* New Algerian splinter group breaks with AQIM
* Islamic State winning over breakaway militants
* North Africa large source of jihadi fighters
By Lamine Chikhi
ALGIERS, Sept 14 (Reuters) - A new armed group calling itself the Caliphate Soldiers in Algeria has split from al Qaeda’s North African branch and sworn loyalty to the radical breakaway group Islamic State fighting in Syria and Iraq.
A breakaway of key Algerian commanders from Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, known as AQIM, would show deepening rivalry between al Qaeda’s core command and the Islamic State over leadership of the transnational Islamist militancy.
In a communique, AQIM central region commander Khaled Abu Suleimane, whose real name is Gouri Abdelmalek, claimed leadership of the new group, joined by an AQIM commander of an eastern region in Algeria, where the al Qaeda wing has its base.
“You have in the Islamic Maghreb men if you order them they will obey you,” Suleimane said in reference to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the Islamic State. “The Maghreb has deviated from the true path.”
The communique was posted on jihadi websites. Algerian officials did not immediately comment on the statement.
The Algeria splinter group is the latest to side with Baghdadi over al Qaeda’s aging chieftain Ayman al-Zawahri, as the Islamic State appeals to younger militants with successes in gaining territory in Iraq and Syria.
Baghdadi, who has declared himself “Caliph” or head of state, fell out with al Qaeda in 2013 over its expansion into Syria, where his followers carried out beheadings, crucifixions, and mass executions.
For some militants, Islamic State’s creation of a jihadi bastion spanning western Iraq and eastern Syria, and its strong online presence, compare with al Qaeda’s failure for almost a decade to carry out a major attack in the West.
Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb is just one of the fractured militant groups operating in North Africa, which has been a source of thousands of young fighters travelling from Libya, Tunisia and Morocco to Syria and Iraq.
Algeria, which itself recovered from a decade of conflict against its own Islamist fighters during which some 200,000 people died, is a strong U.S. ally in its fight against militants in the region.
But experts said the announcement will likely not have a major operational impact on the ground as AQIM has been focused on the Sahel region rather than OPEC member Algeria. Attacks are rarer now in Algeria though militants still have potential.
“The new group will try hard to make some noise, but it will be very difficult to execute big terrorist actions as Algerian security forces have knocked out most of the armed groups in Algeria,” local security analyst Anis Rahmani said.
But it may appeal to new Islamist recruits in the Maghreb seeking to fight in Syria and Iraq, where Baghdadi’s forces now control large swaths of territory and towns.
The newly created “Caliphate Soldiers” or “Jound al Khilafa fi Ard al Jazayer” is the second group to break with AQIM, the first one being Mokhtar Belmokhtar’s group “Those who sign in Blood” who observers say are likely based now in southern Libya.
Belmokhtar, a veteran Algerian militant and former al Qaeda commander, was blamed for masterminding the attack on Algeria’s In Amenas gas plant in early 2013, in which 40 oil workers, most of them foreigners, were killed after a four-day seige. (Editing by Patrick Markey and Rosalind Russell)