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.



One West African country that could be strongly affected by returning foreign fighters or AQIM’s regional ambitions is Senegal. Since late 2015, Senegal has seen more cases of individuals being arrested for connections to either Boko Haram, AQIM, or IS.

For instance, in November 2015, a number of individuals were arrested for helping finance Boko Haram. 151 Later, in February 2016, Senegal arrested four religious leaders whom it believed had connections to Boko Haram.

More recently, in early April 2017, a Nigerian member of Boko Haram who had traveled from Mauritania was arrested while attempting to recruit individuals to join the jihadist group in a Dakar suburb.

In response to such developments at home, as well as nearby countries, Senegal has taken preventive action. For example, after AQIM bombed the Splendid Hotel in Burkina Faso on January 15, 2016, the

Senegalese government arrested 500 individuals and questioned 900 overall in seeking to stave off any such attack in Dakar.

Furthermore, in late February 2017, Senegal arrested two Malian individuals suspected of being involved in the AQIM attack on the Grand-Bassam Hotel in Cote d’Ivoire on March 13, 2016.

As for the Islamic State, Senegal arrested two Moroccans, two Algerians, and a Tuareg for ties to the group in mid-April 2017, early October 2017, and late October 2017, respectively. The Moroccans had recently arrived from Istanbul and the Tuareg had just returned from Syria, suggesting long routes home or hopes to build up local networks and facilitation/logistics hubs.

In response, Senegal has taken steps to improve its internal and border security, including beefing up patrols along its borders with Mali and Mauritania as well as constructing new border posts with cooperation from the European Union.

So far, these proactive measures are helping thwart the creation of new networks as well as consequent attacks, although time will ultimately be the judge of their sustainability.

Such moves are especially relevant in light of Senegalese press reports that AQIM’s front group Ansar al-Din planned attacks in Senegal—as well as Gambia—on its independence day, April 4, 2017, even as the plans failed. There could also be heightened possibilities that Senegal might be targeted in the future by AQIM after the country announced last week that it would assist Mali in pacifying militants from Mopti, in central Mali, with 200 troops.


In discussing the foreign fighter mobilization to Libya, this paper has covered a range of topics, including statistics on those who joined or attempted to join jihadist groups since the country’s revolution began in 2011, a broader history of foreign fighting in Libya since 2011, networks and routes centering on the Libyan jihad, and, finally, external operations and potential future trajectories for foreign fighter returnees.

The paper also closely examined jihadist events since the Islamic State declared its presence in Libya in spring 2014. All such material illustrates major complexities and overlapping dynamics that have evolved since the start of the Libyan revolution.

Indeed, the biggest takeaway involves the potential for future growth in jihadist activism within Africa, whether exploited by IS and its front groups or AQIM and its front groups or, to a lesser extent, by

Boko Haram.

Such threats indicate the rising importance of cooperation between nations from Europe and Africa. Moreover, intelligence and information sharing among African nations will better help track the movement of individuals throughout the northern, western, and eastern sectors of the continent.

One such vehicle for intra-African cooperation, although it thus far focuses only on a limited region, is G5 Sahel, which was created

in December 2014 and includes Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger. 161 In October 2017, the United States pledged $60 million in security-assistance support to G5 Sahel, suggesting Washington may be interested in deepening its stake in a process now mainly backed by France, the EU, and the regional member states.

Through this participation, the United States can serve as a force multiplier, augmenting actions already happening on the ground. Relatedly, the United States and its European allies would be wise to facilitate development of an overall coordination body aimed at helping better connect all three key regions of Africa (North, West, and East), which are dealing with similar problems.

Separately, as intimated earlier, questions remain on how strong an external operations capability IS in Libya truly has. Thus far, this capability has not equaled that of its counterpart in Syria.

Still, the potential for “remote-controlled” guidance as well as exploitation of migrant flows into Europe makes Libya-directed external operations a threat not to be ignored. Furthermore, European officials worry that the ranks of IS in Libya could be reinforced by foreign fighters previously in Iraq and Syria.

According to Estonian interior minister Andres Anvelt, whose country held the six-month EU presidency from July to December 2017, “[European foreign fighters] are afraid to go back home because they have (committed) so-called war crimes or terrorist crimes. They are known… So they started to look for other places to fight and it is in North Africa… So far Libya, as the most unstable country in this area, is the biggest concern for Europe.”

Therefore, according to Anvelt, European security experts are attempting to build deeper ties to Libya, Niger, Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco to better alleviate the possible flow of European foreign fighters to new destinations after the fall of the Islamic State’s twin capitals of Mosul and Raqqa.

Regional leaders are also concerned about the ramifications of the Islamic State’s loss of territory in Iraq and Syria. For example, Algerian foreign minister Abdelkader Messahel warned that “the region is threatened … with the return of foreign fighters.”

Similarly, Egyptian president Abdul-Fattah al-Sisi has expressed worry that Egyptian foreign fighters will be able to easily return to Egypt by exploiting the porous border with Libya.

Such developments could, in turn, bolster IS operations in the Nile Valley or Western Desert, fears derived in part from the government’s belief that the April 2017 attacks on the Coptic Christian community in Minya were planned from Libya.

Such returnees could also bolster operations by the al-Murabitun Brigade, the al-Qaeda-aligned jihadist group based in Darnah, through welcoming IS fighters back into the fold and building on attacks recently perpetrated in the Bahariya oasis.

Permeable though the Libya-Egypt border may be, it will never compare with the situation in Turkey before spring 2015, when Turkey’s borders were more or less open to foreign fighter mobilization in Syria.

More broadly, as Katherine Bauer notes, “geographic and demographic challenges make it unlikely that [IS in Libya] could take and hold territory without financial support from the core. Rather, Libya seems better suited as a regional hub than a strategic fallback.”

The diminishment of IS core resources, therefore, linked to its loss of territory in Iraq and Syria, further constrains the effort in Libya, which itself no longer controls territory and associated access to taxation revenue.

Although the mobilization of foreign fighters to Libya is currently at its lowest point since the Libyan revolution began in 2011, the consequences of the past several years will no doubt reverberate for a long while. Thus, a better understanding of the foreign fighter phenomenon, how it evolved, and its potential trajectories can help mitigate related problems in Africa and Europe in the coming years.


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.


Related Articles