If at First You Don’t Succeed, Try Deception: The Islamic State’s Expansion Efforts in Algeria
Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 13 Issue: 22
Since announcing the establishment of the caliphate in June 2014, the Islamic State has broadcast its successes in expanding into new territories outside of Syria and Iraq, aiming to create the perception that it is growing rapidly throughout the Muslim world, and steadily chipping away at al-Qaeda’s position as the preeminent global jihadist organization. But contrary to the former’s claims, the group’s expansion efforts have often been fraught with setbacks. In some theaters, the Islamic State has confronted more powerful jihadist organizations, many of them al-Qaeda affiliates, who have resisted efforts to sow internal discord and inspire defections. The Islamic State has also run up against state security forces who have sought to eliminate affiliated groups before they can gain a foothold. To date, however, the Islamic State’s expansion struggles have often gone relatively unnoticed, as the group has effectively masked its weaknesses and projected an image of strength through its propaganda.
Nowhere have the organization’s struggles been more pronounced than in Algeria. While Algeria was one of the first countries outside of Syria and Iraq where the Islamic State established a physical presence, two factors have prevented the group from solidifying its gains and making further inroads. First, a superior jihadist organization in al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) has pushed back against the Islamic State’s encroachment in Algeria. AQIM has waged a propaganda battle against its jihadist rival, and has mounted a military campaign aimed at demonstrating to rank-and-file militants in Algeria that it is more powerful than the Islamic State. Second, Islamic State factions in Algeria have been unable to evade Algeria’s security forces, who have aggressively and proactively cracked down on them. With both AQIM and Algerian security forces pressuring the Islamic State, the group has resorted to a familiar propaganda strategy of deception and exaggeration to preserve its influence in Algeria. The article will examine the Islamic State’s struggles in Algeria in the context of the group’s broader international expansion efforts.
Islamic State’s Initial Advance into Algeria
The Islamic State’s expansion into Algeria came without warning, when members of AQIM’s “center zone,” led by Abdelmalek Gouri, announced in September 2014 that they were joining the rival jihadist group. In his statement, Gouri said that AQIM had “deviat[ed] from the true path,” and he proclaimed that his group would henceforth be known as Jund al-Khilafah, or Soldiers of the Caliphate (al-Jazeera, September 14, 2014). Less than two weeks after Gouri’s pledge of allegiance, Jund al-Khilafah announced its arrival on the world stage by kidnapping and beheading Herve Gourdel, a French citizen who had been hiking in the mountains of the Kabylie region, a longtime hotbed of jihadist activity (al-Jazeera, September 25, 2014). Jund al-Khilafah filmed Gourdel’s beheading and presented the execution as an act of retaliation against France for its involvement in the anti-Islamic State military campaign in Iraq. the group’s decision to carry out a high-profile beheading as its first act of violence was emblematic of the Islamic State’s global messaging strategy; in theaters outside of Iraq and Syria, the organization has repeatedly conducted spectacular attacks as a means of drawing attention to new Islamic State affiliates.
However, although the Islamic State had announced its presence in Algeria with a bang, Jund al-Khilafah’s prospects thereafter declined rapidly. In December 2014—a month after Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, Islamic State’s amir, accepted Jund al-Khilafah’s pledge of allegiance and announced the creation of Wilayat al-Jazair (Algeria province)—the Algerian Army killed Gouri, who was Jund al-Khilafah’s top commander, and two other militants in a raid in northern Algeria (al-Arabiya, December 23, 2014). A crippling blow was delivered to Jund al-Khilafah in May 2015, when Algerian security forces killed approximately 25 Islamic State militants in two days of military operations in the mountains of Bouira Province (Reuters, May 20). At the time of the first raid, which resulted in the death of 22 fighters, Jund al-Khilafah’s top commanders had reportedly been meeting to plan major attacks, possibly in Algiers or against Algerian military facilities, and Algerian troops recovered a sizable weapons arsenal during the operation (El Watan [Algiers], May 22).
The May raid devastated Jund al-Khilafah. International media reports placed the size of the group at only 30 fighters, meaning that the raid in May had wiped out almost all of the group’s manpower (New York Times, December 23, 2014). The raid also decimated Jund al-Khilafah’s leadership ranks: five of the group’s six commanders were killed in the operation, including Abdullah Othman al-Asimi (a.k.a. Bachir Kherza), who had been appointed to lead Jund al-Khilafah after Gouri’s death (El Watan [Algiers], May 24).
Jund al-Khilafah’s precipitous collapse revealed the fragility of the Islamic State’s foothold in Algeria. Its rapid and highly public rise to prominence may have been to its detriment, as the group was not strong enough in its nascent stages to withstand the crackdown that inevitably followed the release of the beheading video. Indeed, though Jund al-Khilafah claimed responsibility for three minor attacks against security forces in February and March of 2015, the group has not mustered enough force to carry out another high-profile attack since the kidnapping and beheading of Gourdel (Jihadology, March 19). And while Jund al-Khilafah had reportedly been in the process of wooing AQIM fighters based in southern Algeria and northern Mali, the near obliteration of the group in May likely curtailed these recruitment operations and reduced the Islamic State’s influence in the region (El Khabar [Algiers], July 21).
Jund al-Khilafah, or what remains of the group, is now a strategically irrelevant player in Algeria. Though remnants of the group may continue to operate in the Kabylie region, the group does not presently possess the manpower or resources to significantly threaten Algeria’s security or AQIM’s Algerian network.
Smoke and Mirrors: Islamic State’s Propaganda Strategy in Algeria
With its physical network in Algeria decimated, the Islamic State has turned to its propaganda machine to help reestablish itself in the country. In particular, the group has exploited social media and other platforms to create the illusion that militants in Algeria are defecting from AQIM and flocking to the Islamic State in droves. According to their logic, if the Islamic State can foster the perception that it is ascendant and AQIM is internally factious, it can persuade Algerian jihadists to defect from AQIM. Thus, the Islamic State’s strategy is designed to turn the myth of momentum into a reality. This is an approach that the organization has also implemented in other areas where it is seeking to expand, including Afghanistan and Somalia.
The primary means by which the Islamic State has sought to cultivate momentum in Algeria is by publicizing pledges of allegiance that Algerian jihadists have made. Four jihadist groups have pledged allegiance to the Islamic State since Jund al-Khilafah did so, with some of the pledges timed to maximize the attention they receive. The first pledge of allegiance that the Islamic State received in 2015 came in May from a group of fighters in Skikda Province, in eastern Algeria.  The pledge, which was issued via audio statement, provided little information on the members of the Skikda faction, aside from the fact that they had previously been aligned with AQIM. The next pledge of allegiance came in late July, when militants claiming to be part of AQIM’s al-Ghuraba Brigade, which operates in the vicinity of the eastern Algerian city of Constantine, announced their defection to the Islamic State in an audio statement and called upon other AQIM members to join the other group as well.  In early August, Islamic State militants from Iraq’s Saladin Province released a video praising the al-Ghuraba militants, thereby drawing further attention to the defection. 
The Islamic State’s next moves in Algeria further showed how the group manipulates social media to inflate its presence and create the perception of discord within rival jihadist organizations. On September 3, Islamic State Twitter supporters released a video of the al-Ghuraba cell’s pledge of allegiance (only an audio statement had been released when the group initially pledged allegiance to the Islamic State in July). The next day, militants claiming to be from AQIM’s al-Ansar Brigade, which operates in central Algeria, released an audio statement announcing their defection.  The re-release of the al-Ghuraba militants’ pledge of allegiance appears to have been strategically timed to coincide with the pledge from the al-Ansar Brigade, creating the illusion that AQIM militants were defecting to the Islamic State en masse. Approximately two weeks after the pledge of allegiance from the al-Ansar militants, Humat al-Da’wah al-Salafiyah, a low profile Algerian jihadist group that had joined AQIM in 2013, announced that it too was pledging allegiance to the Islamic State (SITE, September 22). The organization’s social media operatives immediately sought to publicize the defections; one prolific pro-Islamic State Twitter account remarked that a new group was defecting from AQIM to the Islamic State every day, while another Twitter supporter claimed that AQIM was fracturing as a result of Islamic State pressure.  
Despite the Islamic State’s efforts to foment unrest within AQIM, the group has been unsuccessful in turning the impression of strength into a reality. None of the four groups that have pledged allegiance to the Islamic State in Algeria in 2015 have carried out an attack since joining. Indeed, there is reason to believe that some of these groups comprise fewer than a dozen militants; one news report claimed that the al-Ghuraba and Skikda cells had been inactive for several years, and also noted that the al-Ghuraba cell consisted of no more than ten fighters (al-Arabi al-Jadeed [London], July 27). The situation has become so grim for the Islamic State in Algeria that the group itself has acknowledged its struggles. On October 21, the Islamic State’s Wilayat al-Jazair released an audio statement in which a militant reassured jihadists that the group’s presence in Algeria was sustainable, and urged Islamic State fighters in Algeria not to risk their lives unnecessarily, fearing a repeat of Jund al-Khilafah’s collapse.  That the Islamic State, a group that endlessly parades its victories and conceals its defeats, felt the need to reassure its supporters in Algeria that it was still relevant reveals the organization’s bleak prospects in the country.
AQIM’s Response to the Islamic State Threat
One explanation for Islamic State’s struggles in Algeria is the strong front that AQIM has presented against encroachment. AQIM has implemented a two-pronged strategy to counter the Islamic State’s influence in Algeria. On the propaganda front, AQIM has sought to discredit the other group. For instance, in July 2015, AQIM released a statement via Twitter accusing the Islamic State of sowing discord within the jihadist community and blaming the group for inciting a jihadist civil war in the Libyan city of Derna.  AQIM has also directly undercut the Islamic State’s propaganda operations in Algeria; following the al-Ansar Brigade’s pledge of allegiance to the Islamic State, AQIM released a statement claiming that the al-Ansar Brigade remained loyal to al-Qaeda, and said that no more than ten men from the brigade had defected. 
In addition, AQIM has intensified its military operations in Algeria to demonstrate to militants that it remains the most potent jihadist force in the country and that defections from AQIM to the Islamic State have not diminished AQIM’s military capabilities. In July 2015, AQIM carried out an attack that amounted to a show of force, killing at least nine Algerian soldiers in the Ain Defla region southwest of Algiers (Reuters, July 19). In a statement, AQIM noted that it had carried out the attack, the bloodiest jihadist operation in Algeria in over a year, in response to Algerian military claims that the militant group had been “eradicated and destroyed.”  However, the attack also sent a clear message to the Islamic State, and to AQIM’s own fighters, that AQIM was still a force to be reckoned with in Algeria. Since the Ain Defla incident, AQIM, which had been largely inactive militarily in 2014, has carried out several more attacks inside Algeria, suggesting that AQIM has made a strategic decision to ramp up its operational tempo in Algeria to ward off a challenge from the Islamic State.
Implications for Algeria
AQIM’s escalation in response to the challenge from the Islamic State comes at a fraught time for Algeria, whose policymakers and security officials are preoccupied with resolving the conflicts in Libya and Mali and preventing spillover into the country. These security challenges also come as tensions between Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika and the DRS, Algeria’s powerful intelligence service, are mounting. In addition, in the background is the potential succession crisis when Bouteflika, whose health has deteriorated following a stroke in 2013, eventually passes away. These concerns are compounded by persistent economic and social discontent among the Algerian population; in early 2015, thousands of Algerians took to the streets of Algiers and other cities to protest against corruption, political and economic stagnation and the government’s decision to begin fracking for shale gas in southern Algeria.
AQIM’s resurgence and the lingering threat of Islamic State expansion therefore poses yet another challenge for Algerian policymakers. Even though the Islamic State has proven incapable of gaining a foothold in Algeria thus far, the group’s expansion efforts have still had a negative impact on Algeria’s security, as AQIM increases its operations against Algerian security forces in response to the Islamic State challenge. In addition, AQIM’s attempts to out-compete the Islamic State through conducting attacks will almost certainly intensify if the latter manages to solidify its presence in Algeria. As such, the competition between the Islamic State and AQIM can be expected to have an outsize impact on Algeria’s security and stability in the coming months.
Nathaniel Barr is a threat analyst at Valens Global, a D.C.-based consulting firm that focuses on the global challenges posed by violent non-state actors.
1. For the audio clip of “Statement from the Mujahidin: Bay’ah To the Caliph of the Muslims Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi,” see https://jihadology.net/category/countries/algeria/page/2/.
2. For the audio clip of “Bay’ah of the Mujahidin in the City of Qusantinah (Constantine) To the Caliph of the Muslims Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and Joining The Islamic State’s Wilayat al-Jaza’ir,” see https://jihadology.net/2015/07/25/new-audio-message-from-sarayyah-al-ghuraba-bayah-of-the-mujahidin-in-the-city-of-qusan%E1%B9%ADinah-constantine-to-the-caliph-of-the-muslims-abu-bakr-al-baghdadi-and-joining-the-islamic-state/.
3. For the video clip of “One Body #2: Congratulations To Our Brothers In Algeria – Wilayat Salah al-Din,” see https://jihadology.net/2015/08/10/new-video-message-from-the-islamic-state-one-body-2-congratulations-to-our-brothers-in-algeria-wilayat-%E1%B9%A3ala%E1%B8%A5-al-din/.
4. For the audio clip of “Statement from the Mujahidin: Bay’ah To the Caliph of the Muslims Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and Joining The Islamic State’s Wilayat al-Jaza’ir,” see https://jihadology.net/2015/09/04/new-audio-message-from-katibat-al-an%E1%B9%A3ar-statement-from-the-mujahidin-bayah-to-the-caliph-of-the-muslims-abu-bakr-al-baghdadi-and-joining-the-islamic-states-wilayat-al-jaz/.
5. Tweets from Twitter account of M. Gharib al-Ikhwan (@bhbhbhbh131), September 21, 2015.
6. Tweets from Twitter account of Uyun al-Ummah (@Oyoon_is), September 21, 2015.
7. For the audio clip of “One Body – Wilayat al-Jaza’ir”, see https://archive.org/details/algasd.
8. Tweets from Twitter account of @AI_Andalus, July 7, 2015.
9. For the statement from AQIM, titled “About the Rumor of the Allegiance of Katibat al-Ansar to the ‘State Organization,’” see https://azelin.files.wordpress.com/2015/09/al-qc481_idah-in-the-islamic-maghrib-22about-the-rumor-of-the-allegiance-of-katc4abbat-al-ane1b9a3c481r-to-the-state-organization22.pdf.
10. For the statement from AQIM, titled “The Raid of Jebel al-Luh: The Destruction of 14 Soldiers and Spoils of Their Weapons,” see https://justpaste.it/Jbl_Allouh.