On 23 April 2021, during a speech before the Italian House of Representatives, Libyan Foreign Minister Najla al-Mangoush announced that her country has contacted several countries to negotiate the removal of foreign fighters, which brought back to the forefront the discussion about the fate of those foreign fighters, how their countries of origin would deal with them, and the risks of their return, given that this return constitutes an increasing threat after it has been proved that some of those involved in terrorist acts in many countries are in fact returnee foreign fighters.
Tunisia was one of the countries included in this discussion, given that Tunisians account for a significant portion of the foreign fighters in Libya, as well as in Syria, considering that a large part of the Tunisian fighters currently in Libya have been active in the Syrian arena between 2012 and 2018.
This paper attempts to analyse the development of the phenomenon of Tunisian fighters returning from hotbeds of tension, its extent, and its implications, while examining the contexts of this return and its various impacts and challenges, internally and externally, and shedding light on the Tunisian government policies in dealing with the phenomenon of returning fighters and assessing its results.
The origin and development of the phenomenon of Tunisian fighters
The phenomenon of Tunisian fighters in foreign hotspots of tension emerged since the 1980s during the Afghan war (1979-1989), when dozens of Tunisian youths went to fight in the ranks of the Islamic Afghan parties against the Soviet invasion. The phenomenon developed during the Bosnian war (1992-1995). Then, Salafi-jihadi tendencies escalated among a large number of young people. This was evident in the involvement of hundreds of them in the Iraqi war, after the US invasion (2003).
Historically, Tunisian fighters were almost the fewest in previous "jihadist" experiences in Afghanistan, Bosnia, Chechnya, Iraq and Algeria, compared to the number of youths coming from Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Egypt, Libya and Algeria. However, things changed radically after the fall of the Ben Ali regime in 2011. Most estimates indicate that the Tunisian nationality has the largest presence in the Syrian and Libyan arenas, and to a lesser extent in Iraq. In the latest official estimate, the Tunisian presidency said that "the number of Tunisian terrorists affiliated with terrorist groups in Syria, Libya and Iraq is estimated at 2,926 terrorists, and that the authorities have thorough knowledge about the number of Tunisians joining trouble spots to fight within terrorist groups and their distribution across countries". On the other hand, according to the report of the United Nations Working Group on the Use of Mercenaries, the number of Tunisian fighters in the various flashpoints of tension is estimated at nearly five thousand fighters.
The Tunisian judicial records reveal that 69 percent of Tunisian extremists have received training on the use of weapons in Libya, and that 21 percent of them were trained in Syria. They also confirmed that 80 percent of those young men left for the battlefront in Syria as a second destination after receiving military training in Libya. According to the judicial files, the momentum of travel to Syria accelerated after June 2014, the date on which Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the Islamic State (IS, Daesh), announced the establishment of the "Caliphate", which prompted a large number of Tunisian extremists to try to join the Syrian arena to defend what they considered the "Caliphate". Many factors contributed to the development of this phenomenon significantly after 2011, perhaps the most prominent of which are the following:
The return of fighters and its impact
Since 2012, Tunisia has been suffering from an outbreak of local terrorism, through the presence of terrorist groups stationed in the western mountain range on the border with Algeria, with diverse allegiances ranging between al-Qaeda and Daesh. These carried out many attacks that targeted the security and military forces. Attacks were also carried out by their sleeper cells in cities against political and economic centres. The country also suffers from a political crisis manifested in the instability of governments, where the country has seen nine governments rotating power within ten years. On the other hand, Tunisia is going through a stifling economic crisis which has affected the state’s financial balances and deepened social tension in the country. In those distressful contexts, the authorities fear the wave of returning fighters from hotbeds of tension, and consider them an increasing threat, as this return could have dangerous effects at more than one level:
Evaluating government policies in dealing with the phenomenon of returning fighters
Against the dangerous repercussions of the return of the fighters from the hotbeds of tension, the official Tunisian policies seem weak, or not visible as yet, meaning that no official announcement has yet been made of a package of policies regarding this return. The authorities continue to act according to the normal procedures that were followed with previous experiences before the year 2011, most of which are security measures, without taking into account the size of the fighters in terms of numbers, or in terms of the intellectual and tactical transformations experienced by the jihadist currents during the last decade, especially with regard to the use of technology. The official policies in dealing with the returnees can be summarised as follows:
On the other hand, the Tunisian authorities today face many challenges in dealing with the return of fighters, both in terms of the shortcomings of the current policies and the absence of other, more comprehensive policies, as follows:
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 2926 Tunisiens parmi les groupes armés au Proche-Orient, El Watan, 02 JANVIER 2017. https://bit.ly/3vrJFbe
 Report of the Working Group on the Use of Mercenaries as a means of violating human rights and impeding the exercise of the right of peoples to self-determination 2015. https://digitallibrary.un.org/record/803065?ln=fr
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 In December 2018, the former US ambassador to Tunisia Jacob Walles accused the Ennahda (Renaissance) government of tolerating jihadist organisations, especially on the issue of travel. See the lecture delivered by Walles at a Policy Forum at The Washington Institute. Available at: https://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/tunisias-foreign-fighters
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 Ahmed Nadhif, Roaming Rifles: Tunisians in the Global Jihad Networks, Tunisian Institute for International Relations, 2016. P. 23.
 Aaron Y. Zelin, Sunni Foreign Fighters in Syria: Background, Facilitating Factors, and Select Responses, Partnership for Peace Consortium, May 22, 2014. https://www.washingtoninstitute.org/media/2752?disposition=inline
 Le rappeur tunisien Emino a rejoint l'Etat islamique, L'Obs, 24 mars 2015. https://www.nouvelobs.com/monde/20150324.OBS5326/le-rappeur-tunisien-emino-a-rejoint-l-etat-islamique.html
 Is Tunisia prepared for return of thousands of Islamic State fighters?, Al-Monitor, Jun 23, 2016. https://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2016/06/tunisia-return-of-islamic-state-members-syria-iraq.html
 Terrorisme: front commun des Européens pour plus de coopération, Les Echos, 11 Nov. 2020. https://www.lesechos.fr/monde/europe/terrorisme-front-commun-des-europeens-pour-plus-de-cooperation-1263875
 Law no. 26 of August 2015, dated 7 August 2015, on combating terrorism and money laundering. http://www.legislation.tn/detailtexte/Loi-num-2015-26-du-07-08-2015-jort-2015-063__2015063000261
 “Tunisia punishes a university professor who returned from Daesh strongholds”, Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, 14 March 2021. Available at: https://bit.ly/3y0n9aE
 Order no. 50 of 1978, dated 26 January 1978, regarding regulating the state of emergency. Available at: https://legislation-securite.tn/ar/node/41237
 How will Tunisia deal with thousands of returning jihadis?, Al-Monitor, Jan 17, 2017. https://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2017/01/tunisia-return-islamic-state-fighters-syria-controversy.html
Ahmed Nadhif | 21 Jun 2021
EPC | 19 Jun 2021
Nizar Abdul Kader | 17 Jun 2021