The root causes of extremist movements in North Africa


Picture of Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah
Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah

President of the Think-Tank C4S. Former UN Special Representative for Somalia

Since time immemorial, North Africa has been a land of rebellion and resistance against foreign invaders and illegitimate rulers. Today’s armed extremism is more complex, with its indiscriminate targeting and ever-expanding effects. Widespread international connections, effective use of communication technologies and a vast reservoir for recruitment, have made the Maghreb radical movements a lethal and durable threat not only to North Africa itself, but increasingly to the weak states of the Sahel and the wider Mediterranean region.

It is now over 15 years since extremist groups first took arms against the Algerian government after the flawed 1992 parliamentary elections. The long lifespan of this armed extremism is exceptional, as are the widespread local, regional and international connections of the extremist groups and their continued attraction for large segments of the population – not only among disenfranchised youth.

The extremists have demonstrated a particularly strong capacity to resist professional governmental forces, enabling them to carry out individual and mass killings of innocent citizens. No one is left to feel safe; local Muslim populations are targeted as well as foreigners, rural as well as urban populations, and women as well as men. Among the characteristics of the Maghreb’s violent extremists are extraordinary capacities to move foot soldiers and equipment across borders and organise hostage takings and other sophisticated attacks. The business of hostage taking and the long, often dubious, negotiations that follow enable the terrorist organisation to gain publicity and funds, making the payment of ransoms one of terrorists’ main sources of financing.

One of their objectives is to get local recognition, even through fear or disgust, so as to compete with other terror groups operating in the same area. Most violent extremist movements have repeatedly demonstrated an extraordinary ability to develop successful and appealing modern communication policies. Regardless of the political contradictions, they do not hesitate – if it can help to meet their objectives – to make efficient use of tribal systems they often denounce. Western governments underestimated this capacity to reach out to local populations and mobilise recruits among foreign youth. 

Even with migration to Europe or elsewhere, youth unemployment remains high

For the last few years, barely a week goes by without a headline on terrorist activity in North Africa. Armed violence has become part of daily life. The most recent violence included the bloody attack on tourists visiting the Bardo Museum in Tunis this past March, when almost 20 people, mostly tourists, became innocent victims. The assassination of the French climber Hervé Gourdel last autumn in eastern Algeria was another cold-blooded killing by the “Caliphate Soldiers”, a jihadist group affiliated to the Daesh, or the Islamic State. The raid on a gas plant at In Amenas, Algeria, in January 2012, should be a permanent reminder of how determined and well-organised these terrorist groups are. That spectacular military-style operation was meant to grab attention in the international media, with the ultimate objective of gaining an edge over competitors in AQIM (Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb).

Libya is in turmoil after years of irresponsible governance that has planted the seeds of extremism within its own territory and around all its borders. The chaos that followed the demise of Muammar Gaddafi continues to generate instability. There are roaming radical elements, including from Daesh and its Al-Qaeda-affiliated rivals; flows of all kinds of weapons; trafficking in drugs, migrants, cigarettes and more.

Looking back at an almost quarter-century of armed violence in the Maghreb, one cannot but ask why there has been so much blood letting and destruction of vital economic infrastructure. The root causes of the entrenched extremism and armed violence in the Maghreb lie, as in many other parts of the world, in a combination of causes. While some are not unique to the region, a few are specific to North Africa.

Ineffective governance is a leading cause of the enduring armed violence

The major causes of the structured armed extremism include: inadequate governance; strong demographic growth not matched by a robust economy; massive internal migration to overcrowded cities; inadequate education system; neglect of citizens’ aspirations especially in housing, water and health; and deep frustration over the lack of a credible future. These causes are exacerbated by weak or non-existent economic, political and security cooperation between the main regional powers – Algeria and Morocco.

Ineffective governance is a leading cause of the enduring armed violence. With restricted space for free debate, limited economic prospects and the heritage of their freedom-fighter fathers, many young people, especially Algerians, engaged in radical activities. They went as far away as Afghanistan, where many served as volunteer combatants after the Soviet invasion of 1979. In a much more limited number, Tunisians and Moroccans went also to fight in Afghanistan, and their return introduced armed radicals to the Maghreb. External funding from individuals in other Muslim countries reinforced their capacities.

The failings of Algeria’s 1992 parliamentary election and the subsequent frustration over the results encouraged these returnees to take up arms against their own government. They engaged in a merciless uprising. More than 10 years of civil saw over 100,000 deaths. Many observers date the beginnings of today’s insecurity in the Maghreb and the Sahel to that period.

Despite economic progress, the three main North African countries have been unable to meet the aspirations of their young people. Even with migration to Europe or elsewhere, youth unemployment remains high. By combatting terrorists at home, the Algerians pushed them further south into the Sahel exposing the fragile states of Mali, Mauritania and Niger to a brutal new terrorist threat. Without French intervention, Mali would have fallen to the combatants in January 2013.

Finally, the deficit in security cooperation between Algeria and Morocco and their decades-old struggle for pre-eminence continues to hinder a credible fight against armed extremism in the Maghreb. Unable to stabilise Libya, the two sister states may, unwillingly, be strengthening armed extremism and helping it expand further, to Mediterranean Europe after the havoc it has already brought to the Sahel.

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