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Counterterrorism in North Africa: more of the same?

By Ghita Tadlaoui. Junior researcher at FRIDE 

While emerging in the Levant, ISIS ineluctably reached North Africa. Various terrorist groups have been pullulating in the region since a few years and some have pleaded allegiance to to Abou Bakr Al Baghdadi, the most relevant group being the “Soldiers of the Caliph in Algeria”, a scission from AQIM, and now led by Abdel Malek el Gouri The reigning chaos in this volatile region due to neighbouring Libya and Sahel countries is swamped with armaments welled up by distinct extremist groups. The ISIS advocates in North Africa could get hold of the abundant weapons to carry out terrorist attacks in the region, as they have already executed a French citizen in Algeria. Justifiably, a feeling of insecurity has taken over some North African countries, as around 8000 Maghreb nationals fled to Syria and Iraq to fight along the side of terrorist groups. The remarkably high numbers clearly testify for the entrenchment of Islamist extremism in the region. Their return to their home countries and the presence of clandestine dormant terrorist cells linked to ISIS is a threat to North African counties’ homeland security.

So far, repression has been the only stratagem employed by the authoritarian regimes of the region to bend extremism. These governments prefer the vilifying, ill treatment and cornering or interdiction of Islamist parties in their countries rather than paving the way to a meaningful political dialogue with the extremist factions within their borders. The parochial interests of the regimes of the region lead to a vicious circle of counterterrorism strategies sustaining terrorism rather than abolishing it as it resurfaces regularly. Yet, once again, the North African governments resort to the same old proven unproductive methods to halt extremism as they increase their military spending and beef up their security laws. In fact, Morocco adopted a new anti-terrorism legislation introducing even more severe sentences (up until 15 years of imprisonment) reprimanding terrorists and their recruiters. The Moroccan secret services have dismantled more than 18 Jihadist cells between 2011 and 2013. Tunisia, a country where there is still a dim light for a possible successful democratic transition, has been the stage of many cases of police abuses of civil liberties. The police forces now take advantage of the terrorism threat to act with total impunity, thus threatening the advances the country is undertaking with regards to democracy and human rights, eventually leading to the re-emergence of a police state. In the meantime in Egypt, President Al-Sisi planned a bloody onslaught against Islamists killing more than 1,000 people and imprisoning around 20,000.

However, any counterterrorism law involving the infringement of human rights and the rule of law will only fuel up more violent extremism. The consequences of such actions lead to fomenting the extremist views of presumed terrorists who resume their activities right after leaving prison. This is unfortunately a déjà vu in the region. 

Changing laws to rebuke radical groups might be one part of the solution, but further concomitant measures are to be implemented. There is a crucial need of a dialogue-based approach and preventive measures vis-à-vis the radicalization of the youth. The short sighted and cosmetic remedies to religious extremism of these countries are bound to keep them struggling with the same problem if not addressing its roots. Rampant illiteracy, poverty, inequalities and joblessness are breeding grounds for radicalisation. Working towards solutions for a malfunctioning economy in countries where the youth forms the major part of the population, a more equitable social justice, more political accountability and less repression are the real viable solutions to sidestep terrorism. In fact, it is the vacuum left by the governments’ inadequate implementation of these measures that fosters conservative religious groups who do provide for those socio-economic needs. By cornering these factions of their societies, these governments are in fact giving them too much leeway. 

There is a reason why these regimes are still reluctant to tackling terrorism at its source as it would be contingent on their ability to grant some concessions they are not ready to give away, they will nonetheless continue to pay a high price for it. Additionally, the rise of terrorism in the region is also conveniently allowing the North African governments to consolidate their powers as the centrepiece of these regimes is securing their survival in times of tottering popularity. The terrorist threat hovering over the region urges the populations to demand stronger states, allowing these regimes to regain breadth, and maybe leading up to the pre-Arab Spring status quo. It goes without saying that these regimes’ paternalistic behaviour goes hand in hand with the gradual erosion of the populations’ civil liberties, ultimately generating dissatisfaction and radicalisation. More adequate long term responses are vital to not fall into the same vicious circle once more. 

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