WASHINGTON, DC — The Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL) is developing networks across North Africa that seek to attack the continent, Europe, and the United States while it loses control of its so-called caliphate in Iraq and Syria, a top U.S. State Department counterterrorism official warned lawmakers.
ISIS is on the ropes in Iraq and Syria. But as the group loses control over territory in its core, it is essential that we prevent it from reconstituting itself elsewhere. In particular, ISIS maintains networks in North Africa that seek to conduct or inspire attacks on the continent, in Europe, and against U.S. interests.
He cautioned that the United States must remain vigilant against the menace posed by North African foreign terrorist fighters (FTFs) returning home after fighting on behalf of ISIS in Iraq and Syria.
Joan Polaschik, the principal deputy assistant secretary for State’s Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, noted that about 3,000 to 6,000 Tunisians alone traveled to the Middle East to join ISIS.
Polaschik, who testified alongside Sales, told lawmakers:
A complex web of interrelated factors have spurred radicalization and prompted approximately 3,000 to 6,000 Tunisians to join ISIS: chronic youth unemployment and economic stagnation, feelings of social marginalization, and terrorist recruitment techniques honed to highly localized grievances.
The counterterrorism official from State acknowledged that al-Qaeda had expanded its reach in North Africa while the international community has primarily focused on annihilating ISIS.
“We also remain concerned about al-Qa’ida’s affiliates in the region, especially al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), and their growing reach into other parts of Africa,” declared Sales.
Although U.S.-backed local sources pushed ISIS out of Libya, once home to its largest stronghold outside of Iraq and Syria, the potential exists for the jihadist organization to regroup in the country where political chaos and deteriorating security conditions continue to plague the population, said Polaschik, noting:
Libya – where the ongoing political crisis continues to impact security throughout the region – that country must overcome the current political impasse to achieve lasting stability.
Any attempts to impose a military solution will only fuel a renewed civil conflict, providing ISIS and Al Qaida with opportunities to again use Libya as a base to threaten the United States and our allies.
Instability in Libya translates to security challenges in neighboring Tunisia and Egypt, State officials pointed out.
“Egypt’s 750-mile border with Libya represents an additional security challenge. For Cairo, instability in Libya and the potential for ISIS to regroup in Libya represent critical threats to Egyptian security,” said Polaschik.
U.S. officials are working with their North African partners to address the various terrorist threats in the region.
The State Department is “training law enforcement officers and judges how to handle terrorism cases; strengthening information sharing and terrorist screening; cutting off the flow of money to terrorist groups; and countering the radical ideologies used by ISIS and its affiliates to recruit new members,” pointed out Sales.