Maghreb countries wary about jihadists relocating from Iraq, Syria

A Tunisian policeman looks through binoculars during a military operation near Ben Guerdane

Security officials have expressed concern about potential terror attacks in the Maghreb, saying militants were believed to be moving into Libya and the Sahel after the defeat of the Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria and Iraq.
“More than 400 dangerous terrorists are taking positions across the borders,” Algerian Army Chief General Ahmed Gaid Salah said after a live-firing drill in the southern area of In Guezzam. “We have to be ready and vigilant.”
The exercise, which was aimed at repelling an attempted attack “by enemies of Algeria’s national borders,” the Algerian Defence Ministry said, is one of a series carried out by the army in areas bordering Mali, Niger and Libya in the last two months.
Algerian security analyst Yacine Babouche said “the visits by General Gaid Salah to southern military areas and his overseeing in person of such specific exercises mean that Algeria’s leadership at the top levels is taking no chances with the threats of jihadists attacking Algeria.”
Algeria has closed its land borders, other than the frontier with Tunisia, to stop jihadists from entering the country.
Algerian daily El Khabar reported that the military received intelligence on movement of 400 ISIS fighters in Libya near where the Algeria, Niger and Mali borders meet.
Algeria fears that ISIS militants could stage an attack like the one that targeted Ben Guerdane, a Tunisian town near the Libyan border, in May 2016. They were then fended off by Tunisian Army, police and the local population and many of the attackers were killed.
Tunisian Defence Minister Abdelkrim Zbidi warned parliament of possible terrorist plans to target “military and security facilities and other vital institutions of the country.”
Officials in Morocco have similar concerns.
Moroccan anti-terror chief Abdelhak Khiame said: “Daesh has not disappeared; it has delocalised into the Sahel.”
Daesh is an Arabic acronym for ISIS.
European officials said they were worried that jihadists could mix in with illegal migrants travelling from the Sahel region through North Africa.
“We’re concerned about the growing number of people affiliated with Daesh who, having been defeated in Iraq and Syria, are moving their activities to the Sahel and Libya. It’s practically at our border,” Spanish Foreign Minister Alfonso Dastis told Agence France-Presse.
Dastis said Madrid feared Islamist fighters could take advantage of the high volume of migrants and workers travelling in the summer, when many go through Spain on their home for holidays and visits.
Security analysts in the Maghreb previously said al-Qaeda, which has deep ties to the Maghreb and Sahel, would likely fight to protect its turf from ISIS, with which it has disagreements over tactics and priorities. However, a UN report said no rivalry between the various groups had been observed.
The report noted that, in Libya, ISIS was striving to recover from the loss of Sirte and had strengthened its presence with fighters returning from Iraq and Syria.
Libyan forces, aided by US air strikes and British logistics and intelligence, uprooted ISIS from Sirte in December 2016.
“Member-states assessed that there is a potential for the transfer of leaders from ISIS in Libya to other conflict zones in West Africa and the Sahel region, including Mali,” the UN report said.
UN members warned about ISIS’s determination “to rebuild its capabilities in Libya,” where it has been strengthened by fighters from Iraq and Syria.
The report added that some countries reported arrests of foreign terrorist fighters who were en route to Libya to join ISIS.
Lamine Ghanmi is a veteran Reuters journalist. He has covered North Africa for decades and is based in Tunis.
This article was originally published in The Arab Weekly.