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.



The involvement of women represents another notable trend with the Islamic State, including in Libya. In addition to looking at the overall numbers, one can ask pertinent questions such as whether these women joined of their own volition or went with their husbands.

The number of babies born to the spouses of foreign fighters also helps fill out the story. Strikingly, no evidence exists of foreign women joining the jihad in Libya before spring 2014.

The phenomenon appears to have spiked as IS grew stronger in Darnah and later in Sirte. Simultaneously, an even higher number of foreign women have joined jihadist groups in Syria since IS declared its caliphate.

Therefore, the mobilization in Libya appears to be part of a broader trend, likely enhanced by caliphate-building messaging, which goes beyond recruiting individuals to fight to include creating a society, community, and functioning state.

As for the numbers, Tunisian researcher Badra Gaaloul estimates that 1,000 women are affiliated with IS in Libya, including Libyans. Of women from abroad, the largest number, 300, again comes from Tunisia.

Other women, meanwhile, have been identified from Australia, Chad, Belgium, Egypt, Eritrea, France, Kenya, Morocco, Niger, Senegal, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Britain.

The sheer number of Tunisian women recruits to IS allows for their areas of origin to be identified, based on arrests of those thwarted from joining and arrests in Sirte during the anti-IS military campaign.

Unsurprisingly, reflecting the broader trend in Tunisian foreign fighter mobilization, Tunisian women come from a variety of locales, including coastal areas such as Bizerte, Sousse, Sfax, and Tunis neighborhoods, as well as inland areas including El Kef, Gafsa, and Remada.

The last of these has been a hotbed of overall recruitment to IS in Libya, as discussed later in more detail.

The best known of these women foreign fighters are the sisters Gofrane and Rahma al-Chikhaoui, both in their late teens when they joined.

Originally from the impoverished Tunis neighborhood of Ettadhamen, they were recruited to the Salafi-jihadist milieu through AST at its dawa tents and mosques in Sousse.

A few years later, in September 2014, the sisters decided to join

IS in Libya. Gofrane is currently raising a toddler, while Rahma married the earlier-noted senior IS leader Noureddine Chouchane, 102 who was subsequently killed in a U.S. airstrike in February 2016.

For the most part, women on the Libyan and Syrian fronts played similar roles: as marriage bait and thus to perform wifely duties —namely, supporting one’s “mujahid” husband, bearing as many children as possible, and raising the next generation of so-called mujahedin.

Such an outcome must have disappointed, including those encountered by a Kenyan women Fatima who herself journeyed northward to join in Libya. The women she met along the way—fellow Kenyans as well as Eritreans and Somalis—on a route that led from Nairobi through Kampala, Uganda, to South Sudan and Sudan were lured by the promise of better economic conditions or the desire to fulfill a perceived religious obligation.

That said, some from the West, in particular Britain—e.g., Umm Asiyah, Umm Musab, and Umm Unknown were involved in unofficial propaganda and recruitment of other women to the Islamic State’s territory in Libya. Umm Musab had been there as early as May 2015.

Women have had certain limited opportunities, such as service in the al-Khansa Brigade, which was established first in Syria and later in Libya, when Umm Rayan, a Tunisian woman in her late forties, traveled from Raqqa to Sirte.

Having helped establish the brigade in Raqqa in February 2014, Umm Rayan set about, upon arriving in Libya, facilitating training for IS affiliated women not only in hisba (moral policing) patrols but allegedly even as fighters.

Rahma Chikhaoui, the Tunisian foreign fighter mentioned earlier, claims that potential women fighters receive weapons training for three weeks, with many among them allegedly also trained to become suicide bombers.

Still, no evidence thus far suggests that any women has conducted a suicide attack on behalf of IS in Libya. The weapons training, for its part, seems more plausible. According to an account from Umm Omar al-Tunisi (Zainab), originally from Sfax, sometime after arriving in Libya through the Islamic State’s facilitation network, she began training in a beach area.

As part of the training, she learned how to use an AK-47 and noted that the women involved could choose other weapons on which to be trained, including rocket-propelled grenades, PKT machine guns, and DShK machine guns.

Moreover, Umm Omar explained that IS gave every woman her own explosive belt. Given the endorsement of women fighting in the October 5, 2017, issue of the IS newsletter al-Naba, women could eventually be elevated as fighters in the country amid attempts to reemerge militarily.


Since the Islamic State was kicked out of Sirte in December 2016, the group has released little information about its foreign fighters, in part because many were killed in the related battles.

According to the Libyan Attorney General’s Office and al-Bunyan al- Marsus, hundreds of foreign IS members died during the recapture of Sirte, with hundreds either buried in the rubble or recovered dead and thereafter held in refrigerators in Misrata, awaiting repatriation agreements with their home nations.

Many women of IS fighters and their children have already been transferred back to their home nations, especially in the case of Sudan, with the process for Egypt and Tunisia also now under way.

Despite the losses and transfers, foreign fighters undoubtedly remain a factor within IS as it seeks to resume military activity. For instance, on October 4, 2017, an IS attack in Misrata was conducted by two foreign fighters, Abu al-Bara al-Muhajir and Abu Jaafar al-Tunisi.

Similarly, for the first time since mid-April 2017, Tunisian authorities on October 11, 2017, arrested one member of a four-person cell attempting to go fight in.

Whatever erosion has occurred for the Islamic foreign fighter network, an examination of the that allowed so many to enlist for the Libya campaign holds much value, since future jihadists are likely exploit the same avenues.

Foreign Fighter Network Routes to Libya

In piecing together the routes taken by foreign jihadist fighters to Libya, the following section relies on data from news sources from individuals’ country of origin as well as recent information released by the Libyan Attorney General’s Office.

This data allows for a fairly thorough assessment of the movement of foreign fighters into Libya, including starting points, local details beyond simply national portraits, and other nodes and areas of connection.

In many senses, the routes, especially from farther south on the African continent, resemble those taken by migrants traveling for Europe in search of greater economic opportunity. For their part, jihadists, having already exploited these routes to traffic in weapons and drugs, could now use their enhanced knowledge to recruit individuals into their organizations, whether for local actions or potential external operations in Europe, or to amass revenue through extortion or kidnapping for ransom.

As indicated by judicial investigations concentrating on Kenya, IS networks recruiting in East Africa have relied on a human trafficking ring called the “Magafe network.” Furthermore, Italian interior minister Marco Minniti believes that the use by foreign fighters of migrant boats to infiltrate Italy and Europe represents a concrete threat.

As a result, the movement of individuals from East and West Africa could draw escalating security attention in the coming years, especially if a related attack were to occur in a country like Italy.

Some of the networks exploited by IS were already being utilized by Ansar al-Sharia in both Libya and Tunisia. AST had deep connections to the trafficking of weapons between Libya and Tunisia, while ASL had connections to human smuggling from Sudan to Libya.

Both groups masked these activities through their dawa and social service campaigns, with AST helping manage the Libyan refugee flows near the Ras al-Jadir border crossing in 2011 and ASL providing services in the aftermath of floods in Sudan in 2013.

Similarly, according to the NGO Transparency International, following the rise of IS, Egyptian recruits would bribe low-ranking Egyptian military officers on the Egypt-Libya border to move individuals and traffic weapons.

Such findings illustrate the likely role of corruption in this type of movement, not only in Egypt but in other countries as well. The recent investigation by the Libyan Attorney General’s Office sheds official light on some of the movement by foreign fighters who joined IS.

In particular, it discloses routes taken by individuals from Algeria, Egypt, Eritrea, Mali, Niger, Senegal Sudan, and Tunisia

Despite the apparent comprehensiveness of this portrait, it still provides only a limited view, both omitting certain routes and constraining its scope to those foreign fighters who sought to join the Islamic State.

It thus also covers a limited time period, from 2014 to 2016, and does not include foreign fighters aspiring to join other groups. Map 3 attempts to fill these gaps, encompassing the full breadth of the foreign fighter phenomenon and routes to all jihadist groups in Libya from 2011 until 2017.

This map nevertheless also likely has holes, given its reliance on open-source information that could not be confirmed fully. That said, it still likely represents the most robust way of capturing the broader phenomenon.

Some of the key nodes through which individuals travel to get to Libya include Agadez, Algiers, Bamako, Ben Gardane, Cairo, Casablanca, Khartoum, Nouakchott (Mauritania), Tamanrasset (Algeria), Tataouine (Tunisia), and Tunis.

Within Libya, the key hubs for moving people from border areas to the three main jihadist hotspots—Benghazi, Darnah, and Sirte—include Ajdabiya, al-Nawfaliyah, Awbari, Bani Waled, Ghadames, Ghat, Kufra, Sabha, Sabratha, Tazirbu, and Tiji.

This suggests not only the work being done outside Libya by a vast network of facilitators and logisticians on behalf of jihadist groups, most notably IS, but also the strong domestic infrastructure of safe houses and safe routes facilitating passage for individuals to their desired organizations.

A deeper look at the data offers further insights on specific recruitment milieus. In some cases, for instance, aspiring jihadists had been living mainly in capitals or major cities: the vast majority of Sudanese to join IS were from Khartoum, most Senegalese came from Dakar, and Kenyans traveled from Nairobi and Mombasa.

For these contexts, the suggestion is then that foreign fighter jihadism is mainly an urban phenomenon that hasn’t spread significantly to rural locales. The return of fighters to their home countries, however, suggests this calculus could change through recruitment in the hinterlands.

In Tunisia, by contrast, the phenomenon is very much a national one, with at least thirty-three cities and towns represented among individuals who traveled to or attempted to join jihadist groups in Libya.

Such a finding tracks with findings by this author on the wide reach of domestic Tunisian jihadism as well as the array of locations represented among Tunisian jihadists in Syria.

For the foreign fighter mobilization to Libya, the largest numbers have come from the traditional recruitment hotspots of Ben Gardane, Bizerte, and Tunis.

In this particular mobilization, the small southeast Tunisian desert town of Remada has also seen an outsize number of foreign fighters go to Libya—upward of 90 individuals out of a total population of 11,000.

Certain factors help explain this apparent anomaly: (1) massive

underdevelopment and underemployment; (2) attempts by the Tunisian military beginning in February 2016 to block the Dehiba-Wazin border crossing, which hindered even meager salaries through black-market trade and is believed to have exacerbated corruption; and (3) “extreme religiosity” among those who joined IS, according to local sources, suggesting the role played by ideology.

Both Remada and Ben Gardane, given the latter’s history of militancy, are worth following should IS ever again attempt to take territory spanning the Libya-Tunisia border. Such an IS effort could result in quickly consolidated control over a large frontier area, as happened in Iraq and Syria in 2014.

Another future possibility, not necessarily specific to the Libyan mobilization, involves the route the American Aaron Daniels intended to take from Columbus, Ohio, to Libya to join IS.

Daniels was arrested by the FBI before he could actualize his plans, but his path would have taken him from Columbus to Houston to Trinidad and Tobago and thereafter Tunis, and finally into Libya.

What is noteworthy is the Trinidad and Tobago component, in light of the unprecedented mobilization of residents from this Caribbean island country to fight with IS in Iraq and Syria. Therefore, it would be significant should returnees establish a facilitation and logistics hub for prospective foreign fighters from North and South America for any given jihadist theater abroad.

A smart tactic, for example, could entail using a beach vacation as a diversionary route to travel to a future war zone with either IS or al-Qaeda.

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.

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