February 23, 2015

TSG IntelBrief: North Africa’s Export-Import of Terror

• North African countries such as Tunisia, Algeria, and Libya, from where a great many fighters have traveled to Iraq and Syria, are now seeing some fighters return home

• Places like the Kasserine region of Tunisia and the Kabylie region of Algeria have long been exporters of extremist fighters to distant battles, from the Afghan Jihad, the Iraq War, and now the Syrian civil war

• Tunisians in particular have played a leading role in the world of foreign fighters, taking part in some of the most impactful terrorist attacks in years, from the September 2001 killing of Northern Alliance leader Ahmad Shah Massoud in Afghanistan to the 2013 attack on the In Amenas gas plant in Algeria

• The Islamic State and al-Qaeda will attempt to seize on both the return of fighters and the inciting and radicalizing effect they have on already stressed communities.


The long-feared boomerang effect of North African foreign fighters returning to their home region appears to be underway. The combination of disproportionately large numbers of Tunisians, Algerians, and Libyans who traveled to fight for the Islamic State and the shift by the group to encourage a ‘repatriation of extremists’ to their home countries means these countries will likely experience a marked increase in terrorism. These foreign fighters are the latest fighters from a region long known as an exporter of fighters to distant battlefields. Any sustained move to an import of fighters seeking to establish new branches of the Islamic State or al-Qaeda in this region will prove immensely destabilizing.

Apart from the chaotic and worsening fighting in Libya, the insidious threat of the returning fighters to the region can be seen in the recent arrest of 32 extremists in Tunisia. Charged with several plots against government and civilian installations, some of the accused had traveled back from Syria. Some of those arrested were associated with Tunisia’s Okba Ibn Nafaa Brigade, loosely affiliated with al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). As in other places, affiliation with a specific group such as AQIM does matter in terms of numbers and logistics, but motivation is increasingly mattering more, as the ideology overwhelms political and social grievances to a degree that is unusual for local fighting.

Foreign fighters from Tunisia, let alone North Africa, is sadly not a new phenomenon. During the Afghan Jihad of the 1980s and ‘90s, extremists from regions such as the Kasserine area near the border with Algeria traveled to Afghanistan in significant numbers. The two assassins of Northern Alliance leader Ahmad Shah Massoud, whose death altered the future of Afghanistan, were both Tunisian members of al-Qaeda. During the Iraq war that began in 2003, Tunisians made up a sizable portion of the foreign fighters in al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), the precursor to the Islamic State. This export of fighters didn’t end with AQI. As of last fall, Tunisians made up the largest nationality of foreign fighters for the Islamic State, and those that have left Iraq and Syria are now proving valuable for the nascent Islamic State affiliate in Libya.

Not all of the Tunisians who have left Iraq and Syria went to Libya. The Tunisian government has reported that several hundred foreign fighters (between 400-500) have returned home. Such a number would stress even the most well-equipped and prepared security services, let alone a relatively small country. For comparison’s sake, France is struggling with approximately the same number of returning foreign fighters (of whom it’s impossible to say who will be a threat and who just wanted to come home), yet France has six times the population and a GDP of $2.8 trillion versus Tunisia’s $44 billion.

What prompts this shift, however subtle, from the export to the import of fighters is that the region is awash in the violent ideology of bin-Ladinism to a degree never seen before, and this is a region that is no stranger to armed fighting and ideological tensions. Libya is in complete collapse; Algeria is still battling AQIM in parts of the country; and Tunisia’s political landscape is still trembling from the quakes of the Arab Spring (which started in 2011 in a town not far from the restive Kesserine region) Adding to the danger is the immense brand recognition of the Islamic State, which is seeking to piggyback onto established al-Qaeda networks to jumpstart its presence. The return of foreign fighters only makes the situation worse. A perfect storm of extremism is brewing on the shores of the Mediterranean, from Algeria to Libya, leaving the region with little time to prepare.


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