Sixteen months after the killing of Osama Bin Laden, Al Qaeda has achieved an impressive resurgence. Its “eastern strategy” of using Afghanistan and Iraq as springboards to expand in a southwesterly direction has been supplanted by a “southern strategy” of moving from the African Sahel through the Maghreb in a northeasterly direction. Key political assets in North Africa, largely overlooked in the West but well-known to North African intelligence and security officials we have interviewed, are poised to aid and abet this process. Fortunately, options are available to counter Al Qaeda’s campaign.
Al Qaeda is a Sunni jihadist movement claiming to draw inspiration from seventh-century Islamic history. But its current approach, ironically, resembles that of a Shia organization from tenth-century Islamic history. The Shia “Fatimid” movement, headquartered in what is now Iraq, determined that most urban areas were too tightly controlled by their enemies to serve as operational bases. So they dispatched emissaries far to the southwest and forged alliances with non-Arab ethnics in rural areas—while exploiting weak governments in many provinces in between. A Berber army in what is now Tunisia made its way up through the capital Qayrawan and ultimately conquered Egypt, where the Fatimid empire ruled from Cairo for approximately one hundred years.
Working at first in partnership with non-Arab Touareg Muslims in Mali earlier this year, the pro-Al Qaeda organization Ansar Dine has managed to conquer three hundred thousand miles of north Malian territory and establish a Taliban-like Islamic state of its own. Meanwhile, in the broader African Sahel region and southern edge of the Maghreb, the movement has achieved enormous strategic depth: Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), a nimble organization largely composed of Algerian Kabyle and Saharans, enjoys footholds in the Western Sahara, Niger, Chad and now Libya. A senior Moroccan intelligence official notes that since last year’s overthrow of Qaddafi, several AQIM leaders have moved into Libya and established a partnership with local jihadists. The latter elements have assisted AQIM in acquiring a massive amount of weapons belonging to the former Libyan regime.
Additionally, over the past decade, AQIM has benefited from rogue elements of the Saharan “Polisario” movement, an Algeria-backed separatist group laying claim to half the map of Morocco, in the acquisition of weapons and training. The Algerian government, though urged by the United States to fight AQIM and supported with American resources to do so, appears to have done little to address the problem.
These achievements by Al Qaeda conform to its familiar pattern of exploiting failed states (remember Somalia) and areas of weak central government (parts of Iraq) as areas of operation.
But moving north into Tunisia, Al Qaeda has found that even a comparatively stable, post-Arab Spring country can have provincial and outlying urban pockets in which the movement can act politically and militarily. Thus in April 2011, Al Qaeda supported the establishment of “Ansar al-Sharia” by Islamist convicts who fled Tunisian prisons after the fall of Ben Ali. The movement today controls more than four hundred Tunisian mosques, primarily outside the capital in areas like Bizerte, Sfax, Sidi Bouzid, and Jendouba. The group has also won more than forty-two thousand “fans” on Facebook.
While Ennahda, the ruling Tunisian Islamist party, has forsworn Ansar al-Sharia, the two groups consistently confront common adversaries—Ennahda doing so politically and Ansar al-Sharia militarily. For example, in the country’s elected parliament, Ennahda devoted considerable political capital over the summer to challenging the popular, secular Tunisian UGTT labor syndicate. Also this summer, Ansar al-Sharia activists firebombed three UGTT branch offices—and several mosque preachers aligned with the movement, notably the young sheikh Anis al-Tunsi, have declared all union organizers to be “infidels,” their assassination justifiable according to Islamic law. Noting that the two organizations seem to have worked in tandem to harm organized labor, UGTT legal counsel Muhammad Amdouni went so far as to describe Ansar al-Sharia as the “de facto military wing of Ennahda.”
But the pro-Al Qaeda organization also has been pursuing an independent agenda. Azhar al-Akrami, who served as a minister in charge of security reform in the caretaker government following Ben Ali’s fall, feels that the pro-Al Qaeda group has been deftly supporting all efforts to weaken the central government. “Through their network of mosques,” he observes, “they have ordered their followers not even to cooperate with the country’s court system.” In other words, while mounting a military challenge to its opponents, Ansar al-Sharia also is using nonviolent techniques to erode the population's support for the state. In the country’s outlying areas, where the state is weak to begin with, the group may actually stand a chance at carving out its own enclaves.
Tunisians close to the security sector opine that the security services have done relatively little to counter Ansar al-Sharia. Akrami headed a ministerial committee to reform the Tunisian security sector. Today, he suspects that Ennahda might be restraining the apparatus from acting against Ansar al-Sharia. “Ennahda doesn't want the government to crack down on such a group,” he says. "With or without coordination, Ansar al-Sharia offers a kind of strategic depth to the [Ennahda] movement.”
There are strong indications that the kind of opportunities available to Al Qaeda in Libya and Tunisia are also available further to the northeast, in the prized Arab heartlands of Syria and Egypt. As in Libya, the war against Syrian president Bashar al-Assad has enabled Al Qaeda to ally with heavily armed rebels who will in all likelihood play a prominent role in the post-Assad political process. As in Tunisia, chaos in the Egyptian Sinai and the common, secular enemies Al Qaeda shares with the ruling Muslim Brotherhood movement makes it easier for Al Qaeda affiliates to gain support in Egypt—particularly outside the capital, where civil society is weak and its liberal proponents tend to be more vulnerable.
Needless to say, Al Qaeda’s growing “neo-Fatimid belt,” stretching across much of the Arab world, poses a serious security threat to all these countries as well as to nearby southern Europe, the Mediterranean basin, Israel and the Gulf states, and American interests throughout.
Countering this strategy entails a military response, to be sure, in consort with the West’s allies in the region, beginning in the Sahel and the Maghreb. Mauritania, for example, has used what military resources it has to fight AQIM over the past several years. Its efforts should be commended, encouraged and materially supported by the United States. Algeria, which has been less forthcoming, should receive a clear signal that American support is not a blank check—and stronger demands that it make good on its pledge to fight Al Qaeda.
But even an aggressive, concerted military response is not enough. While Al Qaeda continues to exploit areas in the region where the state is failing or weak, the West has done relatively little to support civil-society groups that can strengthen the state and its institutions. Those that stand for the rule of law, transparency in government, and social and economic justice are in a position to redress the grievances that destabilize Muslim society and bolster Al Qaeda. The example of the Tunisian labor movement, which has fallen under attack by jihadists, particularly in the provinces, provides an interesting case in point. Last year, David Dorn, a senior American Federation of Teachers official who has served the organization since the Cold War, devised a project to bolster labor as an institutional force in Tunisia's restive, smaller cities and towns. The American Middle East Partnership Initiative, to which he applied for the grant, has thus far not supported it. It should do so: pro-American labor groups were an important asset in the West’s struggle against Soviet tyranny, and they can play a no less valuable role in the struggle against jihadism. Indeed, it is high time to ramp up support for a range of liberal institutions that share a common purpose of advancing egalitarian values and the rule of law.
In the Western Sahara, the long-festering conflict between Morocco and the Algerian-backed Polisario movement has lent a lifeline to Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, with trained Polisario fighters and weapons falling into their hands. It is essential to press for a solution to the Sahara conflict—ideally, one based on the Saharan autonomy plan now backed by the United States, France, Morocco and the United Nations.
Finally, the West should support moderate religious streams in North Africa that are competing with jihadist ideologies for the loyalty of worshippers in the region’s mosques. An example of a place in which such efforts have been successful is Morocco, where King Mohammed VI has been using his position as “commander of the faithful”—the country’s highest religious authority—to counter extremism through education and public programs. Witness his popular Islamic satellite channel, Al Sadisa, which advocates Islamic ideals of tolerance, taking direct aim at jihadist clerics and their media.
Whether on air, on the Internet, or on the streets and pulpits of the Maghreb, there are many opportunities to expand such messages of tolerance. The world cannot afford to squander them.