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AQIM defectors raise fears of IS branch in North Africa

A senior leader of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb has pledged allegiance to the Islamic State, leading some to speculate that an IS branch is in the making in North Africa.
Tunisian soldiers gather near the border with Algeria around Mount Chaambi, western Tunisia August 2, 2013. Tunisian troops exchanged fire with militants near the Algerian border on Thursday, security sources said, three days after gunmen killed eight soldiers in one of the deadliest attacks in decades on the country's security forces. Soldiers had been doing security sweeps since Monday in Mount Chaambi, a remote area where the army has been trying to track down Islamist militants since last December. REUT

ALGIERS, Algeria — In coordination with Western security agencies, Tunisia and Algeria are leading operations to trace jihadists from Algeria, Tunisia and Libya as they move to declare an Islamic State (IS) emirate in North Africa.

Algerian security sources told Al-Monitor that the operations began to take shape as in mid-August, dozens of jihadists who had defected from al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) were observed in southeastern Algeria, near the southern border of Tunisia and not far from the northwest of Libya.

When Abu Abdullah Osman al-Assimi, AQIM's judge for central Algeria, pledged allegiance to IS, fears grew that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s state will soon establish an emirate in the Maghreb.

Assimi’s announcement came in an audio message issued by AQIM-affiliated Al-Andalus Media Productions and included criticism of al-Qaeda, which is led by Ayman al-Zawahri, for failing to pledge support for Baghdadi’s state. It also included a blessing of the announcement of the caliphate and the allegiance of a number of Islamist fighters to it. The news has established a new division within the ranks of AQIM, created seven years ago and blessed by Zawahri, who recognized it as part of al-Qaeda's core in Afghanistan.

Assimi, a leading figure in the group’s consultative council, blamed the leadership of al-Qaeda for not joining Baghdadi’s IS. He said there was a dispute within AQIM, which is led by Abdelmalek Droukdel, an affiliate of Zawahri, over the issue. Droukdel’s ties with al-Qaeda’s other branches and with Boko Haram in Nigeria are limited to provision of support. All of the groups in the region, even the new armed factions in the Sahel region in the south of Libya, Tunisia and Morocco, come from a single origin and have the common goal of establishing an Islamic state governed by Sharia. Yet, their activities vary depending on each group's circumstances and environment.

Addressing Baghdadi’s group, Assimi said, “Even though you are far away from us, we are close in terms of religion and ideology and we pray for you, our brethren in the Islamic State. We wrote these words after we waited a long time to hear al-Qaeda’s position in supporting you here and in other places. Following the silence of all the emirs of al-Qaeda, we want to announce our position, so that the IS mujahedeen know that we support them and we will not hide the facts out of fear of some people nor loyalty to others. We spoke while they remained silent, and we advanced while they retreated. We hereby inform all the mujahedeen and Muslims that we have found our straight path with the State of the Islamic Caliphate, whose priority after the Tawhid [the oneness of God] is the enforcement of Sharia everywhere.”

Assimi asked all those who attacked IS to repent, congratulating his fellow members and promising to see them in the caliph's house. However, Droukdel reiterated AQIM’s support for Zawahri, saying in a statement that he does not find reason for its revocation.

Algerian security sources following the issue estimate that the number of IS followers in North African countries could reach 1,000 fighters trained in the use of weapons and guerrilla warfare. The sources, who wished to remain nameless, indicated to Al-Monitor that these fighters include defectors from AQIM, whose ideology has found a breeding ground in the southeast of Algeria. However, the same sources anticipate that a new emirate affiliated with IS in North Africa might emerge in the southwest of Libya. This is especially likely after the progress made by jihadist groups currently battling moderate Libyan factions.

The same sources also pointed to the strength and quality of training and armament of members of the Uqba Ibn Nafi Brigade in Tunisia, which is tied to Ansar al-Sharia in Libya and which attacked the Tunisian army at Mount Chaambi, not far from the border with Algeria.

According to Algerian intelligence sources, a counterattack in Libya against the Misrata militias and Islamist militants is underway from the bases of the Zintan militia in the Nafusa Mountains of northwest Libya to regain control over vital facilities and centers in Libya that were overrun by militants.

However, the large area of southern Libya and the southeast Algerian desert provides jihadists with a breeding ground to reappear on the scene. IS' innovative strategies in recruitment and propaganda, particularly via social media, may lure unemployed and disenchanted youths in the area to its cause.

An IS affiliate in North Africa would open a new front in the global war on terrorism, a struggle that could redraw the map in some parts of the region.

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