In its war to create a caliphate across Syria and Iraq, the Islamic State is opening a front in North Africa, where affiliated militants are wreaking havoc in eastern Libya and Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula — presenting a complex challenge for Washington and its allies in the region.
Through its savvy use of social media and slick production of recruitment videos, the Islamic State — also known by the acronyms ISIS and ISIL — is attracting a growing number of individual jihadis to its harsh interpretation of Islamic, or Shariah, law.
“ISIL’s stated goal of expanding its caliphate and its adherence to a strict form of Shariah has definitely resonated with a collection of extremists across North Africa, who appear to be mimicking ISIL’s rhetoric and brutality,” said a U.S. intelligence official who spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to discuss security issues freely.
What remains to be seen is whether the region will face a surge of unbridled Islamic State-style violence, including beheadings. Counterterrorism analysts say there is little doubt of that — especially in Libya, where the government is under threat of being overrun by militants, and in Egypt, where the military has struggled to contain Sinai extremists for years.
“I don’t think there’s any doubt that the Islamic State is going to commit and claim responsibility for an increasing number of attacks in North Africa, both in Libya and in the Sinai during the year ahead,” said Thomas Joscelyn, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington.
“But it’s not yet clear how it’s going to play out,” Mr. Joscelyn said. “If they go in the direction of more horror killings the way the Islamic State is doing in Syria and Iraq, they may go after Christians and others, and that could end up triggering sectarian violence in Egypt. But that remains to be seen.”
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The U.S. intelligence community regards the Islamic State as the world’s most violent terrorist organization, and officials say its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, sees himself as a kind of Osama bin Laden figure.
But Mr. Joscelyn, who writes about the Islamic State for the Long War Journal, says al-Baghdadi has had limited success in persuading jihadi groups around the world to abandon bin Laden’s core al Qaeda movement and join his caliphate.
“You have to understand the context here that al-Baghdadi and his minions have made a huge push over the last year to basically try and co-opt or win the allegiance of all these jihadi groups around the world — basically saying, ‘Hey, everybody needs to sign on with us now because we’re the strong horse,’” said Mr. Joscelyn. “But that effort was, for the most part, a total failure. The Islamic State was actually rejected far more than they were accepted.”
Where the group has had success is among young jihadists seeking to distinguish themselves from their elders by declaring “baya,” or pledging allegiance, to al-Baghdadi. That seems to be occurring most often in eastern Libya and the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt.
Early this month, a group of militants claiming to control the Libyan town of Darna — long a hotbed of al Qaeda-inspired extremism between Benghazi and Libya’s border with Egypt — declared allegiance to al-Baghdadi.
The militants were reportedly from the local Islamic Youth Shura Council, an extremist outfit that established itself in Darna in March. Nonetheless, al-Baghdadi swiftly ordered one of his up-and-coming followers in Syria — a Yemeni with the nom de guerre Abu al-Baraa al-Azdi — to travel to Darna and serve as the Islamic State’s “emir” there.
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The development opened a front on the already chaotic landscape of jihadi groups vying for control of Libya. But U.S. intelligence officials say it is not clear whether the Islamic State will be able to carve out territory in the nation.
“Darna appears particularly vulnerable to ISIL inspiration,” said the U.S. intelligence official. “But the activities of ISIL-inspired groups also have been met with distaste by rival Islamist militias.”
With more seasoned Libyan militants resisting al-Baghdadi’s push for influence, analysts say, a development hundreds of miles to the east, in the Sinai, is likely to prove more significant to the Islamic State’s future.
At about the time al-Baghdadi was receiving pledges from Darna, members of the Sinai extremist outfit Ansar Beit al-Maqdis were declaring allegiance to the Islamic State.
How the group issued its declaration has prompted particular concern in Washington: Ansar Beit al-Maqdis circulated a 30-minute video that apparently was produced by the sophisticated digital propaganda arm of the Islamic State.
Mr. Joscelyn said the Sinai group’s move suggests a heightened level of coordination with the Islamic State and represents the “most significant declaration of allegiance” that al-Baghdadi has been able to attract globally.
There is uncertainty about how Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, whose senior members had been aligned with bin Laden’s al Qaeda, will represent the Islamic State inside Egypt.
“It’s pretty clear there’s actually been a split within ABM on the issue of joining al-Baghdadi’s group,” Mr. Joscelyn said.
Younger members have been “itching for a while to get in with ISIL,” he said, but an older faction rooted in the Nile Valley “did not want to go along with it.”
Internal friction aside, regional news reports suggest the Islamic State is helping Ansar Beit al-Maqdis set up terrorist cells beyond the Sinai in Egypt’s heartland, raising concerns about Cairo’s ability to respond.
Security in Egypt has been precarious since massive Arab Spring demonstrations drove dictator Hosni Mubarak from power in 2011.
Jihadists in Sinai appeared relatively appeased during a brief period after the Muslim Brotherhood was elected to power in Cairo, but a subsequent coup that ousted the Islamists has fanned tension on the peninsula.
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, a former military leader, has tried to wage a bare-knuckled war against extremists, and some counterterrorism analysts believe he has been successful.
Seth Jones, a national security analyst with the Rand Corp., said Mr. el-Sisi’s forces have “effectively decimated” an al Qaeda-aligned group known as the Muhammad Jamal Network, whose members are said to have participated in the September 2012 attack on the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi.
Still, a tribal sheik in Sinai told Al-Monitor recently that Egyptians are losing faith in the military’s claim to winning the war on terrorism.
The sheik, who spoke anonymously and whom Al-Monitor described as “close to the armed forces intelligence services” on the peninsula, said the “problem got worse” after a video that was circulating showed Ansar Beit al-Maqdis carrying out an Oct. 24 attack on a Sinai military base that killed 32 Egyptian soldiers.
Such developments have prompted some in Washington to call for increased U.S. counterterrorism and military support for the el-Sisi government.
“The longer the insurgency in the Sinai continues, the more chance it’s going to make it in a significant way into the Nile Valley, to Cairo and Alexandria, where the government and all the people are,” said David Schenker, a counterterrorism and Arab politics analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
“I don’t think it’s going to be bringing down the regime in Cairo anytime soon, but certainly we’re going to see the possibility of a lot more terrorism in the heartland of Egypt,” Mr. Schenker said, adding that “even before ABM joined ISIS, they were holding their own against the Egyptian military.”
“At a minimum, we should be giving the el-Sisi government all the help they need to defeat this,” he said. “But we’re not talking about what we’re doing with the Egyptians, and there’s a feeling certainly in Cairo that we’re not doing all that we can.”