From Revolution to Radical Islamism: The Fate of Tunisia’s Young Foreign Fighters

By Laura Zwerling (International Studies major at Dickinson College, Summer 2017 Maghreb Center Intern)


“We had a dream—our dream was called the Arab Spring. And our dream is now turning into a nightmare. But the young people need a dream, and the only dream available to them now is the caliphate,” explained Moncef Marzouki,[i] human-rights activist and first president of post-revolution Tunisia, to the Wall Street Journal.[ii] Since protests in the city of Sidi Bouzid ignited the flame of the Arab Spring in 2011, a new Tunisia has taken on the challenge of introducing a whole series of reforms, in addition to a new constitution, in order to build a full democracy. However, elections and the new governments that resulted have not addressed many of the grievances that drove Tunisians to overthrow the autocratic regime of President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali.

Frustration has set in as expectations remain unmet and transitional governments have failed to improve the conditions of the Tunisian people, particularly the youth. While the new Tunisia has failed to effectively implement much needed social and economic reforms, the country’s increasingly discontented youth have responded in large numbers to ISIS’ call to arms. However, as ISIS is losing ground in Syria, Iraq, and Libya, some of the hundreds of young Tunisians that have joined the terrorist organization may soon return home—creating a new national security threat.

The purpose of this article is to identify some of the reasons that lead a substantial number of young Tunisians to join the ranks of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), while examining and analyzing the radicalization process and then the challenges of dealing with returning foreign fighters. Finally, we will offer some recommendations to prevent radicalization and to handle the homecoming of foreign fighters.


 While the definition of radicalization may vary, for the purposes of this article it is defined as “the process of developing extremist ideologies and beliefs.”[iii] Radicalization is often accompanied by action—such as, in this case, joining ISIS and conducting terrorist activities. Tunisian so-called jihadists have been implicated in acts of terror both at home and abroad. However, most of the aspiring jihadists have flocked to Iraq, Syria, and Libya. Just as the profile of radicalized youths vary, so do methods of recruitment. Many recruits are radicalized close to home, through person-to-person contact, whether by relatives, old and new friends, or community members. Messages are tailored to the recruits. On average, the recruitment process of those who end up radicalized is relatively short   —within weeks or months[iv]; and may even occur online. Young Tunisians are targeted by propaganda that talks to them in their own language or dialect, addresses their frustrations, and alludes to their culture.

 Examining push-pull factors allows for identification of some of the reasons why young Tunisians leave their homes to join foreign militant groups.  Push factors consist of motivations for people to leave their place of origin. Pull factors are reasons why a foreign organization compels them to join. While all recruits have their own unique set of reasons for joining, there are certain circumstances that “push” people to leave their homes and “pull” them towards violent extremism. Poor living standards and unemployment can be major push factors.[v] ISIS “pulls” recruits often for reasons not directly related to fighting for a cause, but to the lack of jobs, marriage (many young people can’t marry because they can’t afford it), adventure, and religion.[vi] While recruits may not be initially attracted to the brutality of ISIS, this combination of factors draws them in. Once enmeshed in the so-called caliphate that ISIS pretends to have instituted in the lands it controls, they are led and hard-pressed to engage in violent extremism.

Insecurity, crisis of identity, and unmet post-revolution expectations in Tunisia’s have created space for violent extremist groups to attract significant youth membership, with the promise of personal and spiritual fulfillment as well as a better life.

 While many extremists were driven by their poor socio-economic condition, others were Salafists ideologically driven to engage in violent action to impose an Islamist state. Salafists, who had been forced underground under Ben Ali, were able move and proselytize freely after the collapse of his regime. These religious fundamentalists maximized on the frustrations and anger felt by the youth population.[vii] While there is no uniform profile for the Tunisian ISIS recruits, we can point to certain domestic and external reasons as catalysts of radicalization:

Dissatisfaction with post-revolution governments, and role of Ennahda Islamist party

 While progress has been achieved with regard to the adoption of a formal democratic regime, however, many Tunisians felt frustrated with the various post-revolution governments inability to address the socio-economic grievances that led to the revolution. For Tunisian youth, the hopes for change and a better life raised by the revolution have been largely unfulfilled. Unemployment rates continue to hover around fifteen percent for the general population.[viii] Even university degrees, which once guaranteed relatively well paid government jobs, offer no reprieve. University graduates still face a thirty percent unemployment rate.[ix]  The immediate economic compensation offered by ISIS and Al-Qaeda affiliates attracts young and educated Tunisians.[x]

Sidi Bouzid were the Arab Spring uprisings started, in one of the most neglected region in Tunisia, sends foreign fighters to ISIS at higher rates than many other Tunisian cities.[xi]  ISIS propaganda capitalizes on this discontent. In an interview with Dabiq, French-Tunisian jihadist Abu Muqatil al-Tunisi[xii] calls for Tunisian Islamists “to repent to Allah… and realize that the ideas you hold and the paths you tread, including that of elections, have not brought you any results.”[xiii] By claiming the futility of Tunisia’s elected government, al-Tunisi presents ISIS membership as an alternate path that will effect real change by instituting a truly Islamic state where the population’s needs will be met.

ISIS offers financial rewards and also opens up opportunities for marriage and the ability to live independently and satisfy relationship needs that are often denied in Tunisia.[xiv] By offering marriages and concubines, ISIS provides incentives that fulfill recruits’ desires without the steep cost of marriage at home.[xv]

Many Tunisian observers and analysts consider that the Ennahda Islamist party when it was leading the post-revolution coalition government called the Troika (2011-2014)  has if not facilitated, at least created an enabling environment for the recruitment of young Tunisians to join ISIS in Syria. Moreover, the government banning of the Salafist group Ansar al-Sharia, with Ennahda’s support, has been ineffective, and contributed to the flow of Islamist militants joining ISIS.[xvi]

 Other religious reasons

The desire to help Muslim “brothers” free themselves from Bashar al Assad’s oppressive regime has been a main cause of attraction to joining the violent jihad in the Levant, or in Libya. ISIS leverages emotional appeals of the injustice facing Syrian Muslims as a main recruiting tool. Taking up this ostensibly righteous cause may offer a sense of direction and purpose lacking in a discontented, unfulfilled, and frequently directionless young person’s life. Issue seven of Dabiq magazine features an article showing a Jordanian pilot being burned alive in retaliation for “crusader airstrikes against Muslim lands.” The article also includes two graphic images of children alleged to have died in airstrikes in order to justify the murder of the pilot.[xvii] By employing this disturbing imagery and evoking the historical analogy of the “crusaders,” this ISIS propaganda creates a strong emotional appeal for aiding Muslims against their perceived enemies.

 On an individual level, ISIS promises restless youths camaraderie and excitement as fighters for a noble. Desire for “belonging, purpose, adventure, and friendship” is a powerful motivator, although rarely addressed in counterterrorism efforts.[xviii] The allure of being part of something important and bigger than oneself cannot be ignored. Dabiq frequently refers to ISIS followers as “brothers” and “sisters,” emphasizing a sense of fraternity that may appeal to directionless youth.[xix]

Dealing with the return of foreign fighters

According to many estimates, Tunisia should expect eighty percent of foreign fighters to return. This means that the country must find an effective way to handle the homecoming of 4,800 to 5,600 fighters, and the security challenges associated with their return. Tunisia has yet to develop a comprehensive and effective strategy for handling those who have returned so far and the security threat they pose. While one-third of 500 returnees (as of February 2015) were imprisoned, the rest are monitored and kept track of through a database of dubious legal standing.[xx] Tunisia has established relationships with the Syrian government and Interpol in hopes of better tracking foreign fighters.[xxi]

In addition to these initiatives, more soft policies must be initiated to reconcile communities with former foreign fighters and prevent radicalization at the start. It is important to balance the security threats posed by returnees with the necessity of reintegration back into society.

Existing prevention efforts

Prevention efforts may include soft or hard policies. In 2013, the so-called Troika government instituted a blanket ban on rural men under the age of 35 from leaving the country.[xxii] The Tunisian government has also instituted terrorism laws that imprison returnees from Syria. While these are effective hard policy approaches, they only deal with the immediate—real or perceived—security threat. The government has yet to develop a comprehensive and coherent strategy for preventing radicalization, what can be referred to as soft policies. The “caretaker technocrat government” that gained power in 2014 took a punitive, or “hard,” approach by doubling terrorism arrests and strengthening counterterrorism relations with Algeria.[xxiii] In addition, a July 2015 counterterrorism law permits and facilitates prosecution of those who join foreign terrorist groups.[xxiv] This punitive strategy has indicated that the government will only continue to focus on “hard” prevention measures.

Some Recommendations

According to experts, there is no simple cure to the contagion of terrorism. When examining the issue of radicalized youth becoming foreign fighters, a holistic response must be developed. Most recruits are radicalized by friends and community members.[xxv] Therefore, many effective methods of preventing radicalization will begin at a local level, put into effect by trusted actors, i.e. members of the community. However, while community initiatives are essential, there are certain institutional issues that must be also dealt with on a national level. Hard policies have been predominant so far, but it is essential that they be used in conjunction with soft policies, such as the need to:

Support home-grown community initiatives and youth political participation: Non-governmental and community-driven programs are essential to work on the issue from the ground up. To provide alternatives to extremism, programs should be created for Tunisian youth to develop the camaraderie that makes ISIS attractive while focusing on more positive objectives. Aslam Souli and several friends created one such group, the National Youth Initiative Against Terrorism (NYAT), aimed at preventing the radicalization of youth in Tunisia. Souli’s organization, in which he serves as vice president, aims to counter violent extremism through organizing activities for youth, counselling young people against terrorism, and conducting research on why youth turn to terrorism. According to Souli, the government is “still afraid of engaging civil society NGOs in this [effort] with them” because they believe such groups may overstep their bounds. Despite this, some of the local communities they work with “perceive [NYAT] as the Allies of the ‘Tyrants,’” i.e. law enforcement and those in power.[xxvi] This exemplifies the necessity of the trust that non-governmental organizations must build in order to prove their legitimacy to both the government and the community.

Increasing youth political participation is essential for the empowerment of young people. While major players in the revolution, young Tunisians have had little voice in politics after the transition. Most political players are far older—President Essebsi[xxvii] is 90 years old. In order to bridge this generational gap, positions for youth delegates in government and political parties should be instituted at the local and national levels. In order to be effective, these positions must carry real weight. Without legitimacy, this could only serve to further politically marginalize youth. Not only will the Tunisian political system benefit from fresh ideas, youth will also become more invested in the democratic process they originally helped achieve.

Re-integrate returnees and use their experiences for intelligence purposes or to dissuade youth from joining ISIS:  Tunisian government must address the potential security threat or re-integration of these returnees. The Tunisian government should take steps to establish a rehabilitation facility for the purposes of temporarily detaining foreign fighters upon re-entry to the country. At this facility, professionals including law enforcement, counselors, and religious leaders would evaluate each returnee in order to determine how much of a risk they may pose to Tunisian society. While those foreign fighters who are known to have committed egregious acts, including murder, should answer for their crimes, incarceration should be used sparingly. It is said radicalization in prison is rampant, which may only further exacerbate the issue of violent extremism.

Each returnee should meet with trusted counselors and religious leaders in order to re-integrate them back into daily life and reconsider their understanding of Islam. The returnees should then be offered options for repaying their debt to society. They may be able to offer the government useful information about ISIS. For those returnees who have returned disaffected with ISIS, one such option could include returning to their hometown to speak to vulnerable youth about their experiences. Returnees have a credibility that other actors may lack and they are ideally positioned to dispel any romantic notions about ISIS that at-risk youth may have. Through involvement in such a program, returnees can come to terms with their involvement and be welcomed back into the community as part of the solution.

– Combat unemployment through a new economic development model that is inclusive and participatory, as well as incentivizing entrepreneurship at the very local level: Economic reforms must be put into effect in order to bolster the Tunisian economy. The government must amend the current economic development model, and effectively combat corruption, prevent overregulation and reduce government spending. Such reforms will allow –among others–  for the development of the private sector and job creation. Through restructuring of the banking structure, access to credit will allow businesses to expand. However, the government must be cautious when developing new economic reforms. Unpopular policies have led to protests which could threaten the country’s tenuous political stability.[xxviii] The burdens of economic reform are often borne by the urban middle class and the poor—which could lead to social instability. The government must take steps to ensure that reforms are created through negotiation and by ensuring that the burdens of economic restructuring are shared among the population as a whole.


Drawing on the revolutionary fervor that engulfed Tunisia in 2011, ISIS has recruited thousands of young Tunisians. While the youths’ motives range from dissatisfaction with the post-revolution government, to poverty, to the desire for adventure, they all share one similar attribute: the need for something more than what is available to them in Tunisia. ISIS and its operatives have used personal connections on- and off-line to radicalize vulnerable youth. Under the guise of religious obligation, an estimated 6,000 to 7,000 Tunisians have migrated to ISIS. As the so-called caliphate’s hold on its territory has become increasingly precarious, Tunisia must prepare for the homecoming of as many as 5,600 fighters. The dual challenge of preventing radicalization and mitigating the security threat of foreign fighters’ return has no simple solution. What has become clear is that the use of hard policies alone, e.g. imprisonment, will not effectively solve the long-term problem. A well-rounded counter-extremism strategy will combine soft and hard policies, using both top-down and bottom-up strategies, including the adoption of a new economic development model that is inclusive and that creates jobs for the youth to allow allow them to lead a normal life. Certainly, there are no easy answers to the multi-faceted issues of radicalization or returnees, Implementation of these or other proposals may be challenging due to bureaucracy, funding, time, or political will, among other reasons. However, this country has defied the odds before. In 2011, unlike most other Arab Spring nations, Tunisia successfully set itself down the path to democracy. Post-revolution disappointments have sunk the youths’ revolutionary spirit and driven some to ISIS. Ultimately, Tunisia must recapture the “dream” of the Arab Spring by empowering and integrating youth in order to win

[i] Marzouki served as president from 2011 to 2014. Party: Congress for the Republic.

[ii] Yaroslav Trofimov, “How Tunisia Became a Top Source of ISIS Recruits,” The Wall Street Journal, February 25, 2016,

[iii] Alpaslan Özerdem and Sukanya Podder, “Disarming Youth Combatants: Mitigating Youth Radicalization and Violent Extremism,” Journal of Strategic Security 4, no. 4 (2011): 67.

[iv] Moussa Bourekba, “Countering Violent Extremism in the MENA Region: Time to Rethink Approaches and Strategies,” EuroMesco Brief 63 (2016): 8.

[v] Bourekba, “Countering Violent Extremism in the MENA Region,” 8.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Haim Malka and Margo Balboni, “Domestic Context: After the Revolution,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, (accessed November 1, 2016).

[viii] Oussama Romdhani, “NORTH AFRICA Beyond Jihadist Radicalization,” World Affairs 177, no. 5, (2015): 63.

[ix] Ibid.

[x] Haim Malka and Margo Balboni, “The Puzzle: Radicalization” Center for Strategic and International Studies, (accessed November 1, 2016).

[xi] Nate Rosenblatt, All Jihad is Local: What ISIS’ Files Tell Us About Its Fighters. Washington: New America, 2016, 12.

[xii] Al-Tunisi is linked to the assassination of a Tunisian political leader and the 2015 Charlie Hebdo attacks. Al-Tunisi was killed in airstrikes in Raqqa, Syria on November 26, 2016.

[xiii] “Interview with Abu Muqatil,” Dabiq, March 30, 2015, 62.

[xiv] Ibid.

[xv] Ibid.

[xvi] Al-Amin, Hazem. “Tunisia’s ‘Road to Jihad’ in Syria Paved by Muslim Brotherhood.” Al-Monitor. November 17, 2013.

[xvii] “The Burning of the Murtadd Pilot,” Dabiq, February 12, 2015, 5-6.

[xviii] Richard Barrett, Foreign Fighters: An Updated Assessment of the Flow of Foreign Fighters into Syria and Iraq. New York: The Soufan Group, 2015, 6.

[xix] Dabiq, March 30, 2015.

[xx] Watanabe, Foreign fighters and their return, 9.

[xxi] Ibid.

[xxii] Watanabe, Foreign fighters and their return, 8.

[xxiii] Malka and Balboni, “The Puzzle: Radicalization.”

[xxiv] Watanabe, Foreign fighters and their return, 8.

[xxv] Bourekba, “Countering Violent Extremism in the MENA Region,” 6.

[xxvi] Aslam Souli, email message to author, December 16, 2016.

[xxvii] Party: Nidaa Tounes.

[xxviii] Amly, Amr, and Hamza Meddeb. “Why Painful Economic Reforms Are Less Risky in Tunisia Than Egypt.” Carnegie Middle East Center. March 31, 2017. Accessed August 10, 2017.

Tunisian Prime Minister Chahed Visit to Washington and Tunisian-American Relations

Written by Camille Ford [i] on July 20th, 2017

This paper is based on a conversation with Sarah Yerkes[ii] from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

Tunisian Prime Minister Youssef Chahed paid an official visit to Washington to meet with members of the Trump Administration, congress, and think tanks, this past Monday, July 11th. The visit was characterized by positive interactions and discussions, despite the absence of both President Donald Trump and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.

Prime Minister Chahed’s brief visit was spent re-emphasizing the importance of the Tunisian-American relationship that dates back to 1795, as well as highlighting the obstacles facing Tunisia, as it seeks to further consolidate its newly established democracy.

During the various meetings held, the Prime Minister outlined three major challenges facing Tunisia today. They relate to security, corruption and economic reform.

On the security front, Tunisia has undertaken serious counter-terrorism measures as emphasized by the Prime Minister. At its borders with Libya in the south, Tunisia is facing the emergence of ISIS cells, as well as an expansive network of illegal trade and smuggling. On the border with Algeria, in the west, Tunisian and Algerian forces have come together to contain a small Al-Qaeda outgrowth. While Tunisian armed forces have achieved successes in securing their borders, the greatest challenge for the new democracy has been walking the line between respecting human rights and enforcing strict security rules. American aid has been particularly noted on the security front. American financial assistance and military technology have indeed significantly contributed to the successes of the Tunisian security forces, and it seems that Tunisia will continue to receive U.S. assistance.

With regard to the scourge of corruption, Prime Minister Chahed was particularly insistent on the necessity, and popularity among Tunisians, of the anti-corruption measures that he has taken. This si illustrted among others by the recent arrest bay the Tunisian government of several powerful businessmen on suspicion of involvement in corruption. The most notable arrest has been that of Chafik Jarraya, who is accused of collaborating with Libyan jihadist groups, which highlights the connection between corruption, illegal business practices and security; and Tunisia’s fight against corruption can only be supported by the U.S., as it is by international financial organizations, such as the IMF, on which Tunisia depends.

Our interlocutor, Sarah Yerkes, however, has expressed a certain amount of skepticism towards this so-called “war on corruption”, as the Tunisian Prime Minister labels it. It seems that after this series of arrests, there is no real plan to tackle the roots of corruption which has become widespread in Tunisia. Moreover, the Chahed government has been criticized for their methods of arrest, relying on the state of emergency laws, which remain in place in Tunisia. This has allowed for military trials to be held, rather than civil trials with legal representation for the accused. Above all, Sarah Yerkes emphasized that Tunisia must tread carefully with these trials. In a democracy, anti-corruption laws must be enforced in a manner that respects human rights conventions, and abides by the ideals of democratic government, regardless of the people involved.

With regard to economic issues, Prime Minister visit was followed by the U.S. House of Representative’s decision to reject the foreign aid budget cuts proposed by the Trump administration that, among others, concern Tunisia. While the Prime Minister’s visit was not likely to be the catalyst for this decision, the prompt timing of his U.S. appearance has earned him great praise in Tunisia. Thus, the U.S. will maintain 2017 fiscal year levels of aid for Tunisia, at $165.4 million, and not at $54.4 million as was outlined in the rejected budget proposal.

On the other hand, questions have arisen surrounding the impending economic reconciliation law drafted by Mr. Caid Essebsi’s upon his rise to the presidency of Tunisia in 2014. This controversial law seeks to provide amnesty and anonymity to businessmen associated the old, pre-2011, Ben Ali regime. Essebsi has received criticism for his proposition of this law, which has also been interpreted by many Tunisians as an attempt to undermine the legal accountability of perpetrators of crimes under the old regime.

It is worth noting that this presidential initiative further adds to Mr. Caid Essebsi’s criticism by Tunisians. Not only is he regarded as a symbol of the old regime, but is also attacked for his close relationship with Rached Ghannouchi, the head of the Islamist Ennahda party, and supposed political opponent of his party Nida Tounes, which rules Tunisia with the support of the Islamists, while it ran on an anti-islamist agenda. On July 19th, the Tunisian parliament approved the first part of Essebsi’s economic reconciliation bill, to the dismay of a large number of Tunisians. Sarah Yerkes warns that protests may erupt if the full law is put into effect.

In addition to the three umbrella issues which Mr. Chahed emphasized during his Washington visit, Tunisia also faces more immediate challenges. Later this year, the government has promised to hold municipal elections. The constitution, however, has yet to be amended to include the important decentralization laws necessary for successful elections and governance at the regional level. Sarah Yerkes notes that a failure to draft such laws could undermine decentralization efforts

In conclusion, one can assert that as Tunisia evolves into a fully democratic country, achieving accountability and transparency and moving on with the democratic process in terms of holding local elections and implementing decentralization, remains a challenge for the Northern African state. In order to help consolidate its democracy, other democratic countries, such as the United States, must hold Tunisia to the same standard as they would their other democratic allies, but it must also support Tunisia Tunisia’s democratization and economic development efforts.


[i] Camille Ford, an International Studies and Islamic Civilizations Double Major at Boston College (Class of 2018), is a Summer 2017 research intern at the Maghreb Center.

[ii] Sarah Yerkes is a fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Middle East Program. She focuses her research on Tunisia’s political, economic, and security developments as well as state-society relations in the Middle East and North Africa


The Origins and Evolution of ISIS in Libya

June 26, 2017 – Camille Ford*

This piece is based on a panel discussion held at the Atlantic Council in Washington DC on June 20th 2017, with Jason Pack, Rhiannon Smith, Karim Mezran, and Chris Chivvis, on the occasion of the publication of their report titled: “The Origins and Evolution of ISIS in Libya.” The report is published by the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, and deals with  ISIS presence and activities in Libya in the post-Qaddafi era.

 Libya: A Unique Case in the ISIS network

In the preface to the report, four major findings are oulined: the emergence of ISIS as a reactionary force in the face of Libya’s ongoing statelessness; the negative Libyan response to ISIS brutality tactics; the emergence of ISIS in Libya as a result of marginalization in the post-Qaddafi era; and the necessity of decentralizing authority as a solution to issues of governance and justice in Libya.

The Mutability of Jihadism and Libyan Statelessness

Prompted by Atlantic Senior Fellow Karim Mezran, Jason Pack [1], the leading author of the report, kick-started the discussion by honing in on the mutable nature of jihadist groups. He asserts that while each specific jihadist group may claim a unique ideology, all jihadist groups share a common anti-western sentiment which drives their overarching ideology. This shared mission allows these groups to evolve and grow quickly, without sharp boundaries dividing them. In the Libyan militia context, Pack asserts that loyalty is fostered at the local level. In line with this, the local actors and regional factors hold greater importance than the needs of their umbrella organization, whether this be ISIS or any other, thus allowing for Jihadist groups to form, merge, or disappear rapidly.

This mutability is a central factor in understanding the growth of ISIS in the post-Qaddafi years. Pack asserts that ISIS is in fact just a symptom of broader Libyan issues, with the cause being the statelessness that has ensued since 2011. ISIS saw an opportunity for proliferation in the blatant political vacuum and the fragmentation of the state in Libya, and seized it. Localized Islamist groups, whose influence over local actors has trumped the formation of a truly unified nation-state, have undermined efforts towards a centralized authority. This became evident in 2011, when Libya was divided into two territories, governed by two competing governments, both claiming to be the legitimate representatives of the Libyan people. One faction based itself in the East, in Tripoli, and is comprised of a broad union of Islamist groups known as Operation Libya Dawn, and the second, based in the West, in Benghazi, is led by anti-Islamist General Khalifa Haftar.

From then on, a series of efforts, led by the UN and local actors, in 2014 and 2015, sought to undertake the daunting mission of creating a unity government. The project, however, has repeatedly failed as the UN was unable to convene the people of true influence, military leaders, to the negotiating table; and local actors remain faithful to their own factions.

Libya and Jihadism: A Historical Affair

Following Jason Pack, Chris Chivvis [2], from the RAND Corporation, highlighted the historical presence of jihadism in Libya, as well as the long-standing involvement of Libyan Jihadists in the Syrian crisis, which began in 2011. The ISIS-centric view of this phenomenon fails to account for the fact that ISIS is just one piece in the jihadist network, serving as an agent of jihadism, rather than its own structure. As such, the Pack, Smith and Mezran report highlights this historical relationship, tracing the roots of Libyan jihadism to the Afghani mujahideen in the 1980s, when Libyan volunteers travelled to Afghanistan to join the Taliban. This allowed the Libyans to develop military skills, and contacts, through the jihadist networks, which they would then use back in their country. The ISIS presence today represents a new wave of Libyan jihadists who have been deeply involved with global jihadist networks since 2011.

Derna: ISIS Brutality and Libyan Marginalization

According to the Report, this aspect is best exemplified in the case of the Libyan city of Derna. In 2016, data leaked by a defected ISIS fighter exposed the profound links between Libya and ISIS. Among the 3,600 foreign fighters who had registered with ISIS in the Syria-Turkey border regions between 2013 and mid-2014, “Derna and environs had the single highest per capita rate of foreign fighters joining ISIS of any other global province recorded.” It is no surprise that Derna became the first ISIS outpost in Libya in 2014. ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi formally recognized the “Derna emirate” in November of the same year. The ISIS presence in Derna was short-lived, being evicted from the center of the region in mid-2015, and once again, from the peripheries, in mid-2016, due to the ongoing competition for power among various groups. As of late 2016, after a brief occupation of the city of Sirte, ISIS no longer controls any significant territory in Libya, but still exercises some influence in the region. Derna thus highlights the ties between Libyans and Jihadists groups, who travelled to Syria and other countries where Jihadists are active, and developed skills and contacts which were used to create ISIS outposts in Libya.

The Derna example ties in two of the major findings proposed by Pack, Smith and Mezran: the disapproval of the Libyan people of ISIS brutality; and the impact of marginalization of some regions and cities on the emergence of ISIS in Libya. Derna, prior to its role as an ISIS outpost, was a largely neglected city in the post-Qaddafi era, leaving it vulnerable to outside influence. Its historical ties to global jihadism made it the ideal location for ISIS to establish itself. However, the ISIS presence was short-lived due to the brutality of its attacks in the region, which triggered a local counter-response, and led to the eventual demise of ISIS in both Derna and Sirte. The public beheading of 21 Egyptian Copts in February of 2015, or the series of suicide car bombs staged in Sirte in July and August of 2016, are examples of such brutal attacks.

Conclusions: Decentralization of Authority and Limited Foreign Intervention

In the concluding remarks, Pack, Smith, Mezran and Chivvis addressed Western involvement in the Libyan conflict, and the necessity for a decentralized authority in Libya. Pack expressed his strong opposition to any type of strictly counter terror approaches, and advocated for a targeted focus on resolving the greatest underlying issue of the Libyan conflict, namely the lack of a governance system. As put forth in the report, he offers a solution in which he emphasizes the decentralization of power, and empowering local actors. To achieve this, Pack suggests support for bureaucratic, and media training, as well as the implementation of educational and vocational programs in order to remedy the economic instability in Libya, which has fostered the growth of an extensive black market.

All in all, the “The Origins and Evolution of ISIS in Libya” is a thorough report on the development of  jihadist movements which have plagued Libya. Its focus upon issues of statelessness and governance, as a root cause for the proliferation of ISIS provides a critical understanding of the Libyan case, and pragmatic solutions on both the domestic Libyan, and Western foreign policy front. Now, only time will tell whether the recommendations put forth by the report will carry any weight in the world of foreign policy, and whether the Trump administration will see cause in supporting Libya.

[1] Jason Pack, is the founder and emeritus director of Eye on Isis in Libya, as well as the executive director of the US- Libya Business Association, and founder of Libya-Analysis, a consultancy organization which produces reports on Libya for Western companies and governments.

[2] Chris Chivvis is the associate director of the International Security and Defense Policy Center, as well as a senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation. He is also an adjunct professor at the Johns Hopkins University, Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies.

*Camille Ford is an International Studies and Islamic Civilizations Double Major at Boston College (Class of 2018). She is currently a research intern for the Maghreb Center.

Tunisian-Italian Relations, and the Limits of a Classic European Paradigm

(By Eugenio Dacrema *)

 “The problem, in sum, is the static and rigid approach (concerned essentially by) cooperation on “immigration” and “security” that Italy has developed towards most Southern Mediterranean countries, and the consequent incapacity to elaborate alternative diplomatic approaches taking fully into account the specific political, social, and economic features of each country.”  “This rigid and mono-thematic approach is hardly an Italian problem. It is spread among EU members, and can be found even within European Institutions.”

On 8-9 February, the Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi visited Italy where he met Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni, the President of Republic Sergio Mattarella, and addressed the Foreign Affairs Commission of the Italian Parliament. The event was only briefly reported by the Italian media, in these days mostly engaged (as many others worldwide) in covering the latest eccentricities of the new American President and/or the developments of the conflict against Isis (and accidentally sometimes also of the Syrian civil war).

By reading the few Italian reports on the Tunisian President’s visit one gets the clear impression of what the relations with Tunisia – and with most other Arab countries – are about from the Italian perspective. The words “immigration” and “security”, followed by “terrorism”, are the most used in the description of the topics dealt with in the diplomatic meetings. They are followed, only by far, by “development”, mostly kept generic and regarded as a means to achieve, once again, cooperation on “immigration” and “security”. In the specific case of Tunisia, “Libya” is also a word popping out often given the geographical proximities between the two countries. Libya is in fact the real priority of Italy’s Mediterranean policy, especially in the last months. The reasons, once again, have to do with the aforementioned considerations related to “immigration” and “security”, including “energetic security”.

The problem, in sum, is the static and rigid approach that Italy has towards most Southern Mediterranean countries and the consequent incapacity to elaborate alternative diplomatic approaches taking fully into account the specific political, social, and economic features of each country. For almost two decades the approach towards most Mediterranean Arab countries (those in the Gulf show often other “features” of interest) has been centered on the management of immigration and security (conceived often as overlapping concepts). Other aspects, such as economic treaties and regulations or, secondarily, cultural and developmental cooperation, has been managed mostly at the European level while other specific bilateral political and cultural issues have been marginalized. In general, there are major difficulties, both at the institutional and the media level, to see Tunisia as a whole and not just as a context where terrorism threats or migration flows (and, in better times, sunny holidays) are generated. A whole constituted by an increasingly sophisticated society struggling with the transition from a dictatorship from which it autonomously and peacefully liberated itself (something that not many European countries such as Spain, Germany or Italy can claim).

This is an approach detrimental for Italy for at least two simple reasons: First, the geographical proximity between the two countries (one of the first things you get to learn in Tunisia is that Tunis is the closest capital to Rome, repeated in different versions 100-200 times) which makes cooperation in any matters, especially economic, potentially particularly advantageous. The second reason, consequential from the first, are the strong cultural ties linking the two countries coupled by the ongoing presence of a significant historical Italian community whose history and potential support for today’s cooperation have always been mostly, and regrettably, neglected.

But this kind of rigid and mono-thematic approach is hardly an Italian problem. It is spread among the EU members and has been contagious even to the European Institutions themselves, despite decades of commitment (and money spent) for the support of local civil society and democracy promotion. Seen from this perspective, it is like in the last years the EU has been unexplainably ignoring one of the few countries that have been able to really incarnate the ideal aspirations that are technically at the core of the European project.

One example, I think, is striking of this approach: the Italian – and generally European – media cover of the Bardo terrorist attack in 2015. That day, immediately after the first news filtered on Italian newspapers and TVs, the events of the Bardo were framed as simply an Islamic terrorist attack against foreign tourists inside a Tunisian museum. The fact that the museum was located in the same building of the Tunisian Parliament – or that according to some accounts the Parliament was initially the primary target – was almost never mentioned. How would the narrative have been constructed if the same attack had taken place in a museum attached to the Italian or French Parliament? That day I collaborated with my friend and Italian MP Lia Quartapelle in the writing of an article that aimed at framing what was happening as primarily the attack against the Parliament building of a fellow democracy, in the foreign capital that is the closest to Rome (I had learnt that well); but it was like a drop in a sea characterized by a very different – and security-oriented – narrative.

To be fair, something has been slowly changing at least in the high-level institutional approach to Tunisia. It has been recognized that the economic problems – and the consequent social problems – are key to solving security and immigration issues in the long term. The latest agreement reached on immigration contains some interesting and insightful commitment regarding economic and socioeconomic cooperation. However, the main narrative passing through the media and the consequent perception of Tunisia throughout the general public have hardly changed. Tunisia is still mainly a country with which we should cooperate primarily for security and immigration issues. Even the economic cooperation descends from it, as a means to stop radicalization and emigration. Very little of the new political and social dimension of the post-Revolution Tunisia has been able to really surface. In 2015 I participated in the writing of a document that was later transformed in a parliamentary resolution containing some suggestions for the Italian government about political and economic policies regarding Tunisia. The first point was about supporting the concession to Tunisia of the “observer status” in the Council of Europe, a way to recognize the impressive developments achieved by the country.  This point was followed by a few others, mostly economic, which were debated and some adopted. But nobody seems to have taken seriously the first one. Not in Rome, not in Brussels, but not even in Tunis. This article is not the place to fully treat the topic and I am not that familiar with the Tunisian internal political scene and debate to really argue about it. But, to be honest, sometimes I wonder how this kind of detrimental security-oriented and (let’s call things with their names) patronizing approach is just a problem of the Italian and European side of the relationship.

* Eugenio Dacrema is a PhD candidate at the University of Trento, Italy; and currently a visiting scholar at the American University of Beirut. He is a research associate with the Italian think tank ISPI, and collaborates with several Italian newspapers such as Corriere della Sera and Il Foglio. He regularly writes policy documents on the MENA region for the Italian parliament.