July 22, 2015

TSG IntelBrief: The International Hotbeds of the Islamic State

• Foreign fighters in Syria hail from over 100 countries worldwide

• A disproportionate number of fighters come from regional “hotbeds” of extremism

• These hotbeds all have unique characteristics that drive radicalization of their populations

• Thorough examination of how these characteristics interact can help provide a better understanding of the process of radicalization.


For years, foreign fighters from across the world have flocked to Syria and Iraq in order to join the so-called Islamic State and other violent groups. They come from Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, Malaysia, Chechnya, and even China. They also come from North America and Europe; from the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Belgium, and from across Scandinavia. However, the vast majority of fighters hail from a handful of countries, especially Tunisia, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, and Russia (Chechnya). Even within these countries, there are specific areas that produce the majority of the fighters. In order to understand and counter the process of radicalization on a micro-level, it is important to examine the local contexts that have spawned more foreign terrorist fighters than anywhere else.

Take Tunisia, for example. More than 3,000 Tunisians have traveled to fight in Syria and the country was also recently struck by two terror attacks on its tourism infrastructure that claimed 60 lives. Of the fighters traveling to Syria, as well as the perpetrators of the attacks in Tunis and Sousse, a disproportionate number hail from specific regions, and from two places in particular: the city of Bizerte on the northern coast, and the small city of Ben Gardane on the border with Libya. Since the revolution, a security vacuum and porous borders have made these towns havens for terror groups, including al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and Ansar al-Shariah.

Within Tunisia, Bizerte and Ben Gardane have become infamous as suppliers of fighters to Syria. In both towns, families speak of sons lost to the Islamic State. The trend in Bizerte is due in large part to a network of former jihadist fighters who settled there following their release from Tunisian prisons after the 2011 revolution. Ben Gardane serves as a smuggling hub, importing Libyan weapons and exporting fighters—including the perpetrators of both the Bardo Museum attack and the attack on Sousse. The town has long been a producer of jihadis; the former leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq, the precursor to the Islamic State, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi allegedly stated: “If Ben Gardane had been located next to Faullujah, we would have liberated Iraq.”

Though Libya has seen only 500-600 fighters travel to Syria, the country has a long history of violent extremism. As in Tunisia, this militant activity is concentrated in the eastern provinces, and particularly in the city of Derna, which was held by the Islamic State until mid-June. In fact, a ledger discovered in Baghdad showed that the majority of the suicide bombers used by al-Qaeda in Iraq were Libyans from Derna. This trend began in the early 1950s when Muslim Brotherhood members, facing persecution in Egypt, fled to eastern Libya. In the late 1970s, after trying to coopt the Islamist political factions for nearly a decade, Muammar Qadhafi declared Islamist principles to be counter-revolutionary, and began a brutal crackdown on Islamist activists.

This repression, combined with the return of Libyan fighters from Afghanistan, fueled the rise of militant Islamist groups in the east of the country in the 1980s and 1990s. The Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), formed by Libyan veterans of Afghanistan, fought a fierce insurgency against the government from 1995-1998. After the fall of Qadhafi’s regime in 2011, the tradition of Islamist militancy in eastern Libya was reborn, and both al-Qaeda and the Islamic State now hold territory there.

Perhaps the most infamous hotbed of violent extremism is the Pankisi Gorge, a remote, 8-mile-long valley in northeastern Georgia, near the border with Chechnya in Russia. The valley is home to the Kists, a small Muslim ethnic group descended from 19th century Chechen refugees. In the 1990s, thousands more Chechen refugees poured in the valley fleeing the fighting. At the same time, many Kists crossed into Chechnya in order to fight the Russians. This militant tradition has persisted, though it has taken on a decidedly Islamist tone. Young Kists—including Omar al-Shishani, a senior Islamic State commander—are increasingly traveling to Syria and Iraq to join the terrorist group.

These concentrated hubs of violent extremism provide an opportunity for the study of radicalization. Each area has unique contextual factors that, when combined, lead to the export of fighters. In Tunisia, Ben Gardane and Bizerte both suffer from high unemployment, but Ben Gardane has the added burden of bordering war-torn Libya. Both Derna and the Pankisi valley have a history of militancy, but the fierce repression and violent Chechen insurgencies against Georgian and Russian troops created a particularly virulent strain of terrorism. In order to effectively counter violent extremism, the specific factors that drive this localized radicalization must be more closely examined.


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