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.
TRAINING CAMPS FOR THE SYRIAN WAR
Along with assisting like-minded movements from North Africa, Mali, and Egypt, ASL has provided training as well as logistical and facilitation support to individuals seeking to fight in Syria.
Indeed, some Syrians even traveled to Libya to train with ASL before returning home to use their new skills against the Assad regime. After the founding of the IS caliphate in spring 2014, Syria-based Libyan fighters and others from the group were dispatched to Libya to establish new “provinces.”
Altogether, the thoroughfare originating in Libya was so notorious that a U.S. defense official described it as “the I-95 for foreign fighters into Syria from Africa.”
The earliest known training camps to later send fighters to Syria were set up in spring 2012, following the founding of ASL. The camps, according to separate reports from two Tunisians who were captured after their training, were located within Benghazi.
Courses, which lasted twenty to thirty days, included segments on weapons training, guerrilla warfare, booby traps, and surprise attacks. Reports suggest Sabratha was another location for trainees linked to Syria, and other locales mentioned earlier in other contexts likely also hosted Syria aspirants.
For example, then Libyan prime minister Ali Zidan noted that investigations had turned up Algerians, Nigerians, Sudanese, and Tunisians in Benghazi attempting to go fight in Syria.
Up until mid-2013, the vast majority of foreigners seeking to fight in Syria were planning to join Jabhat al-Nusra, an al-Qaeda affiliate, but calculations changed during the period from late 2013 through summer 2014, as the Islamic State grew stronger in Iraq and Syria.
Based on IS personnel files, leaked in March 2016, of the sixteen foreign fighters who mentioned having previously trained or fought in Libya before joining IS in Syria, six noted their membership in ASL. Within this group, thirteen were from Tunisia, two were from Egypt, and one was from Bosnia.
As for the Syrians who traveled to Libya for training, especially early in the Syrian conflict, the North African country likely provided greater safety as compared to the bombardment from the Assad regime, with neither jihadists nor rebels having yet liberated significant Syrian territory.
According to border officials in Benghazi, the process was highly organized and well financed. Even immigration officials at Benghazi’s airport were members of ASL, helping ease travel to and from Libya. These airport officials, moreover, reported that about ten to fifteen Syrian fighters arrived each week for training.
THE ISLAMIC STATE PROJECT IN LIBYA
After fighters streamed from Libya to Syria in 2012–13, the trajectory reversed itself in spring 2014, aimed at bolstering the Islamic State’s attempt to establish a base in Libya.
This reverse flow, as noted, included Libyans who had trained and fought with IS in Iraq and Syria, but also a cadre of foreign fighters. Such forces would establish relations with some ASL figures who would eventually defect, helping IS quickly build its infrastructure in Libya, in part by exploiting jihadist resources.
The Islamic State in Libya was formed by a combination of pro-IS individuals based in Darnah, returning Libyans and other foreign fighters in Syria’s Katibat al-Battar al-Libiyah (KBL), and the ASL defectors.
According to an investigation by the Libyan Attorney General’s Office and al-Bunyan al-Marsus, the Misratan-led fighting force that defeated IS in Sirte in 2016, Hassan al-Salihin Belarj (aka Abu Habiba) helped set up IS recruitment efforts in Darnah before the return of KBL operatives in spring 2014.
The UN claims that IS began planting the seeds for its emergence in Libya between March and May 2013, when the prominent Bahraini religious ideologue Turki al-Binali toured the country, giving religious lectures, meeting key jihadist figures, and providing ijazas (authorizations to transmit a certain text or subject).
Worth noting here is that Binali traveled to Libya at ASL’s invitation. Still, his trip may have filled his Rolodex so as to lay the grounds for his ultimate decision to join the Islamic State, in which he later became a key leader in August 2013.
Alternatively, April 2013 marked the month when the jihadist group renamed itself Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (having formerly been the Islamic State of Iraq).
The possibility therefore also exists that Binali had already effectively expressed allegiance to the group and was secretly courting adherents outside the Levant, in the guise of visiting ASL networks, both to boost its credibility against al-Qaeda and in anticipation of its eventual caliphate announcement in June 2014. Further clarification could indeed come if IS releases a martyrdom story on Binali, who was killed in an airstrike in Syria on May 31, 2017.
By April 2014, the Islamic State had established a front group in Darnah called Majlis Shura Shabab al-Islam (MSSI), which was welcomed officially into the fold that November, when IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi announced he would be expanding caliphate territory beyond Iraq and Syria.
Reflecting how, from the beginning, foreign fighters played a role in the Islamic State’s Libyan provinces, the original chief mufti of MSSI was the Yemeni Abu al-Bara al-Azdi, while the Saudi Abu Habib al-Jazrawi accepted MSSI’s official baya to Baghdadi.
Moreover, the two leaders of IS in Libya have been Iraqis sent by Baghdadi: Wassim al-Zubaidi (Abu al-Mughirah al-Qahtani), who was killed in an air-strike in Darnah in November 2015, and Abdul Qadr al-Najdi (Abu Muaz al-Tikriti), who is currently at large. Many other leadership positions within IS in Libya were filled by foreign nationals as well.
Soon after expanding its project beyond Iraq and Syria, the Islamic State likewise began announcing foreign martyrs in its media releases. To encourage greater emigration to Libya, IS released a story about how one Saudi fighter, Abdul Hamid al-Qasimi, had traveled to the country to help build Wilayat Tarabulus, the group’s “province” in northwest Libya.
This entreaty was affirmed by then leader Qahtani, who in September 2015 summoned foreign fighters to join the group: “We call you, our brothers, to perform your hijra [immigration] for God and in support of His religion. Your path will be disturbed by difficulties and great obstacles. The actions are but by intention and comfort is not achieved by comfort.”
Additionally, in line with its precedent set in Iraq and Syria, the Islamic State began releasing video messages by foreign fighters in Libya encouraging others to migrate to the front. For example, in IS in Libya’s first video, released January 20, 2015, two Tuareg members called for individuals in Azawad (as northern Mali is known by some locals) to pledge baya to Baghdadi and make hijra to IS in Libya.
One of the men, Abu Umar al-Tawrigi, stated: “I call my Tuareg brothers to migrate to the Islamic State and that they give baya to emir al-mu’minin [leader of the faithful] Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.” This trend would continue until 2016, when the Islamic State’s capabilities were degraded by al-Bunyan al-Marsus (see Table 2).
The Tunisians among this foreign contingent, the largest national cohort by far, as already noted, had a special status given their origins next door. This in part explains why Tunisian jihadists had their own base in Sabratha, Libya, about sixty-five miles east of the Tunisian border.
Therefore, in addition to assisting in the caliphate project and combating its enemies in Libya, Tunisian foreign fighters in particular sought to attract others to be trained for attacks back home. Thus, in a video message from April 7, 2015,
individuals including Abu Yahya al-Tunisi urged Tunisians to join them in Libya, so that the newcomers could be trained to eventually extend the IS writ to Tunisia. It is likewise no surprise that according to Tunisian judicial records, as reported by the Tunisian Center for Research and Studies on Terrorism, percent of all Tunisians arrested for jihadist-related cases trained in Libya.
Further, all major IS-related terrorist and insurgent incidents in Tunisia were planned in Sabratha. Accord-ing to the testimony of Tunisian foreign fighter Muham-mad bin Muhsin al-Gharbi (aka Abu Zaid), who was arrested by the Tripoli-based RADA Special Deterrence Forces, training took place in the city’s al-Dabashi neighborhood.
The brain trust charged with plotting such activities included Tunisian IS members Moez Fezzani, Noureddine Chouchane, Miftah Manita, Adel Gandhri, and Choukri Abdelkaoui.
In particular, Fezzani and Chouchane were instrumental in planning two major attacks: the strike on the Bardo National Museum in Tunis on March 15, 2015, in which IS operatives Yassine Labidi and Jaber Khachnaoui killed twenty tourists and two Tunisians while injuring fifty others; and the Sousse mass shooting on June 26, 2015, when a lone gunmen, Seifeddine Rezgui Yacoubi, killed thirty-eight and injured thirty-nine beachgoers at the Riu Imperial Marhaba hotel.
ATTEMPTED BEN GARDANE TAKEOVER.
Lastly, in early March 2016, IS attempted to conquer the Tunisian border town of Ben Gardane, as well as some smaller villages in the surrounding area. The purpose was to extend its reach across the border so that it could, as in Iraq and Syria, claim to have ruptured yet another international boundary.
According to a Tunisian journalist, Naji al-Zairi, the planning for this takeover allegedly began in late December 2015 83 and is believed to have occurred largely at Ghandri’s house in Sabratha. Manita was to be the proto-province’s leader, Abdelkaoui its sharia judge, and Gandhri its treasurer.
On the day of the attack, March 7, IS activated sleeper cells, while other cells crossed the border from Libya and began an assault on the gendarmerie and army barracks in Ben Gardane. A group also took to loudspeakers to explain the situation to local residents.
According to a witness, the spokespeople said, “Don’t worry. We are the Islamic State. We are here to protect you from this non-believer government.” In addition, IS fighters created a checkpoint, at which they questioned drivers and examined their identify cards, even killing an individual identified as a customs official at one such stop.
Despite painstaking planning, the attempted conquest failed owing to resistance from locals. This pushback likewise legitimized a sweep by the Tunisian military, during which it sought to kill or banish remaining IS elements from the city.
Allegedly, residents even began throwing stones at IS fighters. Such developments shocked the IS leadership, given the infamy of Ben Gardane in previously furnishing the group and its predecessors with foreign fighters.
Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the late leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq, who died in 2006, even supposedly stated that “if Ben Gardane had been located next to Fallujah, we would have liberated Iraq.”
In the end, the failed takeover only further degraded the Islamic State network in Tunisia as well as its support command in Libya. Instead of leading a new “province,” Manita and Chouchane were now allegedly dead, Abdelkaoui and Fezzani were arrested, and Gandhri was on the run.
AFRICAN FIGHTERS—AND THE PARTICULAR THREAT FROM SUDAN.
Alongside Tunisians, fighters from diverse nationalities joined the jihadist insurgency in Libya after IS publicly sought such support in
2014. Whereas previously jihadists in Libya had come from neighboring countries, now they traveled from East and West Africa, areas without a prolific history of foreign fighting beyond participation in nearby campaigns in places like Somalia, Mali, or Nigeria.
Now, however, IS in Libya could count among its ranks recruits from Burundi, Chad, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Gambia, Ghana, Kenya, Niger, Senegal, and Sudan, as well as Somalia, Mali, and Nigeria. For the countries of origin—not only for Libya—the potential consequences are clear: returning foreign fighters who could bolster already simmering insurgencies, while building up recruitment and homegrown networks in countries without much history of jihadist activism.
In many ways, the situation can be compared to that of European Muslims who went to Bosnia in the mid-1990s, thereby helping seed the next generation of jihadists in their particular home countries.
Today, the challenge of addressing these returnees in Africa and elsewhere may not be extremely urgent, but if officials ignore the situation and allow enough space for jihadist activism, more-serious threats could emerge in the middle to long term, after the initial mobilization to Libya is effectively forgotten.
The threat may well be more immediate in one country, Sudan, which has both its own history of robust jihadism as well as numerous and high-level representation within IS in Libya. Some to enlist with IS previously belonged to the radical Sudanese Salafi group Ansar al-Sunnah.
Indeed, two sons of the Ansar al-Sunnah leader, Abu Zaid Muhammad Hamzah, were killed while fighting with IS in Libya. Abu Zaid’s third son, Abdul Raouf, had already been sentenced to death after taking part in the murder of John Granville, who worked for the U.S. Agency for International Development, and his driver, Abdul Rahman Abbas, as they returned from a New Year’s Eve celebration in Khartoum in 2008.
Two of Abdul Raouf’s coconspirators signed on with IS in Libya after being released from prison, having served their respective sentences, in April 2016. 93 Additionally, two Sudanese jihadist leaders, Masaad al-Sidairah and Sulayman Uthman Abu Naru, pledged baya to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi after the caliphate announcement and worked to encourage and recruit individuals to join IS.
This overall portrait shows how Sudanese IS operatives and potentially Ansar al-Sunnah could be a conduit for recruitment.
Elsewhere, IS sought to use its recruitment successes to project power in Africa, especially in Nigeria and Somalia. In the former case, Tunisian members of IS in Libya who were associated with the auxiliary media account Ifriqiya Media helped facilitate the baya of Boko Haram leader Abubakr al-Shekau to Baghdadi in part through the creation of a Nigerian jihadist media outlet called al-Urwah al-Wuthqa.
This development helped professionalize operations from Boko Haram and, after it became Wilayat Gharb Ifriqiya, or IS West Africa “province,” allowed it to be subsumed more easily by the IS media system. As for Somalia, reports suggest that Somali foreign fighters in Libya were seeking to gain skills for use in Puntland, the home region where the Islamic State is strongest.
These efforts fell short, though, in part because members of Harakat al-Shabab al-Mujahedin (aka al-Shabab), al-Qaeda’s Somali branch, killed many defectors to IS and returnees from Libya alike. This probably explains why IS has yet to give official province status to its Somalia branch.
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.