Heavy bombardment from the Syrian army and its allies and effective action by the Russian air force are forcing armed Islamist militias to regroup in mountainous terrain along the border between Algeria and Tunisia.
The tactic chosen by Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), which came to light when Bilel Kobi was killed in battle by Algerian troops, involves attracting deserters from Islamic State (IS) who were forced out of Syria by the strong military pressure exerted there.
The Algerian intelligence services believe that Kobi, one of the deputies of AQIM leader Abdelmalik Droukdel, also known as Abu Musab Abdel Wadud, was taken by surprise and killed by Tunisian special forces in the region while on a mission to recruit IS fighters who had taken refuge in the remote Kasserine mountains.
Sharing a border with Algeria, Kasserine is one of the 24 governorates (provinces) of Tunisia. Islamists may have chosen to operate in this region because of the difficulties conventional military forces face when trying to locate and eradicate guerrilla hotspots there: small bands of fighters can move around very quickly and with minimal impediments.
For AQIM, the breakup of IS in Syria is seen as a golden opportunity and maybe even the key to its survival, as it will allow the group to regain members who left its ranks to join IS when the latter’s successes in Syria, including the occupation of territory, made victory appear imminent.
In this sense, it should be noted that AQIM is following in the footsteps of Al-Qaeda, the armed group founded in the late 1970s in Afghanistan by Saudi millionaire Osama Bin Laden with financial and logistical support from the US Central Intelligence Agency, whose officials also provided training in unconventional warfare.
Years later, proving the saying “those who live by the sword die by the sword”, members of Al-Qaeda organised and carried out the passenger aeroplane attacks on the Twin Towers in New York and the US Defence Department Pentagon in September 2001; official reports state that over 3,000 people died in these attacks.
Another proponent of extreme Islamist beliefs, IS adopted even more aggressive tactics that it replicated in countries including Libya and Iraq, in addition to Syria, where it attracted supporters who pledged their allegiance on the basis of the brutal way in which IS eliminated those it defined as enemies. A prime example of the gains made by Islamic State is Egypt, whose government has found itself mired in a battle to the death with IS groups based on the (east) Sinai Peninsula. Constant and systemic pressure exerted by Egypt has failed to either defeat these forces or render them inoperative.
In Egypt specifically, these armed groups enjoy the tactical support of Bedouin tribes, who are using them to strengthen their hand with respect to the government.
This is in addition to the restrictions imposed on Egypt under peace treaties with Israel, which limit the types of weapons and measures that the army can use in a region that borders Israeli territory.
Years ago, evidence surfaced to suggest that officials from the Israeli special services visited the region and even provided supplies to armed groups with the clear intention of entangling the Egyptian army.
As regards the actions of Islamists in the Kasserine mountains, there are differences because these groups can count on assistance from their counterparts in Mali and they have a significant resource to draw on in the form of unemployed young Tunisians who see the armed groups as offering a means of subsistence.
Tunisian security forces believe that Al-Qaeda wishes to invest in the recent decline of IS and is trying to restructure itself in Algeria, Libya and Tunisia. To that end, it has started to appoint new leaders who are calling for justice for the death of Kobi and Hamza al Nimr, who died with him in the same operation.
It seems safe to assume that they will not be the only ones tasked with recruiting fighters and that we should be on the alert for the possibility of large-scale attacks as groups vie for prominence. Reports – which are sometimes contradictory but always contain a grain of truth – show that despite being weakened by their defeat in Syria, the Islamists are still alive and will remain in the news for the near future. (PL)
(Translated by Roz Harvey)