Fighting jihadi groups has been compared more than once to whack-a-mole. You thump a group here and it pops up there. You thump it again and it pops up somewhere else. A front is lost but another opens up. The challenging part is anticipating where the jihadis will go next. And this is precisely the question around the Islamic State in Libya: having lost their stronghold in Sirte, where did all the fighters go, and where are they likely to pop up?
One possibility is next door in Algeria. Were the Islamic State to establish itself there, it could potentially destabilize Africa’s largest country, with ramifications for its neighbors and across the Mediterranean. An unstable Algeria would worsen prospects for Tunisia’s failing fledgling democracy. It would allow jihadi groups in northern Mali greater maneuverability and strain the reach of ongoing French regional counterterrorism operations. Morocco, which is already frenetically disrupting Islamic State plots, would likely be unable to keep pace with new cross-border threats. And the complicated circumstances for Europe, where recent terrorist attacks have all had North African ties, would be even more so. Plus, as a major supplier of natural gas to Europe, the Islamic State could disrupt Algeria’s gas exports, which would push up European energy prices and increase Russian leverage over the EU.
There are already hints and rumors of Islamic State activity in Algeria. Islamic State graffiti can sometimes be glimpsed in Algiers, and just this month, Algeria’s largest newspaper wrote about Islamic State sleeper cells in the capital.
The Islamic State’s first foray into Algeria occurred in August 2014. A group of jihadis kidnapped a French tourist, declared that they were the Caliphate’s Soldiers in Algeria, and said that they would execute their hostage if their demands were not met. Algeria does not negotiate with terrorists and the terrorists beheaded the tourist. In short order, Algerian security services eliminated almost all of the Caliphate’s Soldiers in Algeria.
But that could change. A patchwork of militias with help from Europe and the U.S. recently ousted the Islamic State from the Libyan town of Sirte, where it had installed itself since February 2015. Intelligence estimates regarding the number of Islamic State fighters in Sirte varied, with the consensus settling somewhere between 3,000 and 6,000. Reports in early August indicated that there were fewer than 300 Islamic State fighters left in Sirte. But the conquering militias have not found 3,000 corpses, let alone anywhere near 6,000, which begs the question, where did all the fighters go? Some sources suggested that they fled to Libya’s southwest, which has been used as a staging ground to carry out attacks across the border in Algeria.
There’s never a good time for a terrorist group to show up, but were the Islamic State to rear its ugly head in Algeria the timing could not be worse. President Abdelaziz Bouteflika is incapacitated, and it is very unlikely that he is actively involved in running the country but also unclear who the actual decision-makers are. Last year, the intelligence service was dismantled and hundreds of unemployed high-ranking intelligence officers are growing increasingly disgruntled.
And the economy is teetering. Algeria is a distributive hydrocarbons state. More than 96 percent of Algeria’s export earnings comes from oil and gas. The government spends that revenue on social services to the tune of roughly $20 billion per quarter. When energy prices are high, the system works. When energy prices crater, there is a clear limit to Algeria’s ability to maintain the model. With foreign exchange reserves at slightly more than $100 billion, that limit is a year and half. Isolated political leadership, angry idle spies, and an economic crisis is the precise combination of conditions that the Islamic State has shown a propensity to exploit.
But this is not Algeria’s first rodeo. It has been fighting jihadi groups for three decades, beginning with the Army of Islamic Salvation, then the Armed Islamic Groups, and then the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, which ultimately became al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). After an initial uptick in terrorist attacks following the 2007 al-Qaeda franchising, Algeria largely contained its domestic jihadi problem to the mountains southeast of the capital, with one unprecedented outlier in Algeria’s far south.
Over the course of its 30 years’ war on terror, Algeria has built a formidable military. It spends more on defense than Morocco, Tunisia, and Libya combined. It has also deployed tens of thousands of troops to its border regions. And it has allegedly killed more terrorists in the first half of this year than it did in all of 2015.
On the populist level, while there are jihadi groups in Algeria, they do not enjoy widespread support. This is especially true in Algeria’s expansive southern deserts, which would be the most attractive to the Islamic State. Not only is the population there not religiously disposed to jihadi ideology, it recognizes that an increased jihadi presence in the region would jeopardize what little economic activity there is – namely tourism and oil and gas exploitation. AQIM recently tried to recast this relationship and present itself as the protector of the community’s hydrocarbons resources.
Lastly, despite the president’s absence, Algeria’s political institutions are sturdy. After all, the state is by far the largest employer in Algeria, and no one wants the boat to rock, not least because public sector wages are higher than private sector salaries. Plus, President Bouteflika has been so sick for so long that decision-makers have had ample time to gird themselves against political instability, both from within and without.
Thus, despite what would appear at first blush to be favorable conditions in Algeria for the Islamic State, it is unlikely to be able to make meaningful headway, let alone establish an enduring presence there. This does not mean that there will not be episodic attacks, but there is very little likelihood that Algeria will become a safe haven for Islamic State fighters fleeing Sirte. If not Algeria then, the question still remains: Where will the fighters who fled Sirte pop up next, and who will be ready to thump them when they do?