Daniel Stemler

Islamic State expands in Algeria as the Sahel could turn into a hotbed of jihadists.


Last week Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, leader of Islamic State (IS), announced that the terrorist group would expand in other Middle Eastern countries, including Algeria. The North African country practically stayed out of the Arab Spring and looked ready to take a huge step forward for peace and development. But now as the Jund al-Khilafah (’Soldiers of the Caliphate in Algeria’) officially has split from ‘Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb’ (AQIM) group and joined the global jihad of IS, the situation could change radically in the country.

In September, days after the official declaration of alliance with IS, Jund al-Khilafah stated a video which claimed they had beheaded Hervé Gourdel, 55, a French mountaineer guide. The execution of Gourdel was a consequence of France’s participation in the US-led fight against IS. The merciless brutality of the Islamic State has arrived to the Maghreb. “You have in the Islamic Maghreb men if you order them they will obey you,” said Khaled Abu Suleimane, leader of Jund al-Khilafah after announced association with Baghdadi.

But Jund al-Khilafah is not the only group that is allied with Baghdadi. Al-Mulathameen Brigade (“Those who Sign with Blood”), led by Mokhtar Belmokhtar, a veteran Algerian jihadist, has already sided with IS.

The Sahel region has been unstable and with the ideology and brutality of IS in the scene, the area could turn into a “new Syria”. The chaos in the region makes this territory an ideal place for jihadist groups. Libya has been divided, like Mali and Western Sahara, meanwhile Mauritania and Niger are simply not powerful enough to repel extremist groups. The other great power of the region, Morocco, likely won’t risk its political and economic stability in a war against terrorists. Besides, they have their own fight over Western Sahara they are dealing with. Algeria should have a leadership role in the fight, but the presence of IS may hinder its high hopes of a better future.

The Arab Spring did not have a serious impact on Algeria’s political, social and economic situation. The deterrent memories of last decades’ civil wars have kept the people away from the streets. Although in some demonstrations, people demanded a change of regime and wanted immediate solutions for corruption, unemployment and freedom of speech. These are problems that have been unsolved for a long time in Algeria. Nevertheless, apart from these minor protests, the Algerian government, led by President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, has not faced any real threat during the Arab uprisings. After 50 years of independence, the country was close to establishing a peaceful democracy, but with the expansion of the Islamic State, this could destroy the Algerians’ dream of peace and democracy.

Experts say the announcement won’t change too much on the ground. “The new group will try hard to make some noise, but it will be very difficult to execute big terrorist actions as Algerian security forces have knocked out most of the armed groups in Algeria,” said Anis Rahmani, security analyst, to the Reuters.

However, the execution of Hervé Gourdel clearly showed that even if the security forces had knocked out most of the armed groups in Algeria, the threat and danger is real.

The border reopened between Morocco and Algeria could give another twist to the story. Last month Al Jazeera reported that Morocco wants to reopen its border with Algeria which has been closed for 20 years. “Algerian-Moroccan political deadlock also deeply impedes economic integration in the Maghreb, which is among the least economically integrated regions in the world. The Arab Maghreb Union, a regional organization created in 1989 to foster economic and political union, has failed to encourage trade in North Africa in large part because of this deadlock, said Hichem Sakhi, a member of the 20th February Movement, a liberal grassroots organisation calling for free movement of all Maghreb people,” said the report.

For larger economical integrity, Algeria should open its border, but this would also give greater freedom for terrorists to operate between the borders.

In any way, Algeria needs to act fast and firmly. Actions by radical Islamist groups have already caused ten-year bloody civil war in the country, killing thousands of innocent people. The Maghreb needs a strong Algeria.


Daniel Stemler Spain

Journalist. Mostly interested in politics, current affairs and armed conflicts from the MENA, Sahel and Europe. Follow @StemDan