By Aaron Y. Zelin
This new study offers a deeper understanding of the foreign-fighter phenomenon, its evolution, and its potential trajectories.
Over the past seven years of revolution and civil war, Libya has experienced a massive influx of foreign fighters.
This development deserves attention not just for the domestic menace it poses but also because Libya offers a potential future jihadist hub amid the 2017 collapse of Islamic State centers in Iraq and Syria.
Particularly worrisome in the Libyan theater have been the outsize role of Tunisian fighters and a rise in recruitment in continental Africa.
In this richly detailed Policy Note, Aaron Zelin breaks down the components of the Libyan jihad, including country-by-country statistics on fighters.
He also meticulously traces the routes taken by jihad aspirants from various African points of origin to Libya. In thus offering a deeper understanding of the foreign-fighter phenomenon, its evolution, and its potential trajectories, this study provides invaluable insights for mitigating related problems in Africa and Europe in the years ahead.
OVER THE PAST SEVEN YEARS, jihadist activism has proliferated across multiple arenas, joined by an unprecedented number of individuals who have become foreign fighters.
Much of the focus has understandably been on foreign fighter flows to Syria, but Libya has also seen a major influx. In fact, Libya now stands as the fourth-largest foreign fighter mobilization in global jihadist history, behind only the current war in Syria, the Afghan jihad of the 1980s, and the 2003 Iraq war.
Moreover, it marks the first time East and West Africans have truly become involved with foreign fighting abroad versus sticking to local insurgencies or terrorism.
Attacks in Britain on May 22, 2017, and Germany on December 19, 2016, both connected to the Islamic State (IS) in Libya, demonstrate the possible consequences abroad of the Libyan jihad. All such factors indicate the value of examining Libya’s foreign fighter network and the insights it offers regarding the future trajectory of jihadism in North, East, and West Africa, as well as Western Europe.
Libya deserves attention not just for the jihad that has played out there over the past several years, but also because it offers a potential future jihadist hub given the collapse in 2017 of IS centers in Iraq and Syria.
Although no signs suggest IS plans to move its operational center from the Levant to Libya, despite worries to this effect by Western officials, aspiring jihadists in Europe might see an attractive opportunity in the North African state, given its proximity to the European continent.
In seeking to shed light on many areas of the foreign fighter phenomenon in Libya, this paper will:
(1) explore the numbers of individuals to travel to Libya since the 2011 revolution and the nationalities they represent;
(2) examine the history and evolution of the foreign fighter mobilization in Libya, from the revolution through the present day, which constitutes the quietest phase yet, linked to the Islamic State’s loss of territorial control;
(3) identify different foreign fighter networks and hubs of origin, and fighters’ routes to Libya; and
(4) probe the ways in which returnees might incubate their own networks for future jihads, whether at home through terrorism or abroad through the next foreign fighter mobilization.
Statistics on Foreign Fighters in Libya
Analyzing foreign fighter data in Libya in 2018 is akin to surveying such data in Syria in 2012–13. Then and now, most governments have not publicly disclosed the number of their citizens to join the jihad abroad.
Therefore, as with the early mobilization in Syria, foreign fighter data on Libya in recent years relies primarily on open-source information, possibly leading some to question its validity.
Ultimately, though, one finds that analysis of open-source data from firsthand jihadist materials, leaked jihadist administrative documents, court files, local Arab media, and Western media since 2011 provides a relatively good snapshot of the broader phenomenon.
Indeed, since 2014, the governments of Tunisia, Sudan, Kenya, and Senegal have released the numbers of their citizens who traveled or attempted to travel to Libya to fight. Some countries have deflated the numbers, with Sudan claiming only seventy individuals to have traveled or attempted to travel to Libya and Syria combined.
Research for this paper reveals, by comparison, that one hundred Sudanese have traveled or attempted to travel to Libya alone, with an ever-larger contingent likely going to Syria.
Tunisia, in particular, has played a major role in both the Syrian and Libyan jihads, contributing the highest numbers of any country to both campaigns. Indeed, the status of Libya and Tunisia as geographic neighbors makes the latter finding easier to explain.
In meetings with the United Nations, Tunisian government officials have revealed that up to 1,500 Tunisians have mobilized to fight in Libya.
The author has been able to identify 625 of these cases, illustrating the gap between what is known publicly versus more privately (by the government) or clandestinely (through the different jihadist groups).
Unlike Tunisia, the examples of Kenya and Senegal do not show a large gap between government estimates and publicly available information.
Kenyan police have identified 20 nationals as having mobilized to fight in Libya, of which the author has confirmed 16.
In Senegal, officials claim that up to 30 individuals have mobilized, with all of them being identifiable according to the author’s research.
In addition to open-source research and governmental data, in September 2017, the Libyan Attorney General’s Office, based in Tripoli, released information on foreign fighters who have joined IS.
The data is based on a multiyear investigation as well as numbers of prisoners captured and fighters’ bodies identified following the fight against IS in Sirte. Therefore, one sees mainly a portrait of the broader foreign fighter phenomenon after the rise of IS in Libya, and in Sirte in particular, rather than earlier and in other areas of Libya.
The information is nonetheless valuable considering that it would be unavailable from open sources or foreign governments.
Separately, the Attorney General’s Office did provide greater detail on numbers of fighters from certain countries, counting more than 100, respectively, from Tunisia, Egypt, and Sudan; between 50 and 100, respectively, from Senegal, Gambia, Chad, Niger, Ghana, Eritrea, Mali, and Somalia; between 10 and 50, respectively, from Saudi Arabia, the Palestinian territories, Morocco, Mauritania, Yemen, and Algeria; and between 1 and 10, respectively, from Iraq, the United States, Syria, Qatar, Nepal, Burundi, France, and Jordan.
Therefore, analysts can quantify the overall foreign fighter mobilization to Libya by relying on any of three sources: open-source data, the official numbers from respective governments, or counts from the Libyan Attorney General’s Office.
In sum, the open-source data indicates 1,351 individuals from at least forty-one nations who have joined or attempted to join jihadist groups in Libya since 2011, whereas combining foreign government and Libyan attorney general counts drives the number up to 3,436.
The case for the higher end includes the likelihood that individuals confirmed through open-source data on countries yet to divulge foreign fighter figures does not reflect the full picture.
For example, the Moroccan press has claimed that 300 Moroccans have gone to Libya, in comparison with 58 confirmed cases in the author’s data set.
As a result, in deducing from open sources, governmental disclosures, and data from Libya’s Attorney General’s Office, one would not be shocked to conclude that, over the past seven years, 2,600–3,500 foreigners have joined or attempted to join jihadist groups in Libya (see Table 1).
This is just a shade below the mobilization of foreign fighters to Iraq from 2003 to 2011 (4,000–5,000).
While not as many nationalities are represented among foreign fighters in Libya as in Syria, one finds plenty of diversity, with fighters hailing from North Africa, the Middle East, the Horn of Africa, West Africa, Western Europe, the Balkans, North America, and South and Southeast Asia.
Before the revolution, some of these individuals had been migrant laborers in Libya, helping explain the presence of nations without much history in jihadism or foreign fighting.
For example, an Ansar al-Sharia in Libya (ASL) video released in mid May 2014 shows the group welcoming two Ghanaian migrants who converted from Christianity to Islam.
Similarly idiosyncratic are cases like Mohammed Naser Packeer and Tabrez Mohammad Tambe, two Indian nationals in their twenties who were recruited as migrant workers in Dubai and Riyadh, respectively.
The engagement by both East and West Africans also represents a noteworthy trend, as already mentioned. Historically, most such Africans to become involved with jihadism have focused on domestic or nearby conflict zones, such as in Mali, Nigeria, and Somalia, while generally eschewing more-transnational mobilizations.
Now, however, these fighters could well apply lessons learned from the Libyan jihad in their local insurgencies, or else to stoke recruitment efforts in countries such as Chad, Eritrea, Ghana, Gambia, Kenya, or Senegal. Demonstrating how all this came to pass, the following section explores the history of foreign fighter flows and mobilization to Libya since the revolution began in 2011
* Based on an unconfirmed government estimate from the Moroccan press
† Unknown classification signifies that the country has been mentioned in the media as having
foreign nationals in Libya, but without direct confirmation.
‡ According to Graeme Wood, who interviewed Rwandan officials in Kigali about the country’s
flow of nationals to Libya in 2016.
_ The Libyan uprising and revolution provided a space for jihadist groups to operate and subsequently recruit foreign fighters to fight locally, train for jihad in Syria, or train for attacks in other countries.
_ The highest representation of foreign fighters in Libya comes from Tunisia.
_ Again in Tunisia, a continued lack of progress on post-revolution economic and structural reforms could lead to instability and thus a major security problem.
_ All vectors of Tunisian jihadism—foreign fighters in Libya and Syria as well as homegrown militants in and out of prison—represent a national problem rather than one localized to a city or two, or to a particular region.
_ In continental Africa, south of the Maghreb region, a potential exists for further growth and dispersion of jihadist activism through either al-Qaeda or IS affiliates.
_ Before the formation of the IS caliphate in 2014, most foreign fighters in Libya came from within North Africa, a trend that persisted afterward, but with larger concentrations from continental Africa and other locales.
_ The idea of the caliphate was a crucial motivator for expanded foreign fighter mobilization, resonating especially in East and West Africa.
_ The presence of foreign fighters emerged as a recruitment tool for IS in Libya.
_ The core founders of IS in Libya included operatives from Katibat al-Battar al-Libiyah, an elite group within IS in Syria that helped train many figures central to the major 2015–16 attacks in Belgium and France, illustrating why European officials worry about Libya becoming a future node for IS external operations.
_ Among those foreign fighters trained in Libya were women.
To be continued
Aaron Y. Zelin is the Richard Borow Fellow at The Washington Institute, where his research focuses on Sunni Arab jihadi groups in North Africa and Syria as well as trends in foreign fighting and online jihadism.