ALGIERS (Reuters) - Egyptian security officials have offered military training to pro-government forces in Libya, citing what they said was a growing regional threat from Islamist militants.
North Africa is one of the main sources of jihadi fighters traveling to Syria and Iraq.
Several splinter groups have declared their alliance with Islamic State, while the main group, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb has urged jihadists to put aside their differences and call a halt to infighting in Iraq and Syria.
Here are the main Islamist militant organizations operating in North Africa and the Sahel.
AL QAEDA IN THE ISLAMIC MAGHREB (AQIM) - The main Islamic militant group in the region, AQIM traces its roots back to the Algerian conflict of the 1990s when the Armed Islamic Group, known as GIA, fought to overthrow the government and establish an Islamic State.
Split by infighting and military defeats, many of the Algerian Islamists accepted a government amnesty and mostly ended a conflict that killed 200,000. But some Algerian hardliners refused and are among North Africa’s most experienced militants. Among those are Abdelmalek Droukdel, AQIM’s current commander. AQIM and its allies took part in the Islamist militant takeover of Northern Mali before a French military intervention drove them back and scattered their fighters.
Droukdel, who remains loyal to al Qaeda commander, is believed to be hiding in the mountains of northern Algeria, but the group also operates across northern Mali, Niger, Mauritani and Algeria. U.S. military officials say the group has loosely coordinated with other militants across Africa, including Boko Haram and al Shabaab in Somalia.
MOKHTAR BELMOKHTAR - THOSE WHO SIGN IN BLOOD - A former Algerian AQIM commander, smuggler and veteran of Afghanistan conflicts, Belmokhtar split with Droukdel to form his own group “Those who Sign in Blood” in 2012. But he has not sided with the Islamic State, staying for the moment more aligned with al Qaeda’s core leadership.
Belmokhtar, who lost one eye in a bomb-making accident, was reported killed in March 2013 by Chadian forces. But his death was never confirmed outside Chad. He was last seen in an undated video released in September last year.
With his experience fighting in Afghanistan and Algeria’s civil war, former fighters and experts have said Belmokhtar has wide-ranging local and foreign contacts. Some security officials believe he is now taking refuge in the remote southern Libyan desert across the border from Algeria.
Dubbed “The Uncatchable” by French forces, Belmokhtar was accused of masterminding last year’s attack on a French uranium mine in Niger and the Amenas gas plant in southern Algeria, where 39 foreign contractors were killed.
CALIPHATE SOLDIERS OF ALGERIA - A newly formed Algerian al Qaeda splinter group announced its allegiance with Islamic State this month, and just a week later kidnapped and beheaded French hostage Herve Gourdel, a mountain guide who was on holiday.
Little is known about the group’s self-declared leader Abdelmalek Gouri, once AQIM central region commander and veteran from Algeria’s civil war. But Caliphate Soldiers declared AQIM was heading in the wrong direction and pledged loyalty to Islamic State.
Their potential and capabilities are unclear, but security sources say the group may number as few as 20 hardcore former AQIM fighters. Whatever their size, their high-profile murder has put them on the jihadist map.
ANSAR DINE - An al Qaeda-linked Islamist group in northern Mali, their name means “Defenders of the Faith” and they follow the puritanical form of Islam known like many jihadi groups. Along with Tuareg separatist movement MNLA, Ansar Dine and other Islamists were among rebels who seized northern Mali.
Ansar Dine’s leader, renegade Tuareg chieftain Iyad Ag Ghali, has links with AQIM through a cousin who is a local commander, according to diplomats. Ansar Dine’s fighters, who operate under the black Islamist flag, initially gained a reputation in the north for keeping order after outbreaks of looting. But earned hostility from locals when they tried to enforce a more strict interpretation of Islam.
MUJAO - An al Qaeda splinter group in Mali, MUJAO or Movement for Unification and Jihad in West Africa, was one of the groups involved in taking over the north of Mali. It was also suspected in the killing of two French journalists who kidnapped in the Malian city of Kidal in 2013. It was also blamed for the kidnapping of several Algerian diplomats and has joined forces loosely in the past with Belmokhtar’s fighters.
ANSAR AL SHARIA TUNISIA - Led by Afghanistan veteran Abu Iyad, Ansar al Sharia was one of the most radical groups to emerge following Tunisia’s 2011 revolution that began the Arab Spring uprisings. The group was at first allowed to practice its social activities especially in poorer neighborhoods.
Ansar’s Abu Iyad was blamed for instigating the ransacking of the U.S. embassy in Tunis in 2012, and later the group was charged with the murder of two opposition leaders, triggering a political crisis for Tunisia’s Islamist-led government. Ansar was declared illegal and it has since gone underground and clashed increasingly with security forces.
Abu Iyad expresses loyalty to al Qaeda leadership, and had said Syria was the route for jihad not Tunisia, encouraging fighters to join the war there. Washington has declared Ansar al Sharia in Tunisia a foreign terrorist organization, saying it is tied to al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.
TUNISIA UKBA IBN NAFAA - A small group of militants based in the Chaambi mountains bordering Algeria, where some of the foreign fighters fled after the French intervention in Mali. Tunisian troops have surrounded the mountains to try to flush them out, but the group, which may only number in the dozens, has been holding out. It recently released a video threatening attacks before Tunisian elections next month. There were unconfirmed statements about it swearing allegiance to Islamic State.
ANSAR AL SHARIA LIBYA - Blamed by the United States for the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi in 2012 which killed the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans, Ansar al Sharia has managed to position itself as a powerful armed faction inside Libya’s growing lawlessness and armed rivalries.
Heavily armed, it says it wants to impose strict sharia Islamist law in Libya. Based mostly out of Benghazi, Ansar al Sharia joined forces with another Islamist-leaning faction to drive the armed forces and pro-government armed groups out of the eastern city a few months ago.
While it often operated security patrols and checkpoints, it had been forced out of the city by popular protests in 2012. Ansar al Sharia had been blamed for a string of assassinations of local officials and security officers.
Ansar al Sharia Benghazi and Derna branches are designated foreign terrorist organizations.
Libya is in huge chaos, with the elected government based in Tobruk now challenged by an alternative government set up in Tripoli after a mainly Islamist-aligned armed faction took over the capital. Several other Islamist-lending armed groups operate in the North African country.
ANSAR BAYT AL MAQDIS - An Egyptian, Sinai-based group that is blamed for killing hundreds of security force members since the ouster of Islamist president Mohamed Mursi by the military. Formed in the wake of the 2011 uprisings in Egypt, it has claimed high-profile attacks such as an assassination attempt on Egypt’s interior minister.
The United States has designated it a foreign terrorist organization, and says it is mainly a local group with some ties to the al Qaeda organization. But the Egyptian government has linked the group to Islamic State.
Islamic State has been coaching the Sinai-based Ansar Bayt Al-Maqdis militants on how to operate more effectively, a senior Ansar Bayt Al-Maqdis commander told Reuters recently.
The group has launched rockets at Israel’s southern city of Eilat and attacked Israeli border guards. It has also targeted Egyptian and foreign tourists and has claimed to have beheaded several people, accusing them of being Israeli spies.
Reporting by Patrick Markey; editing by Philippa Fletcher