29 October 2014
Concerns in the region about returning jihadists are now compounded by the risk that local groups will adopt the methods and tactics of Islamic State closer to home.
Claire Spencer

Dr Claire Spencer

Senior Research Fellow, Middle East and North Africa Programme & Second Century Initiative


A Tunisian security officer outside a polling station as voters casting their ballots for the parliamentary election in Tunis on 26 October 2014. Photo by Getty Images.
A Tunisian security officer outside a polling station as voters casting their ballots for the parliamentary election in Tunis on 26 October 2014. Photo by Getty Images.


Tunisia’s first parliamentary elections since the adoption of its new constitution took place without incident on 26 October, but required the deployment of 80,000 police and military personnel to ensure that this remained the case. Following the kidnap and murder in September of a French national, Hervé Gourdel, in Algeria by an armed group newly affiliated to Islamic State (IS), the recruitment of North Africans to join and associate their actions with the conflicts in Syria and Iraq, has come under increasing international scrutiny. With estimates of up to 3,000 people involved, Tunisians have long topped the list of foreign nationals joining jihadist groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria, and have continued to constitute the majority of outsiders affiliated with IS as it gained ascendancy in 2014. Concerns about what eventual returnees from the Levant might do are now compounded by the risk that local groups previously affiliated to Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) will adopt the methods and tactics of IS closer to home.

Ahead of the elections, a stand off between Tunisian security forces and an armed group in the suburbs of the capital Tunis led to the death of a policeman and six Islamist militants, of which five were women. In a turnout of 60 per cent, Tunisian voters appear to have had enough of the moderate Islamists of the Ennahda movement, preferring to give Nida Tounes, the umbrella party of old regime stalwarts, businessmen and anti-Islamist ‘secularists’ 37 per cent of the vote against 26 per cent for Ennahda in results still to be officially confirmed. While the economy and jobs are a key factor in this switch of allegiance, local and regional security considerations weigh heavily on a small state whose governing elites have been slow to respond to the demands for both change and stability unleashed by a still heavily under-employed younger generation.

Tunisia’s weak spot is on its southern borders with Libya and Algeria, where Islamist fighters based in the Chaambi Mountains have resisted the combined efforts of the Tunisian and Algerian armies to dislodge them. Part of the reason is their links to armed groups and supply chains of weapons and money that stretch across the whole Sahel-Saharan region, through which AQIM and its offshoots have prospered since the October 2011 downfall of Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi unleashed a flow of heavy and light weaponry as far south and west as northern Mali. In a much publicized attack on a gas installation near In Amenas in southern Algeria in January 2013, in which 40 foreign workers (including 6 British citizens) died, 11 of the 32-strong AQIM-offshoot terrorist group involved were Tunisian nationals, none of whom survived the counter-attack by the Algerian army.

Despite attempts to coordinate security efforts across the states of North Africa and Sahel, the French Defence Ministry still considers AQIM to represent the biggest security threat in the area south of Algeria. In early October, French forces present in the region since early 2013 intercepted a six-vehicle convoy comprised of two tonnes of arms in north-eastern Niger, en route to re-supply AQIM bases in northern Mali. Much of this traffic travels by night, and follows smuggling routes from Libya to Niger then Mali, passing through the Salvador mountain pass in southern Algeria which French forces are now monitoring in close conjunction with their Algerian counterparts.

This latest arms seizure suggests that shared intelligence and surveillance methods are now working better than at the time of the attack on In Amenas. US forces have also been operating a drone surveillance base in Niger to monitor movements across the whole Sahel region, even though the ability of large convoys to hide themselves by day and move only at night has led American officials to admit that controlling such a vast area is akin to looking at it through a drinking straw. There are clearly few technological substitutes for the sharing of good regional intelligence which can then be acted on jointly in a region now characterised, as in Syria and Iraq, by the trans-national composition of terrorist groups with a light-footed ability to cover large distances unrestrained by international borders.

In this context, the recent escalation in tensions between Algeria and Morocco (to Algeria’s west) should give international security planners cause for concern. Their common border has been closed since 1994 over a previous generation of cross-border terrorist activity and has remained closed due to their continuing differences over the Western Sahara. The latter is territory claimed by Morocco as sovereign and by Algeria as an unfinished colonial issue, requiring the self-determination of the local Sahrawi population for its legal status to be resolved. In the latest of a number of cross-border shooting incidents, on 18 October, Algerian security forces shot and critically injured a Moroccan in the Oujda region of northern Morocco. The Algerian authorities have nether explained nor apologised for the incident which Moroccan sources claim is a deliberate tactic to provoke their retaliation in order to distract domestic Algerian attention away from the difficult political transition being engineered as Algeria’s ageing President Abdelaziz Bouteflika becomes increasingly incapacitated through illness.

Whatever the pretext, if this escalation succeeds to the point of military action, it will be to the detriment of a region that clearly needs to focus its joint attention on the ever-longer reach of terrorist groups. Moroccan intelligence officials recently succeeded in detaining a Franco-Moroccan national en route from Casablanca airport to join IS via Istanbul, where their French counterparts had failed to prevent him leaving France despite having kept him under surveillance. Yet, in response to Gourdel’s murder in Algeria, the French authorities have increased the risk level of its travel advice to French travellers to include Morocco, thus aggravating their already tense relations with the Moroccan government, relying as it does on tourist revenues.

For the kind of democratic transition for which the recent Tunisian elections have gained plaudits to become the norm across North Africa, a clearer distinction between priorities and provocations needs to be made by Europeans beyond France, as well as the US, which has a key interest in stemming the cross-regional spread and appeal of groups such as IS and AQIM. The risk of Morocco and Algeria falling into a regional conflict which neither needs, and which would doubtlessly be exploited by jihadist groups on either side of their respective border, is a danger the international allies of both should pre-empt, first and foremost by urging that the Algerian sharp-shooters targeting Moroccan civilians across the valley dividing them be firmly reined in.

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