ALGERIAN ATTACK UNDERLINES THREATS ARISING FROM INTER-JIHADIST COMPETITION
At least nine Algerian soldiers were killed in an attack on July 17 when their patrol was ambushed by al-Qaeda in the Islamic Magreb (AQIM) militants in Souq al-Attaf in northwestern Ain Defla province (Algeria Press Service, July 19). The attack was one of the most lethal in the country since a mass hostage-taking at the In Amenas natural gas plant in eastern Algeria killed 40 in January 2013. Although the latest attack was more deadly than usual militant operations in northern Algeria, which typically take the form of low-level bomb or gun attacks on passing convoys, it is not entirely clear whether this is due to the attackers “getting lucky” on this occasion, or if the operation signifies a substantial increase in militant ambitions and capabilities. It may, however, also reflect growing competition among the country’s various jihadist groups, including AQIM, the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA), al-Murabitun and Jund al-Khilafah fi Ard al-Jezayer (Soldiers of the Caliphate in Algeria), which has declared allegiance to the Syria and Iraq-based Islamic State group.
Following the attack, AQIM swiftly took credit for the operation via Twitter in a statement that claimed that the group’s “knights of Islam” had killed 12 “apostate army soldiers” in an ambush (SITE, July 19). The group added that the attack was in response to a recent statement by Ahmed Gaid Saleh, the Algerian Army’s chief of staff, who claimed that the domestic Islamist militancy had been crushed following a series of recent successful military operations. Indeed, two weeks earlier, the defense ministry said that over 100 militants had been killed, captured or had repented in the first half of the year (al-Arabiya, July 7). AQIM also posted photos that purported to show army soldiers patrolling on foot before the attack and also military equipment, including AK-47s, which the militants had allegedly seized during the operation. AQIM’s statement that the attack was intended to rebut the army’s recent claims underlines that many militant operations in Algeria are aimed less at seizing ground or inflicting casualties than scoring political points against their enemies, in this case via damaging the credibility of the government and military.
Underlining the centrality of public relations to recent militant operations, one Algerian newspaper, citing a government security source, argued that the latest attack was additionally “a message from AQIM to its rivals” (El-Khabar, July 21). This reflects that Algeria is now home to various competing, and sometimes overlapping, jihadist groups that are not only locked in a battle with the Algerian government, which they regard as an apostate or tyrant entity, but also to different degrees with each other, in an internecine competition for media attention, funding and recruits. Indicative of this competition is a video produced by the Islamic State entitled “A Message to the Algerian People” (North Africa Post, July 16). Purportedly filmed in Raqqa, the group’s Syrian capital, and distributed via the group’s Isdarat.tv website, the five-minute video showed two apparently Algerian fighters threatening that Algeria “would pay a heavy price” for its crackdown on Islamists, additionally promising that the group “would not be satisfied until we reach Andalucía,” a reference to areas of southern Spain formerly occupied by Muslim powers (Isdarat.tv, July 14). Such lofty rhetoric and large ambitions potentially represent an attempt by the Islamic State to compete for the mindshare of their target audience in lieu of actual recent attacks in Algeria.
This intense competition between rival jihadist groups, however, means that AQIM’s latest operation may put pressure on Islamic State-aligned groups in Algeria to carry out a significant attack in the near future in order to defend their own credibility. The last high-profile attack in the country by Islamic State-affiliated militants was Jund al-Khilafah’s videotaped execution of a civilian French hostage in September 2014 (France24, September 25, 2014). This group, which mainly operates in mountainous areas east of the capital Algiers, is led by Abdelmalek Gouri (a.k.a. Khaled Abu Suleiman), a former AQIM leader who broke with al-Qaeda after accusing it of deviating from the correct path. No doubt bitter at having the limelight stolen from him by AQIM’s latest successful attack, Gouri and Jund al-Khalifah group will likely now be tempted to back up the Islamic State’s recent video message with action on the ground in Algeria in order to both damage the government and to chalk up a victory over his former colleagues from AQIM.
GROWING TEMPO OF SAUDI ANTI-TERRORISM ARRESTS HIGHLIGHT ISLAMIC STATE THREAT
The Saudi government, on July 18, announced the arrest of hundreds of individuals allegedly linked to the Syria and Iraq-based Islamic State militant group. The government’s statement, issued by the Ministry of Interior, said that 431 people had been arrested to date (Saudi Press Agency, July 18). It also said that the majority of these individuals were Saudi citizens, although there were also nationals from Yemen, Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Algeria, Nigeria, Chad and elsewhere, with arrests taking place across the country. The announcement, which follows a series of Islamic State-linked attacks in the capital Riyadh and against Shi’a Muslims in the eastern part of the country, underlines the fact that the group poses an increasingly complex security challenge to Saudi Arabia.
The government also revealed a number of thwarted plots, including one to attack a mosque used by special response forces during Friday prayers and another to conduct a series of attacks on consecutive Fridays against (presumably Shi’a) mosques in the country’s Eastern Province, where there is a large Shi’a population. Additional plots allegedly thwarted by the authorities included plans to attack an unspecified diplomatic mission in Riyadh and to conduct attacks on security installations in Sharurah, an area of the country’s southern Najran Province, close to the Yemen border. This latter plan was allegedly considered to be advanced, with the plotters having established a training camp in the desert nearby in order to undertake “various military exercises there,” and to enable “communication and coordination” with “wanted elements in Yemen.” The government, however, did not make clear to what extent the arrested individuals were directly linked to the Islamic State, and how far they were merely inspired by it.
The statement is also remarkable for focusing exclusively on the Islamic State rather than on any groups associated with al-Qaeda. While this partly reflects the extent to which the Islamic State has eclipsed al-Qaeda among hardline pro-jihadist audiences in the region, it may also reflect that al-Qaeda’s relationship with Saudi Arabia is now complicated. In particular, Saudi Arabia is backing al-Qaeda affiliated forces in Syria via the “Jaysh al-Fateh” Islamist militant umbrella group, and given that its key allies in southern Yemen are also closely connected with al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the organization’s Yemeni branch. Moreover, it is also possible that due to the death of Osama bin Laden, its Saudi founder, al-Qaeda is now less interested in attacking the Kingdom.
In meeting the challenge from the Islamic State, Saudi Arabia is considerably more prepared—militarily, ideologically and psychologically—than it was when domestic jihadism previously peaked in the 1990s or the mid-2000s. However, as the sheer volume of recent arrests, their geographical spread within the country and the wide variety of militant targets—from diplomatic facilities to Shi’a mosques to the security services themselves—shows, the challenges ahead are nonetheless considerable.