Return of Tunisian Fighters From Hotbeds of Tension: Repercussions and Challenges

Ahmed Nadhif | 17 May 2021

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,[1] 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".[2] 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.[3]

The Tunisian judicial records[4] 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".[5] Many factors contributed to the development of this phenomenon significantly after 2011, perhaps the most prominent of which are the following:

  • The chaotic restructuring of the Tunisian security services after the fall of the Ben Ali regime in 2011 led to a decline in the effectiveness of the anti-terror services, especially after the then minister Farhat Rajhi dissolved the state security apparatus in March 2011,[6] as well as the dismissal of dozens of executives in the intelligence agency, which led to a weakness in the information-gathering process needed to contain the phenomenon of youth deployment networks to fighting hotbeds abroad.[7]
  • Allowing the Salafi-jihadi organisations to operate openly and directly between 2011 and 2013 during the reign of the Ennahda Movement within the Troika coalition, which led to the escalation of recruitment among young people, control of a large number of public domains and freedom of movement between regions, including from Tunisia towards Libya.[8] All this led to an increase in the deployment operations and the enrolment of new numbers of young people in the jihadist currents. The jihadists have been interested in recruiting new operatives at the hand of preachers, imams of mosques and former leaders of terrorist organisations. They intensified their public presence in the streets and on social media, even as the advocacy wing of the Ansar al-Sharia (Supporters of Islamic Law) organisation sought to establish advocacy tents and gatherings in most regions of the country, where incitative sermons were delivered and books were distributed. Mosques that were controlled by jihadists also played a major role in indoctrination and polarisation.[9]
  • Likewise, Libya constituted a background base that helped to create training centres and a suitable staging area towards Turkey, and later into the Syrian and Iraqi interior, especially as Libya had entered into a security and military chaos in the wake of the fall of Muammar Gaddafi's regime. More than half of the Tunisian fighters in Syria and Iraq had passed through Libya and got trained there, before Libya itself turned into a battlefield where Tunisians would settle in the ranks of Daesh and the Shura Council of Benghazi Revolutionaries to fight against the Libyan army since May 2014, the date of the launch of Operation Dignity, led by Khalifa Haftar.[10]
  • Ease of travel was also a factor that helped many young people join armed groups, as it was relatively easy to reach Syria. Most people would take a plane or car from their places to Turkey and from there to Syria. Compared to Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia, or Mali, travel to Turkey also does not necessarily raise any warning signs as it is a prominent tourist destination. Besides, flights to Turkey are low in price, and Tunisia enjoys the privilege of visa exemption with the Turkish government. This makes things easier, especially for individuals who may not be willing to take the risk of going to more isolated locations.[11]
  • The Turkish military intervention in Libya since the summer of 2020 until today has also facilitated the return of hundreds of Tunisian fighters who were in Syria and fled to Turkey towards Libya, thus becoming close to the Tunisian border. Reports published by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights revealed an influx of hundreds of Tunisian fighters among the forces that Turkey has dispatched to Tripoli. An Observatory report which was published at the end of 2020 indicated that nearly 2,500 Tunisian fighters were among the groups supported by Ankara in Libya.

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:

  • Terrorist networks operating inside the country can provide the returnees with a platform through which they can indoctrinate others, especially since those returnees have combat experience that they gained from their participation in the Syrian and Libyan wars, given that their return was carried out secretly. On the other hand, if they were arrested and placed in prison, they could carry out recruitment operations in prison. Perhaps the most famous example of this is the story of rapper Marawan al-Douiri (Emino), who was a victim of one of the prison recruitment cells when he was serving a sentence for drug abuse, and ended up killed in Syria.[12]
  • The returnees could turn into "lone wolves" that carry out individual operations against the security forces or target economic facilities. They could also act individually, but through coordination with terrorist cells operating outside the country with which they have established relations during their presence in trouble spots. Perhaps the most prominent example of this model is Saifuddin Rizki who attacked the Sousse tourist resort in July 2015 and killed 38 tourists. He is one of the surreptitious returnees from Daesh camps in Libya, specifically in the city of Sabratha, the same city from which dozens of Tunisian fighters returned surreptitiously to the Tunisian city of Ben Guerdane in March 2016 and attacked security and sovereign centres in an attempt to establish an Islamic emirate.[13]
  • The financial and logistical implications of this return are one of the most important challenges faced by the Tunisian authorities. The security services need to increase and train the cadres specialised in combating terrorism, especially in the field of investigation and surveillance, just as Tunisian prisons need spaces for detaining and housing returning operatives. This alone constitutes a major challenge in the light of the overcrowding of prisons in Tunisia. The authorities also face a financial challenge, given that those logistical and administrative capabilities require additional budgets, which seem difficult to provide in the light of the financial crisis afflicting the country.
  • This return also poses security challenges to neighboring countries, as returning operatives could infiltrate into Algeria, being the central country for the leadership of al-Qaeda in Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), and also into Libya where a large logistical base for terrorist groups' activity continues to exist. They could also infiltrate into the northern European neighbourhood through illegal migration trips in boats, which is preferable by many returnees to escape the security pursuit inside the country.[14]

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:

  • Detention in prisons and the preparation of judicial files for the operatives who have been proved to participate in combat operations or support terrorist groups abroad, in accordance with Article 33 of the Basic Law on Combating Terrorism and Preventing Money Laundering of 2015, which considers “anyone who travels outside the territory of the Republic with the aim of committing any terrorist crime shall be considered a terrorist and punished with imprisonment”.[15] In this context, Tunisia witnessed during the years 2020 and 2021 many trials of returnees, the latest of which being the trial of a university professor in March 2021 who joined Daesh in Libya and Syria.[16]
  •  Putting the least dangerous operatives, according to the security classification, under house arrest, permanent monitoring of traffic and movement between cities, and travel bans, in accordance with the laws related to the regulation of the state of emergency,[17] which give the Minister of Interior the authority to place under house arrest any person whose activities are considered dangerous to public security and order.
  • Enhancing security cooperation with Algeria to prevent the infiltration of terrorists, including returnees, between the two countries, and activating a programme for exchanging information between the intelligence services in the two countries about the returnees, as well as establishing a military buffer zone on the land borders with Libya to detect infiltrations, and engaging in cooperation with Arab and European security services to hand over terrorists, including returnees. In December 2016, the Anti-Terrorism Judicial Service announced that the Daesh leading figure Moez el-Fazani, who is accused of planning the Bardo National Museum operation in March 2015, was handed over by the Sudanese authorities. It also received Wanas Al-Faqih, a leader of al-Qaeda.

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:

  • In terms of the prevailing policies to confront the returnees, which are essentially security and judicial measures, the security services are under great pressure at the level of monitoring the at-large returnees, which is a process that requires logistical staff and tools, while prison administration need to make intensified efforts to deal with the operatives in prisons. As for the judiciary, it is under tremendous pressure in terms of dealing with a large number of judicial files of returnees, which leads to delay in resolving many cases.
  • In terms of the absence of comprehensive policies, it is noted that there is no official programme for the de-radicalisation and reintegration of returnees, even though Tunisia is one of the leading countries in the world that has this category of terrorists, compared to other countries that have small numbers and have launched programmes for de-radicalisation and reintegration both within and outside prisons. It seems that betting on a security solution alone would not yield significant results in the coming years.
  • The unstable security and political situation in the receiving countries, where the political instability in Libya poses a challenge to the Tunisian authorities, especially with regard to how to deal with the disjointed security services inside Libya in order to determine the numbers and identities of those fighters or hand over the operatives in prisons. The same applies to the Syrian side, as there are groups of those fighters under the control of the Kurdish forces in the north, other groups in the grip of the Syrian state, and groups in Turkey.

Conclusion

  • After the defeat of Daesh in Syria and Iraq, discussion began about the fate of the 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 returning fighters have been involved in terrorist acts in many countries. Tunisia was the country most mentioned in this discussion, as Tunisians account for the greater portion of the foreign fighters listed in Syria, Libya and Iraq.
  • The Tunisian authorities estimate the number of Tunisian terrorists affiliated with terrorist groups in Syria, Libya and Iraq at 2,926 fighters, while the report of the United Nations Working Group on the Use of Mercenaries estimated the number of Tunisian fighters in the various flashpoints of tension at nearly five thousand fighters.
  • Many factors have led to the escalation of this phenomenon in Tunisia, including the chaotic restructuring of the Tunisian security services after the fall of the Ben Ali regime, and the entry of neighbouring Libya into a security and political chaos that provided a favourable environment for training. Furthermore, the tolerance with which the Ennahda Movement's government dealt with extremist groups led to an increase in the pace of recruitment and deployment, while the ease of travel to Turkey was a factor that helped many young people join the armed terrorist groups.
  • The return of Tunisian fighters coincides with a crisis situation in the country through the presence of terrorist groups that have carried out many attacks that targeted the security and military forces, a political crisis manifested in the instability of successive governments, and a stifling economic crisis that affected the state’s financial balances.
  • Against the dangerous repercussions of the return of fighters from hotbeds of tension, the official Tunisian policies seem weak or invisible until now, given that no packages of policies to deal with this return have been officially announced, with the authorities continuing to deal with this phenomenon based on the normal procedures that were followed with previous experiences before 2011. It is noteworthy that there is no official programme for the de-radicalisation and reintegration of returnees, with the authorities betting merely on the security solution that does not seem to yield significant results in the coming years.
  • The current official policies in dealing with returnees can be summarised in holding them in prisons, preparing judicial files for the operatives that were proved to have been involved in combat operations, placing the less dangerous operatives according to the security classification under house arrest, permanent monitoring of traffic and movement between cities, travel bans, as well as strengthening security cooperation with Algeria to prevent the infiltration of terrorists, including returnees, between the two countries, as well as the establishment of a military buffer zone on the land border with Libya.
  • The Tunisian authorities today face many challenges in dealing with the return of fighters. The security services are under great pressure in terms of monitoring the at-large returning operatives, a process that requires specialised cadres and logistical tools. On the other hand, prison administrations need to double their efforts to deal with the operatives in prisons. As for the judiciary, it is also under tremendous pressure in terms of dealing with a large number of judicial files for the returnees, which leads to delay in resolving many cases.

References

[1] “Libyan Foreign Ministry: we engaged several countries to evacuate the foreign fighters”, Anadolu Agency, 23 April 2021. Available at: https://bit.ly/3h9tc73

[2] 2926 Tunisiens parmi les groupes armés au Proche-Orient, El Watan, 02 JANVIER 2017. https://bit.ly/3vrJFbe

[3] 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

[4] “Terrorism in Tunisia through the Judicial Files”, Tunisian Centre for Research and Studies on Terrorism and the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights, October 2016. Available at: http://www.cnlct.tn/?p=2599

[5] New study explores Tunisia’s jihadi movement in numbers, Al-Monitor, Nov 8, 2016. https://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2016/11/tunisia-center-study-terrorism-distribution.html

[6] PIERRE PUCHOT, Contre le terrorisme, un long combat tunisien, 19 MARS 2015. https://www.mediapart.fr/journal/international/190315/contre-le-terrorisme-un-long-combat-tunisien?onglet=full

[7] 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 

[8] New study explores Tunisia’s jihadi movement in numbers, Al-Monitor, Nov 8, 2016.  

[9] Ahmed Nadhif, Roaming Rifles: Tunisians in the Global Jihad Networks, Tunisian Institute for International Relations, 2016. P. 23.

[10] 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

[11] 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

[12] 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

[13] 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

[14] 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

[15] “Tunisia punishes a university professor who returned from Daesh strongholds”, Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, 14 March 2021. Available at: https://bit.ly/3y0n9aE

[16] Order no. 50 of 1978, dated 26 January 1978, regarding regulating the state of emergency. Available at: https://legislation-securite.tn/ar/node/41237

[17] 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

 

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