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The Jihadists are back

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The North Africa Journal – 22 November, 2017:  Although authorities have so far been able to contain the militant threat in most parts of North Africa, while Libya is bearing the brunt of the violence and Egypt struggling to contain insurgents, the region at-large is living a permanent state of threat from al-Qaeda, Islamic State and other extremist organizations. Borders separating countries do not shield the individual nations against militants, as they are easy to infiltrate, despite efforts from governments to reinforce security along the borders.  For instance Egypt has seen a recent escalation of its conflict with the proliferation of militant activity in its western desert because of its proximity to Libya, where weapons and militants come from. This development is expanding the crisis in Egypt from what used to be the confined Sinai region in the northeast, to the western desert, toward Libya, essentially creating a third front (in the western desert), in addition to Sinai and the big urban centers.  The infiltration of militants from Libya, prompted Egypt to unleash attacks on militants, and several Libyan sources accuse the Egyptian Air Force of bombing targets within the Libyan territory, resulting in civilian deaths.  The accusations have been denied by Cairo.

This situation, and many other developments, confirm that the conflicts involving militant groups are regional in nature and cannot be seen as specific to individual states.  The response, therefore, requires a coordinated regional approach. But with governments feuding with one another (take Algeria and Morocco, eventually Egypt and Libya), such coordination is very hard to achieve.

The Islamic State (IS) threat in the region is not new.  IS has been a major player in the Libyan conflict, complicating an already complex set of domestic factors that have conspired to pit Libyans against one another.  With IS there, the Libyans are confronted with outside influences, that extend far beyond the issue of dealing with rogue terrorists, but also with foreign governments meddling in Libyan affairs, from the West and the oil-rich Gulf countries, to Libya’s direct neighbors and an aggressive Turkey.  But the IS threat is significant, nonetheless.

Over the past years, there have been continuous warnings that IS will inevitably try to set foot on the region more broadly, essentially using Libya as a launching pad.  The latest of such warnings came from the Algerian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Abdelkader Messahel, who repeated the threat while meeting his Egyptian and Tunisian counterparts in Cairo on November 15, 2017. The apparent defeat of IS in Iraq and Syria is forcing its fighters to retreat, some in other war zones like Libya, the Sahel, and West Africa, others in their home countries, including North Africa and Europe. Algeria, Tunisia and Egypt have at least one thing in common: sharing a border with Libya, where the militant threat appears to be permanent. But they are not the only ones in the region to be concerned about the influx of militants.  Morocco, despite being seemingly sheltered in its northwest corner of the Maghreb, has also been a source of combatants for IS and authorities there have been working hard to prevent any new trouble from the returning militants, expanding its security posture and enhancing its legal instruments.  Its Interior Minister, in charge of domestic security, reports that 1,669 known Moroccan nationals joined the fight in Syria and Iraq, nearly 1,000 of them with IS. Among them were some 390 children, who are expected to be fully radicalized and eventually trained to fight wars.  As predicted, some of them are already back.  In his 2018 budget request, the Moroccan Minister of the Interior asked for nearly €2 billion to deal with current and emerging threats, including dealing with estimated 213 fighters who returned from Syria.  The Moroccan authorities have already arrested 225 of them, who are being held in prisons under a counter-terrorism law allowing the security services to consider such combatants a terror threat.

Morocco, just like all its other neighbors Algeria, Tunisia and Egypt, has been escalating its counter-terror campaign to prevent attacks and isolate extremist elements.  Any terror attack, no matter its severity, could have have a substantial impact on the tourism sector and business in general. The case of Egypt with the downing of Russia-bound flight leaving Sharm el-Sheikh has had an immediate impact on the Egyptian destination, and this is what Morocco is working hard to prevent.   Since 2015, some 48 alleged terror cells were dismantled, and its members arrested.  Monumental efforts are being deployed, but only time will tell if such security strategy, without a true regional coordination, will bear fruit.

The North Africa Journal is a leading English-language publication focused on North Africa. The Journal covers primarily the Maghreb region and expands its general coverage to the Sahel, Egypt, and beyond, when events in those regions affect the broader North Africa geography. The Journal does not have any affiliation with any institution and has been independent since its founding in 1996. Our position is to always bring our best analysis of events affecting the region, and remain as neutral as humanly possible. Our coverage is not limited to one single topic, but ranges from economic and political affairs, to security, defense, social and environmental issues. We rely on our full staff analysts and editors to bring you best-in-class analysis. We also work with sister company MEA Risk LLC, to leverage the presence on the ground of a solid network of contributors and experts. Information on MEA Risk can be found at www.MEA-Risk.com.