ISIS expanding into Africa; looking for a new safe haven?

A message posted to a website linked to ISIS today included a claim of responsibility for yesterday’s devastating attack on the Bardo Museum in Tunis, which killed 23 people. So far nine people have been arrested over the attack and the Tunisian army has been deployed in major cities to try to prevent any further attacks. As far as I’ve seen there’s nothing tying ISIS to the attack apart from the message, but that’s probably enough.

The fact that it’s plausible that ISIS (or ISIS sympathizers, if there’s some way to draw a distinction there) was behind the attack reflects two developing trends as far as I can see. First there’s ISIS’s expansion into Africa, but not via this new alliance with Boko Haram that got everybody talking last week. There are reasons to be concerned about that connection, don’t get me wrong; it raises Boko Haram’s credibility in jihadi circles to have ISIS accepting it into the fold, and it’s the highest profile pledge of allegiance that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has nabbed yet, so it’s also good for his profile. But the fly in the nutty ointment here is that Boko Haram isn’t doing so hot these days:

The regional force made up of soldiers from Chad, Niger and Cameroon as well as Nigeria’s own military have all claimed to have scored victories against the dreaded Boko Haram.

Chad’s president Idriss Derby has said he knows where the group’s fearsome leader Abubakar Shekau is hiding (perhaps in the vast Sambissa forest) and he’ll exterminate him.

Jonathan himself has said he’ll have this insurgency under control before the elections at the end of the month.

Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan seems to have bolstered his own army with a bunch of mercs, and that combined with the fact that Boko Haram has now managed to draw heat from four countries in the region has the insurgent/terrorist/maniac group on the ropes. So the material benefit to ISIS of Boko Haram’s pledge (or to Boko Haram of ISIS’s acceptance) may be fairly minor. But ISIS is making more substantial gains in Libya, where it very publicly slaughtered 21 captives in Sirte last month and where it’s consolidating its control over the coastal city of Derna, and now potentially in Tunisia.

The Tunisia attack is a particularly troubling one for what it may portend going forward. Tunisia was where the Arab Spring started and has been, to this point, the one success of that movement. Like nearby Egypt, Tunisia ditched its long-time dictator, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, then held free elections and experienced life under a Muslim Brotherhood-led government, but unlike Egypt, it didn’t revert back to dictatorship in response. Instead, Tunisia’s MB party, Ennahda, voluntarily agreed to step down and hold new elections, which were won by the secular Nidaa Tounes party. It’s looked like Tunisia might be on the path to a stable democracy. Now, who knows? If the Bardo attack shakes things up enough, or worse if it’s just the first of multiple attacks, Tunisia could easily be thrown either into political chaos (Nidaa Tounes won the elections in part on its promise to prevent attacks like this, so it looks a little discredited right now) or find itself on a path back toward authoritarianism on the pretext of a crack down on extremists.

For ISIS, these attacks, coupled with their increasing activity in Libya, are obviously part of the “caliphate’s” plan for continued expansion. They’ve hit a wall in Syria and are being pushed back in Iraq, but Libya is virtually in anarchy these days, leaving the country wide open for ISIS activity, and there’s no Western coalition on the horizon to help there either. Instilling some chaos into Tunisia would open that country up as well and maybe leave ISIS with a real foothold in North Africa to make up for its regression in its heartland.

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