Tens of thousands of foreign fighters from 81 different countries and diverse backgrounds have travelled to Syria to fight alongside extremist organizations since 2012. Foreign fighters are driven by a wide range of motives. Some strive to establish an Islamic caliphate, others aim to fight injustice, and many are there for materialistic ends. Regardless of their motives, these fighters are risking their lives by travelling to war-torn Syria and, in many cases, taking part in the fighting.
As of January 2015, the five North African countries—Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Morocco, and Tunisia—provided an estimated 5350 fighters to extremist organizations in Syria; Tunisia alone supplied a remarkable 3000 male fighters. Algeria, Egypt, Libya, and Morocco counted 250, 360, 600 and 1,500 fighters in Syria, respectively. The authorities of these countries stopped many more from travelling to Syria.
The Tunisian case may seem especially surprising. Even during the dictatorship, Tunisia had a reputation for peace and stability. Since the 1980s, however, Tunisians, like many of their North African neighbours, travelled to Afghanistan, the Balkans, Iraq, and Lebanon to fight for oppressed Muslims. The founding father of the Islamic State, Abu Musab Zarqawi, was once quoted as saying that, if Ben Guerdane (a small town in southern Tunisia) had been next to Falluja, Iraq would have been freed. Zarqawi meant that the Tunisian fighters from Ben Guerdane were so brave and dedicated that, if they lived near the battlefield, they would have been enough to throw the Americans out of Iraq. Although he was praising them, the quotation illustrates that Tunisians were fighting in Iraq in the 2000s, even before the Arab Spring or the rise of the Islamic State (Daesh).
Risky migration is not a strange phenomenon in North Africa. As demonstrated by several tragic incidents, thousands of North Africans willingly endanger their lives by embarking on unseaworthy boats in order to pursue a better life in Europe. They continue to do so, even knowing that their lives in Europe will not necessarily bring them safety, dignity, and prosperity.
Just like Europe, the geographic proximity of North Africa provides a relatively open “back door” for the migration of foreign fighters into Syria. Contacts in the host country—relatives and friends in Syria or virtual contacts established online—encourage and reassure the fighters. In many cases, jihadi networks facilitate the process, but, unlike illegal immigration networks, terrorist organizations in the host countries pay the recruiting organizations an average of $3000 per recruit. This encourages jihadi recruits and recruiters alike.
Organizations such as Islamic State reportedly pay monthly salaries of $50-$2000 to their recruits. They subsidize their living expenses and provide them with a job that matches their skills and interests. This resonates well with the youth, given the rate of youth unemployment in North Africa (30%), and the salaries of employed, inexperienced university graduates (as low as $100/month).
Violent organizations also offer a life purpose for most of these youths, an offer that their governments have failed to match. The atrocities committed by Assad’s regime in Syria and the injustice of the former Maliki regime in Iraq, under the silence of the international community, reinforced the so-called jihadi narrative. Many foreign fighters perceive jihad as giving them a purpose in life, not necessarily by fulfilling an “Islamic” duty but rather by saving the oppressed from the oppressor.
It is important to disassociate the barbaric acts of extremists from Islam, but one should not dismiss the relevance of the concept of jihad in the marketing campaigns of IS and similar organizations. Many young North Africans proved vulnerable to the idea of pursuing jihad and establishing a medieval caliphate in order to please God. They rush to fall victim to a vicious Islamic-inspired narrative. In many cases, orthodox Sunni preachers use the concept of jihad to misguide disfranchised young people by dragging them into the hell of violent fanaticism.
The transition periods that Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia witnessed after the 2011 uprisings brought an end to the era of “false” stability, which was imposed by dictatorships by muzzling freedom of speech and thought and have recently made Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia more exposed to extremism than Algeria and Morocco.
While the Ben Ali regime provided security, it suppressed Islamic debate and education. The post-2011 revolution opened Tunisian society to freedom and democracy, allowing fanatical preachers to brainwash disillusioned young people by preaching jihad. In 2011, the government granted amnesty to 2000 prisoners. Some of these soon formed the Tunisian terrorist organization Ansar Sharia.
More importantly, after the the fall of Qaddafi’s regime in 2011, arms proliferated in the lawless desert on the Tunisian-Libyan border, providing an extraordinary way for extremists to train new recruits on their way to Syria.
Egypt and Libya
The existence of violent extremism in both Egypt and Libya explains why relatively few Libyans and Egyptians have left to fight in Syria (600 and 360, respectively). Instead, they fight in their own countries.
In northern Libya, returning Libyan fighters formed a branch of IS and already control some territory. They are fighting both of the current governments in Libya and have expansionist plans inside and outside the country. The organization thrives in an environment of state failure and civil unrest.
In Egypt, the IS affiliate State of Sinai (formerly Supporters of Jerusalem) conducts almost daily terrorist acts in northern Sinai and has plans to expand to other parts of the country. Violent extremism has attracted many young people who are deprived of political and human rights by the government of President el-Sisi by providing them with a “meaningful” way of re-establishing their rights.
Algeria and Morocco
Unexpectedly, both Algeria and Morocco handled the challenge of foreign fighters much better. They used their solid experience in counter-terrorism and their stable political situation to protect their young people and successfully dismantle terrorist networks and stop people from travelling to Syria. As of January 2015, there were 1500 Moroccans and 250 Algerians fighting in Syria. Algeria’s vivid memory of a decade of bloodshed caused by jihad-inspired conflict (1991-1997) made it more difficult for the likes of IS to attract Algerian youths.