knows, a very costly decision. The administration fundamentally misread what the results of going to war in Iraq would be. They underestimated the degree to which jihadist groups could capitalize, and they misread the degree to which liberal democracy could take root.
For Obama, it was the Arab uprisings. He campaigned against the Iraq War, but my view is that with the Libya intervention, he brought us a second Iraq War. Though not nearly as costly in U.S. blood and treasure, Obama’s Libya war had essentially the same rationale as Bush’s Iraq war. The view in the Obama administration at the time was that these uprisings were devastating to our enemies, so it made sense to hasten the fall of regional dictators. The rationale for the Libya War looks like the justification for the Iraq War when you strip away the WMD issue: one of the main strategic justifications for the Iraq War, at the time, was the need to create a democratic model in the heart of the Arab world. Yet the Obama administration went to war for hauntingly similar reasons in Libya. Obama thus mishandled his own crisis.
So how can we get the region more right going forward? There’s no simple answer, but there are a few elements that are important to a broader strategy.
One is to stop the Libya conflict from destabilizing its neighbors. The collapsed Libyan state is now the region’s biggest security threat for a variety of reasons, including the significant jihadist presence that remains even after ISIS’s loss of Sirte. The U.S. should assist Libya’s neighbors in securing their borders.
Another is to assist regional countries in making needed structural economic reforms. Tunisia in particular has an economy that is hostile to entrepreneurship, and its job market is mismatched with its highly educated population. Youth unemployment is one of Tunisia’s key challenges. Violent challengers to the system can benefit from this kind of structural problem, including in their ability to recruit.
The third is that the U.S. needs to ensure that its intelligence processes are producing an adequate understanding of the world, and equipping it to make good decisions quickly. There have been some striking analytic failures related to violent non-state actors, including the conclusion that the Arab Uprisings would damage the jihadist cause, underestimation of the negative impacts of the Libya intervention, and a general misreading of the Al Qaeda-ISIS competition, where analysts significantly overestimated the degree to which ISIS would cause the Al Qaeda organization to fragment. Were these bugs or features? The fact that the recent Inspector General report concerning allegations of intelligence manipulation at CENTCOM is widely perceived by analysts as a whitewash suggests that the problems may be more systemic. The U.S. will be at a disadvantage in taking action regionally if its understanding of the region is off in the first place.
OR: Why do you think our fixation is so deeply on Islamic State at the moment, not Al Qaeda? Who are names to watch within both organizations?
Gartenstein-Ross: In terms of why we ended up so focused on ISIS, part of it is by ISIS’s own design, as well as Al Qaeda’s own response to ISIS. ISIS had a great social media game. They were excellent at recruiting people and were extraordinarily brutal. They undertook a massive offensive from Syria into Iraq, and they were aggressively targeting the West in terrorist attacks. All of this constitutes a perfect storm that caused us to really focus on ISIS. Al Qaeda even played up ISIS while playing down its own strength and capabilities. There were Al Qaeda leaders who were released from Jordanian prison — Abu Qatada and Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi — who gave an interview to The Guardian talking about how ISIS had destroyed Al Qaeda, exaggerating the impact that its rise had on Al Qaeda as an organization. They almost certainly did this, in part, because they wanted us to focus our counterterrorism and COIN resources on ISIS rather than on Al Qaeda.
In terms of news coverage, I don’t blame the media for being focused on ISIS. It’s not as though there need to be news stories all the time about Al Qaeda. It’s understandable that the media would be more focused on ISIS. Rather, I think a lot of the problem rests on analysts in the public sphere who assumed or asserted that Al Qaeda was a spent force as ISIS rose in power. That view might be already disproven, but at the very least is in the process of unraveling.
In terms names to watch, the most significant one is that of an organization: Tahrir al-Sham, Al Qaeda’s new undeclared affiliate in Syria, which subsumed Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (the rebranded Nusra Front). Because Tahrir al-Sham also subsumed a number of other militant groups, it has significant manpower, with Al-Sharq Al-Awsat estimating that it has 31,000 fighters. These fighters came to Tahrir al-Sham from the Nur al-Din Zanki movement, the Ansar al-Din Front, Liwa al-Haqq, Jaysh al-Sunnah, and defectors from Ahrar al-Sham. Al Qaeda had been leading efforts to merge large portions of the Syria opposition since January 2016, back when it was still operating in Syria under the Nusra banner. The fruit of these efforts is really the critical storyline to watch today.
As to individuals, one of the big names I’d watch on the Al Qaeda side is Abdallah al-Muhaysini, a Syria-based Al Qaeda leader.
But more than group names and personalities, I would watch trends. The reason why I think Al Qaeda is in such a good position today is not because of personalities, though personalities are one part of it. If you just look theater-to-theater, Tahrir al-Sham (which I just detailed) seems to be in a very strong military position. Al-Qaeda’s Yemeni affiliate still controls territory along the Yemeni coast. There’s a burgeoning insurgency in Mali, of which Al Qaeda is a major part. The Somali affiliate Al-Shabaab is at this point a rural insurgency that, as the African Union mission draws down, is primed to recapture territory in southern Somalia. There is a very capable Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb branch led by Mokhtar Belmokhtar (whose death has been rumored or reported more times than I can count) that has carried out hotel attacks throughout West Africa, including in countries that are generally regarded as secure. One can argue about how truly affiliated it is with Al Qaeda’s core leadership, but an Al Qaeda affiliated militia in Libya controls the city of Derna.
U.S. officials are now openly discussing how the Taliban/Al Qaeda relationship has been repaired, as the Taliban is growing increasingly potent in Afghanistan. This is illustrated by the 30-square-mile Al Qaeda training facility that the U.S. found near Kandahar. All of these are signs of a pretty powerful organization.
OR: What advice would you give to Donald Trump about approaching the question of sub-state violence in North Africa? What does the U.S. need to start doing on counterterrorism that it isn’t doing?
Gartenstein-Ross: Making good policy isn’t easy. I tend to focus more on how we think about the problem than on the solution set. The reason for that is, at least on the areas I’ve been working on, I have been challenging the way people see the problem for more than half a decade by now. My view has been heterodox enough that drawing policy based upon it is kind of a fiction: There has not been enough of a consensus around my key observations and arguments to imagine that policy would be made based on them. Now we have an administration that’s not going to be shackled by factual assumptions of the past.
At its best, a Trump administration could contribute to making intelligence processes better. At its worst, it could escalate the politicization of analysis, just in a different direction than the last administration. My key advice would be to focus on institutions: on strong, depoliticized intelligence about violent non-state actors, and on an organizational design of government that is more suitable for the twenty-first century.
Daveed Gartenstein-Ross is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, and The Atlantic, among other publications.