October 7, 2014

TSG IntelBrief: Foreign Fighters from North Africa in Syria and Iraq

• No region has seen more of its people travel to fight in Syria than North Africa; more than 3,000 Tunisians have traveled there as of last April, and more than 1,500 Moroccans

• This is a repeat of a decade ago when large numbers of North Africans traveled to Iraq to fight there as well, in proportions far above those of neighboring countries

• A significant number of recent North African fighters have conducted suicide bombings in both Iraq and Syria, highlighting that the deadly ideological message of the so-called Islamic State (IS) and other extremist groups is finding purchase in North Africa

• The reasons for this export of extremists include incomplete political reforms that have failed to redress serious societal issues, persistent high youth unemployment, and a failure to cope with the apparent high levels of disaffection, despair, and anger that drive people to choose violent extremism.

The message of violent extremism is once again finding too large an audience in North Africa. Lost in the discussion of foreign fighters traveling into Syria and perhaps traveling back to their home countries is the fact that fighters from North African countries are traveling to fight in Syria and Iraq in numbers far out of proportion. These fighters represent a threat to their home countries, but they are also a tragic symbol of something going very wrong among some of the youth of North Africa.

The Arab Spring uprisings began in Tunisia, and among the countries that experienced turmoil, it has fared the best. It hasn’t broken apart into violent factions, and has tried to manage the change largely politically instead of militarily. And yet, as the TSG June 2014 report on foreign fighters showed, over 3,000 Tunisians had traveled to fight in Syria by April 2014, a number likely to be much higher now. No other country has seen more people travel to fight than Tunisia, which is surprising given the lack of violent extremism within its borders. Morocco, which also has a relatively stable society and government (there are persistent tensions but within the region it is relatively stable), has seen over 1,500 of its youth travel to fight and often die in Syria and now in Iraq. As a region, North Africa has again become one of the largest exporters of foreign fighters into a Middle Eastern conflict.

A decade ago, Algerians, Moroccans, Tunisians, and especially Libyans flocked to Iraq to fight the coalition military forces as well as the Shi’a militias and nascent government. Documents seized during the 2007 Sinjar, Iraq raid that captured a trove of documents from al-Qaeda in Iraq—the predecessor to today’s so-called Islamic State (IS)—showed that the largest percentage of foreign fighters, after Saudis, were North Africans. These fighters were often used to conduct suicide attacks, both vehicle-borne and suicide-vest, against military and civilian targets. Now ten years later, history is repeating itself, but without 150,000 US and coalition troops to cut down on the so-called rat lines that funnel fighters into the conflict.

Even before its summer offensive, after which the numbers of new recruits has likely spiked, IS has been attracting and then sacrificing North Africans fighters to gain ground in Syria and Iraq. Analysis by Long War Journal in April 2014 of the “Diyala Division” showed 26 suicide attacks in just one Iraqi province, mostly committed by North African fighters. The situation now is likely worse, given the publicity and military successes IS has since seen. As long as the fighting continues, people will find a way to join.

Proximity alone can’t explain why the numbers of North Africans fighters in Syria and Iraq are so high: it’s just as burdensome to travel into Syria via Turkey from Casablanca or Algiers, as it is to do the same from Europe or the United States. Given the near total chaos in Libya, it is expected to see sizable numbers of fighters from that troubled country making their way into Syria and Iraq, but Tunisia, Morocco, and even Algeria are categorically different. While there are indeed serious and deep-rooted problems in those three countries, they are not on the edge of collapse and they do have strong socio-cultural ties that hold them together. But the numbers are undeniable and troubling. They suggest a latent sickness among a sub-population of youth that expresses itself not in domestic violence but in foreign fighters. These youths are proving susceptible to the message of IS and other extremist groups, and moving from cyber supporter to suicide bomber—a tremendous leap in commitment.

Interestingly, of the 55 countries that have joined, at least symbolically, the US-led global coalition to "degrade and defeat” IS, only two North African countries have agreed to participate: Egypt and Morocco. Tunisia, Algeria, and, somewhat understandably, Libya, haven’t committed to the struggle even as thousands of their citizens have joined the fight on the other side. As the long struggle against IS continues, these countries will need help addressing the factors that caused so many of their citizens to take up arms in another land.


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