Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa


Extremism in the Middle East and North Africa - ISIS military parade in al-Raqqa, Syria, using US vehicles and weaponry seized from the Iraqi army
ISIS military parade in al-Raqqa, Syria, using US vehicles and weaponry seized from the Iraqi army


Thirteen years after al-Qaeda’s attack on New York and Washington DC, on 11 September 2001, and after the globalization of the “War on Terror” intended to obliterate al-Qaeda and other Sunni transnational jihadi organizations that supported al-Qaeda, the War on Terror has been far from successful. Launched by President George W. Bush in reaction to 9/11, it did not deprive the alleged terrorists of their safe havens.

The terrorists have not been under siege, their resources and funds have not dried up, and their ideological discourse and electronic propaganda have not been destroyed. As the date for the US withdrawal from Afghanistan approaches—the United States has been in Afghanistan since 2001—the Taliban’s return to power, along with its allies and al-Qaeda, is only a matter of time.

The outcomes of invading Iraq in 2003, under the pretence of the War on Terror, and the withdrawal in 2011 seem catastrophic. Today, the Islamic State (IS) and its international jihadi allies control large areas of Iraq and Syria. Elsewhere Egypt is wrestling with extremists in the Sinai, chaotic Libya is becoming a safe haven for extremists, and the neighbouring countries are therefore being destabilized. Some people hoped for the demise of al-Qaeda because of the peaceful Arab uprisings (the “Arab Spring”) in the first months of 2011, which coincided with the American killing of al-Qaeda’s leader Osama Bin Laden on 2 May 2011.

But al-Qaeda disappointed those who were dreaming of stability and democracy, as the jihadi discourse on the establishment of an ideal Islamic state—whatever its precise nature—quickly regained its appeal, with the militarization of the Arab revolutions, coups during democratization, and the survival of most of the repressive authoritarian regimes.

Al-Qaeda developed new strategies for expanding and repositioning itself in the Arab and Islamic worlds that were based on two supporting principles.

The first is the building of local populist networks under the name Ansar al-Sharia (Supporters of the Sharia), which work to pave the way to a unified regional system while opposing Western hegemony. The new system would be formulated in a way to attract new members of al-Qaeda.

The second is the coupling of the struggle against “close” (regional) and “distant” (Western) enemies by merging al-Qaeda’s local and international approaches. As such, the jihadi agenda is no longer restricted to inflicting harm and vexation but is now aiming for control and empowerment.

New Movements

The jihadi regional branches of al-Qaeda, which historically have developed from local jihadi groups, liberated themselves from the conditions of the central al-Qaeda. New movements have emerged, which more or less share al-Qaeda’s ideological Salafi jihadi approach and its long-term goal to establish an Islamic caliphate, while working to eliminate Western hegemony and confront Israel. The international jihadi approach has thus become more attractive and far reaching.

Extremism in Iraq

The abilities of extremist groups have grown as a result of the marginalization of the Iraqi Sunni minority and the militarization of the Syrian revolution. This resulted in the birth of the “Islamic State” after the revolt in June 2013 of al-Qaeda’s Iraqi branch against the central command that is now led by Ayman al-Zawahiri.

The declaration of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the “emir” of the Islamic State in Iraq, concerning the inclusion of the al-Nusra Front in his organization, against the wishes of al-Zawahiri, came as a crowning moment which underlined the historical differences between the periphery and the core, differences that were kept under control by the leadership of Bin Laden.

As a result, we now have the Islamic State—previously the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), or Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL)—controlling large areas in western Iraq, particularly al-Anbar Governorate, and in eastern Syria, particularly al-Raqqa Governorate, where al-Raqqa city serves as al-Baghdadi’s capital. The organization currently has an estimated 50,000 fighters, including many foreign fighters, and huge financial resources.

Extremism in Syria

In Syria, the militarization of the revolution resulted in the rebirth of al-Qaeda, with the official announcement on 24 January 2012 of the establishment of al-Nusra Front for the People of the Levant. The group is led by Abu Muhammad al-Fateh al-Joulani and is connected directly with the central al-Qaeda. In 2013 Joulani refused to be incorporated into Baghdadi’s ISIS, in which decision he was supported by al-Qaeda leader al-Zawahiri. Because it is less violent than what is now known as the Islamic State, it is now considered a kind of “moderate” al-Qaeda.

Extremism in Yemen

Al-Qaeda’s regional branch in the Arabian Peninsula proved to be the most malleable and flexible of the branches in the region; it is the branch that is best able to adapt and develop. Since the merger of the Yemeni and Saudi branches in 2009, to form al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), under the leadership of Abu Basir Nasser al-Wuhayshi, the group has shown its ability to invent various terror methods for use against Western targets (although all have so far failed) and to develop new methods of fighting. The group was in control of many areas in Abyan, Yemen, but was later expelled from that governorate. Despite the relentless American drone war against the group, it has survived.

Extremism in North Africa

In North Africa, the group al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb is led by Abu Musab Abdel Wadoud. The group was established in January 2007 and is an offspring of the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat. The fall of Gaddafi’s regime and the descent of Libya into chaos have contributed to the development of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghrib, and the branch has spread throughout the region. In August 2013 the group unity and Jihad in West Africa merged with al-Mourabitoun, an al-Qaeda splinter group under Mokhtar Belmokhtar. This group is active in northern Mali and Niger and is based in southern Libya. Mokhtar Belmokhtar, who organized the attack on a natural-gas installation in southern Algeria in January 2013, in which at least 39 foreign workers were killed, reaffirmed in the merger announcement that the new group still pays allegiance to al-Qaeda in Afghanistan.

Extremism in Libya

The roots of jihadi Salafism in Libya lie in the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, which re-evaluated its violent approach through an Islamic legal perspective, before the fall of the regime. Other Salafi groups appeared after the fall of Gaddafi’s regime; the most important are two groups using the same name, Ansar al-Sharia. One is located in Benghazi and is led by Mohamed al-Zahawi. It is the main suspect in the attack on the American consulate in Benghazi, which resulted in the killing of Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other diplomatic staff members on 11 September 2012. The second group by the same name is located in Derna and is led by Abu Sufyan bin Qumu. The jihadi Salafi groups are in a struggle with the supporters of anti-Islamist General Haftar and control large areas, including Benghazi and Tripoli.

Extremism in Tunisia

In Tunisia, Salafi jihadi groups grew active after the overthrow of President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in January 2011. The most active is Ansar al-Sharia, under the leadership of Saif Allah Bin Hussain, who took part in the establishment of the Tunisian group fighting in Afghanistan. It has about a thousand members and is responsible for growing deadly violence in Tunisa. In February 2013, another group, calling itself the Battalion of Uqba bin Nafe, emerged and has found refuge on Mount al-Shanabi.

Extremism in Egypt

The Mujahideen Shura Council, formed on 18 June 2012, is an alliance that includes several Jihadi groups that emerged when Hamas took control of Gaza in 2007 and then spread through the Sinai desert. The council is composed of the Army of Islam, the Army of the Nation, the Movement for Oneness and Jihad, and Jund Ansar Allah. Previously, the group Ansar Bait al-Maqdis appeared publicly in February 2005. This group, the deadliest of all, is an international jihadi group that has carried out several operations against Egypt and Israel.

In addition to these two main groups is al-Tawhid Brigade. The al-Tawhid Brigade has grown rapidly, has proven its ability to adapt and develop, and is capable of carrying out complex military operations. Since the coup of July 2013, the group has carried out more than 300 armed attacks on various targets, using a variety of methods and tactics. The United States currently lists the group as a terrorist organization.

Widespread Extremism

Today’s international jihadi groups are widespread and more dangerous than they have been since the events of 11 September 2001. In August 2014, the United States formed an international coalition to destroy the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, but the war strategy is based on inflexible military tactics to suppress them without dealing with the root causes.

The authoritarian regimes of the Middle East have returned, with more brutality, and there is a sharp rise in sectarian conflict. Democracy, freedom, and justice have become expendable. This has been pointed to by the international jihadi groups as confirmation that their violent approach to creating change is correct. The radical discourse used by such groups is an attractive one, coming, as it does, from groups that are constantly developing their strategies and adapting their battle tactics.

International jihadism has developed, and al-Qaeda and rival organizations are now in control of large areas in many parts of Iraq, Syria, Libya, Somalia, Yemen, the Sinai, and sub-Saharan Africa. Jihadism has undergone a split into two dangerous approaches.

One still adheres to al-Qaeda’s traditional agenda, under the leadership of Ayman al-Zawahiri. Since its establishment, al-Qaeda’s goal has been the creation of an international Islamic front for fighting the West in general and the United States and Israel in particular; the United States is seen as the protector of oppressive Arab regimes and of Israel.

Al-Qaeda’s approach also seeks to implement the Sharia and the establishment of the caliphate. The other approach is taken by the Islamic State, under the leadership of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Its agenda is based on confronting Iranian hegemony and expansion in the region with what it calls the Safawi Project, and the Sunni-Shiite identity issue and conflict has become its main driving force.