The Arab Spring’s success story has turned into a one of the most fertile breeding grounds for fighters joining the Islamic State group. Tunisia, where a 2011 revolution overthrew a corrupt regime and sparked a season of Middle Eastern upheavals, has emerged as a relatively stable and well-off country with a secular, democratic government. But that narrative is undermined by Tunisia’s newfound role as the prime supplier of manpower to the Islamic State group -- and its proximity to Libya may turn it into a major source of combatants in that country’s civil war, which threatens to pull in Egypt and European countries.
Tunisia has been the number one provider of foreign fighters in Syria so far. As of last October, there were an estimated 3,000 Tunisians who had traveled to Iraq and Syria and joined extremist groups like ISIS. Many of them were trained in the country, where a lawless desert area on the border with Libya offers ideal conditions for jihadis to train undisturbed.
For years, the Tunisian desert has been home to training camps for various jihadist groups, and the army has been unable to shut them down. Camps were flush with Libyan weapons smuggled out when Moammar Gadhafi’s regime collapsed in 2011, and Tunisians were the most common trainee. At least one of those camps now belongs to ISIS and, until recently, fighters were trained there and then sent to Syria through Turkey with the help of a recruiter who was usually Tunisian. Earlier this month, the government reported that it was able to stop 9,000 would-be fighters en route to that camp, but that 540 already had completed their training and left the country.
“The place where ISIS has its base is very dangerous. We lost a lot of Tunisian soldiers who were killed there,” said Mael Souddi, a Tunisian with family ties to the militant group who asked that his name be changed for security reasons.
ISIS can rely on Tunisian preachers to rally young adepts to the cause, even in a secular nation with no history of hard-line Islamist government, Souddi said. “At Friday prayers, when a good number of Muslims get together in the mosques, after the prayers, the imams start to give them some advice to follow. They say, for example, 'You have to go to Syria to kill Bashar’s army. Even if you die, you’ll go to paradise after.' And in this way, Daesh got a large number of soldiers,” he said, using an Arabic acronym for the group.
That message goes hand in hand with the onslaught of sophisticated propaganda ISIS pushes on social media to recruit, saying it is a Muslim’s duty as a “soldier of Allah” to go to the caliphate and fight in Syria.
But four years into a civil war and with the U.S.-led coalition airstrikes targeting ISIS almost daily, Syria isn’t an easy sell anymore for jihadi recruiters. So, for the first time, the militant group has begun recruiting fighters to take part in jihad outside of Syria and Iraq, urging them to go to Libya -- where it has recently established a de facto local offshoot of its self-proclaimed caliphate.
"There is a big push to recruit for the Islamic State in Libya. In an implicit way, the argument is being made that it is an easier jihad,” said Andrew Engel, an Africa analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and author of "Libya as a Failed State: Causes, Consequences, Options." “There are no airstrikes and no fighting forces as coherent as the Kurds supported by foreign advisers. Libya is a large open country with warmer weather, and weapons and food are abundant."
For Tunisians, the journey to Libya right next door, across a porous desert border, is much easier than getting to Syria, especially after the government began watching closely people headed to or coming back from Turkey, the typical gateway to Syria. According to Karim Mezran, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, a Washington think tank, around a thousand Tunisians have gone to Derna, the Libyan port city where the local ISIS presence is centered. Another thousand may be sprinkled throughout the rest of the country.
In ISIS strategy, Libya and Tunisia may be linked closely. After the self-proclaimed ISIS caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi formally accepted allegiance from Derna-based fighters late last year, ISIS released a video titled “A Message to the People of Tunisia,” showing Tunisian ISIS fighters threatening the Tunisian government and urging Tunisians to pledge allegiance to ISIS. The video may have been shot in Libya.
The ISIS relationship with Tunisia goes back to 2013, much of it stemming from a Tunisian citizen named Tariq Bin Al Tahar Bin Al Falih Al 'Awni Al Harzi, who was added to the U.S. Designated Terrorist List in 2014. Harzi was one “one of the first foreign fighters” to join ISIS and was known as the “emir of suicide bombers” and the man in charge of ISIS’ operations outside the self-declared caliphate in Iraq and Syria, according to the U.S. Treasury. Among his responsibilities were recruitment of foreign fighters from both North Africa and Europe. Harzi also was in charge of procuring weapons from Libya, where Gadhafi’s fall had opened up his vast arsenals to plundering.
ISIS’ earlier strategy in Libya had been to gain the allegiance of local jihadist groups, who could then begin recruiting fighters in the country to go to Syria. But with the increasing airstrikes in Libya and Iraq and the unraveling of Libya as its civil war worsened, the group saw an opportunity -- and ISIS recruiters in Turkey allegedly redirected the flow of North African fighters from Syria to Libya, according to the Wall Street Journal. ISIS online sympathizers followed suit, launching a parallel recruitment campaign to send fighters against the pro-government forces of Gen. Khalifa Haftar and in support of what began to be called the “Islamic State in Libya,” or ISL.
“As far as foreign networks, Libya used to serve primarily as a place for training and equipping, a stopover for jihad and not necessarily a destination point,” Engel said. "But with the polarizing figure of Gen. Khalifa Haftar and emergence of ISL, that is all changing. Also, if you are North African, Libya is right there, Syria and Iraq are not as easy to get to."
The situation in Tunisia is unique enough that ISIS may even be running militant training there together with al Qaeda, which it otherwise opposes. The leader of prominent Tunisian jihadist group and al Qaeda affiliate Ansar al-Sharia Tunisia (AST), Seifallah Ben Hassine -- whom the Tunisian government has accused of being "deeply involved in issues of violence and arms trafficking” -- reportedly switched allegiance from AST to ISIS and is now running a joint AST-ISIS operation in Tunisia. He is one of the main jihadi recruiters in the country, according to Souddi.
The importance of succeeding in North Africa isn’t lost on ISIS, which understands the key role Libya, and Tunisia by extension, may play in its future.
Libya’s vast array of weapons, foreign-owned oil fields and proximity to both Europe and neighboring North African countries make it a “strategic portal for the Islamic State,” said an ISIS document circulated among the group’s supporters. Libya has the perfect mix of political chaos and availability of weapons for ISIS to thrive in. For now, the country’s civil war, fought among factions that share Sunni Islam, lacks the sectarian tinge that helped make ISIS successful in Iraq and Syria. But this could change if the international community intervenes on behalf of either side of the war, which would risk uniting Islamist militias.