Op-Ed: Explaining extremism in the Maghreb


    On 7 September 2017, a study by the United
    Nations Development Programme (UNDP) affirmed long-held
    hypotheses on the drivers of radicalisation and violent
    extremism in Africa, particularly the Islamist cognate which is
    dominating the continent’s contemporary political discourse.
    Aggregating the testimonies of 495 recruits who joined the
    ranks of myriad transnational terrorist organisations, the
    study concluded that relative deprivation, economic
    marginalisation, perceived state violence and malgovernance are
    the foremost drivers of radicalisation. Furthermore, it found
    that those from ethnic minorities in peripheral and/or
    marginalised areas are the most vulnerable to the lure of

    A region where these drivers have been most
    pervasive is the Maghreb, particularly its southern expanse
    bordering the Sahel. The two transnational terror entities that
    have profited most from this divisive status quo are al-Qaeda
    and the Islamic State, specifically al-Qaeda in the Islamic
    Maghreb (AQIM) and Islamic State in Libya (ISIL), their
    regional affiliates. There is, however, some difference in how
    each group is operating and expanding in the

    Of the two, AQIM has arguably emerged as the
    foremost Jihadist entity in the region and chief profiteer of
    the ongoing socio-political malaise. This is largely
    attributable to global franchise figurehead Ayman al-Zawahiri’s
    foresight and adoption of a long game in the immediate
    aftermath of the Arab Spring, centred on timely adapting to –
    and the exploiting of – domestic socio-economic and political
    fault lines.

    Indeed, while the rival Islamic State
    distracted global audiences with trademark spectacular
    campaigns, a largely dispersed and decentralised al-Qaeda
    remoulded itself under the caliphate’s spectre, reverting to a
    hyper-localised approach through its regional affiliates, more
    tactful use of terrorism and dissemination of Salafist ideology
    and solidifying its allegiance with fringe

    In the Maghreb-Sahel contiguity, it achieved
    this by making common cause with predominantly ethnic
    dissidents from the marginalised Kabylie, Sahrawi, Tuareg and
    Fulani populace and embedding itself within less radical
    movements. What’s more, in desolate settings such as Algeria’s
    Southern Adrar and Tamanghasset regions, the group is rumoured
    to have seized upon Algiers’ vacuum, performing crude yet
    effectual administrative and developmental functions. And amid
    less permeable yet restive urban settings such as Algiers and
    Tizi Ouzou, the pragmatic AQIM has sought to capitalise on
    youths aggrieved by their economic disenfranchisement and state

    Testament to its aptitude in manipulating the
    malaise in the Maghreb, AQIM has prized back affiliate
    al-Mourabitoun, and together with two other ethnically
    organised Islamist factions – Ansar Dine and the Macina
    Liberation Front – formed Jama’a Nusrat ul-Islam wa al-Muslimin
    or The Group to Support Islam and Muslims. Altogether, these
    factors have seen the organisation’s ranks swell, its enclaves
    grow, its capabilities multiply and its role as the Maghreb’s
    foremost jihadist group reclaimed.

    As the continent’s jihadist flag-bearer since
    2015 and given the pre-eminence of the Levant-based parent
    body, ISIL had little need to devolve or resort to AQIM’s
    pragmatism. Brute strength was sufficient to subdue
    recalcitrant local populations, and the lure of the caliphate
    has been sufficient to seize susceptible individuals. Yet, amid
    the proto-state’s dissolution in the Levant and the loss of
    continental stronghold, Sirte, ISIL has gradually turned to
    AQIM’s strategy in the Maghreb, catalysed by a
    centrally-derived decree to “conduct jihad at home”. Since
    then, the pipeline of fighters has reversed, with greater
    numbers returning to the region via its porous borders. Many
    such returnees have been funnelled to enclaves in Libya’s
    deserted south and the vacuous border regions with Tunisia and
    Algeria, where they have sought to appeal to receptive
    communities, marginalised by their respective

    The group has also seemingly
    desisted from the indiscriminate tactics that had previously
    alienated local civilians to almost exclusively prioritising
    state and foreign-linked assets and personnel, as evidenced by
    its recent attacks targeting infrastructure and security posts
    in the Fezzan and Cyrenaica regions. Recent videos of the group
    mounting civilian checkpoints in Jufra, in its idiosyncratic
    notion of restoring a semblance of order to the chaotic region,
    demonstrates its intent to re-position itself as an alternative
    to otherwise negligent central authorities. In doing so, ISIL
    reinforced the UNDP’s conclusions that it is more the guise of
    stable governance – than religious ideology – which could
    either drive or suffocate violent extremism on the


    Menzi Ndhlovu is from Africa-focused
    risk management consultancy, Signal


    South African captive, Stephen
    McGown, with his family addresses the media, Johannesburg on 10
    August 2017, after being released from captivity after being
    held for six years in Mali. McGown was held by al-Qaeda in the
    Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and converted his faith to Islam while
    in captivity. Photo: STR/EPAEPA