This November, Florida International University welcomed Senior Fellow and Deputy Director of the Middle East Program at CSIS, Haim Malka, for a lecture event co-sponsored by the Middle East Studies Program and the School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA) at FIU. After living for six years in Jerusalem, where he worked as a television news producer, Haim Malka became a research analyst at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution prior to joining CSIS. As part of the Ruth K. and Shepard Broad Distinguished Lecture Series, Malka gave an enticing lecture regarding the effects of the Arab Spring in the Maghreb, particularly dealing with a new emergence of Islamic extremist groups.
According to Malka, the Maghreb often gets forgotten because it falls in between the cracks of the Middle East and Africa. However, as he reminds us, this region is imperative to us and the rest of the world because it was where the Arab Spring began and where there is a growing evolutionary process for its government and its people. These North-African countries all have something in common, according to Malka, “each one of the countries in the Maghreb is recalibrating strategies on how to handle the subject of extremist groups and their influence within their region.” These Jihadi extremist groups have not been able to cause complete political change. However, they have managed to evolve themselves into a more modern version of Jihadi extremists; a result that stems from unprecedented changes.
Malka explained that these changes include several freedoms for extremist groups, which have resulted from the Arab Spring. For instance, since the Arab Spring in early 2011, governments in this region who once suppressed Islamic extremist groups are much more tolerable of them now. Such is the case with Libya and Tunisia, who have allowed for greater influence within their political institutions by extremist groups. Another factor to consider is that the growing availability of weapons in the black market has granted Islamic extremists an ease at obtaining firearms. As Malka suggests, these firearms can fall into the hands of the thousands of escaped and released prisoners that are members of Jihadi groups. Overall, easily influenced governments in the Maghreb, simply acquired fire-arms through a growing black market, and the constant release and escapes of Jihadi prisoners are circumstances that have led to the emergence of a new mainstream version of Jihadi-Salafists.
This new wave of Salafists differs from their predecessors in various ways. Malka talks about the new generation vs. the old generation, “In northern Africa, the old generation of Jihadi-Salafists failed to gain widespread support. The new generation has been much more successful in this particular task.” Malka attributes this difference between the two groups to their contrasting strategies dealing with violence. There has been an evolution in these groups, moving from total violence to a more measured and calculated violence. This new group of Jihadi Salafists favors a combination of charity work, outreach, community activism and occasional violence. They stand by the idea of not steering away from society but rather working within it.
Despite these transitions, Malka stresses the fact that the Old Jihadi model still exists just as Al-Qaida in the Maghreb continues to operate, as they have for many years. The key difference between this old group and the new Jihadi groups is that these new Jihadi “hybrids,” as Malka calls them, are a greater threat because they are much more integrated with society and have generated greater support. Consequently, they pose a threat to regional stability.
Malka concluded his lecture by saying that it is too early to tell if this is all a tactical shift or an ideological shift steering away from Al-Qaida’s consistent strategies. The main question, he asks, is if there is anything the U.S. can do to counter this threat. He ends his discussion with his professional suggestion to the question, “Although, I feel that the U.S. can play a role in this issue, I believe that it is ultimately the governments in North Africa that need to take the lead on this one. They need to realize that over the next generation, the impact of this new mainstream Jihadi-Salafism will be far greater than Al-Qaida’s impact ever was. Thank you.”