Maghreb countries wary of returning Syria jihadists

Policemen take part in an operation against a jihadist cell in the Spanish city of Melilla, which shares a border with Morocco, in March 2014. Security forces have broken up a Spanish-Moroccan network suspected of sending men to fight in Syria. [Blasco Avellaneda/AFP]

Policemen take part in an operation against a jihadist cell in the Spanish city of Melilla, which shares a border with Morocco, in March 2014. Security forces have broken up a Spanish-Moroccan network suspected of sending men to fight in Syria. [Blasco Avellaneda/AFP]

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Libya, Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria are intensifying their efforts to monitor citizens returning from fighting alongside jihadist groups in Syria.

These include co-ordinating with Interpol and other countries to monitor and track combatant groups in Syria and fighters who decide to return to their home countries, as well as disbanding in-country recruitment cells, analysts told Al-Shorfa.

Many combatants returning to Maghreb countries from Syria have been indoctrinated with jihadist ideology, which governments fear they will bring home with them, said strategy analyst Maj. Gen. Yahya Mohammed Ali, who is retired from the Egyptian army.

Youth in Maghreb countries have been travelling to Syria for "jihad" to varying degrees, though in each country there are some common characteristics, Ali told Al-Shorfa.

"Terrorist organisations that specialise in recruitment are transporting youth to Syria through Europe and from there to Turkey under the guise of tourism or trade, while others are transported to Libya to be trained in al-Qaeda camps there", he said.

Co-operation among Maghreb countries began relatively late in the game, Ali said.

This is because the prevailing unrest in Arab spring countries "allowed the infiltration of large numbers of fighters at the onset of the Syrian revolution", he said.

These fighters are now being tracked through news, photos and information posted on social networking sites, Internet IP addresses and phone data, as well as through missing persons reports filed by families, he said.

Interpol also plays an important role in the co-ordination of efforts to monitor and track combatant groups in Syria and fighters who decide to return to their home countries, Ali said.

Youth recruitment in the Maghreb

Libya is a large source of concern at present as a number of extremist groups are reported to have established bases and training camps there, strategy analyst Ali said.

A UN report issued in March said Libya has become a key source of arms for Syrian opposition groups.

"Several Libyan military units, such as the Tripoli Brigade and Liwaa al-Ummah, are publicly involved in the fighting in Syria," Ali said.

In Tunisia, the unrest following the overthrow of the former regime allowed the jihadist movement to spread, "with the freeing of Salafi jihadist movement leaders and members from prisons and emergence of the Ansar al-Sharia group", he said.

In April 2013, Tunisia jailed a returning jihadist known as Abu Zaid al-Tounsi (the Tunisian) on suspicion of incitement to terrorism after he called on television for youth to travel to fight in Syria.

Al-Tounsi had claimed that around 3,500 Tunisians were fighting alongside opposition groups in Syria.

"Tunisian fighters often are smuggled to Algeria and then to Libya, or directly from Tunisia to Turkey or Jordan or one of the European countries before entering Syria," Ali said.

In February, Tunisian Interior Minister Lotfi Ben Jeddou said the number of Tunisian returnees from Syria is closer to 400.

Algeria "witnessed public mobilisation at the onset of the Syrian revolution by clerics who advocate jihad, particularly within the Salafist movement and Salafi jihadist movement -- the latter being close to al-Qaeda and in direct contact with ANF, which led to the influx of a large number of jihadists [into Syria]", Ali said.

Meanwhile, Morocco-originating jihadists founded their own group in Syria called Sham al-Islam, he said.

Preventing the migration of 'jihad'

The international interest in "jihad" in Syria stems from fears of a reverse migration and the prospects of terrorist attacks by returnees in their home countries, said military analyst Maj. Gen. Abdul Karim Ahmed, a retired Egyptian army officer who specialises in al-Qaeda.

Maghreb countries have taken pre-emptive actions on several occasions to counter the work of these groups, Ahmed told Al-Shorfa.

In Tunisia, for example, anyone confirmed or suspected of intending to travel to Syria for "jihad" is banned from travel, he said, with Interior Minister Ben Jeddou recently announcing that 8,000 Tunisians have been banned from traveling to Syria in 2013.

In an interview with Al-Arabiya, Ben Jeddou said six networks that specialise in transporting Tunisian fighters to Syria have been dismantled, and Tunisian authorities have recorded the return of 266 young men who had fought in Syria.

"A database was created for these [returnees] in order to facilitate the monitoring and tracking of their movements, and they have been interrogated and brought to justice," he said.

Tunisian families and civil society organisations also have played a vital role in stemming the flow of young men travelling to Syria for the purpose of fighting, the minister said.

In Algeria, security forces in February succeeded in tracking and apprehending recruitment cells that sought to transport recruits from the states of Guelma and al-Taref to Tunisia, where they would undergo weapons training before travelling to Syria, Ahmed said.

Religious scholars and advocates in Algeria also have appealed to the country's youth to shun fatwas that call for "jihad" in Syria.

In an appeal last year, television imam Cheikh Chems Eddine al-Djazairi said the "so-called jihad in Syria is in fact fitna (sedition)".

In Libya, "co-ordination is ongoing between EU countries and local Libyan authorities to control the ports used in the smuggling of weapons and fighters, especially in the city of Gharyan in the north-west of the country, and the border city of al-Jaghboub", Ahmed said.

Libyan security forces are currently engaged in border control training programmes, he added.

Morocco also is pursuing internal recruitment networks and has apprehended "terrorist networks" that belong to Sham al-Islam in Syria and arrested many of those involved, Ahmed said.

Last week, the Moroccan Interior Ministry announced the arrest of "two persons involved in recruiting and sending Moroccan fighters to Syria" in co-ordination with individuals on the Turkish-Syrian border, Lebanon's Annahar newspaper reported.

The police also arrested "an activist in jihadist forums who is involved in hacking into credit card [accounts] in order to siphon cardholders' money and utilise it for the benefit of armed groups in Syria", the ministry said.

International efforts

Interpol has been actively pursuing jihadists returning to Maghreb countries for months, said Lt. Col. Amin al-Zaini, an Egyptian police officer attached to Interpol.

The organisation tracks jihadists "through the circulation of red notices to all countries containing the names of those suspected of involvement in fighting in the ranks of al-Qaeda, so they may be apprehended and handed over to their countries for the necessary action", he said.

"The effort is currently focused on those who are fighting in Syria in the ranks of al-Qaeda affiliates such as al-Nusra Front (ANF), the 'Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant', […] and other armed terrorist groups," he added.

In particular, the efforts concern foreign fighters from Middle Eastern and Maghreb countries, al-Zaini said, as "the internal security of any of these countries is of common interest to all of them, especially Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, Tunisia, Iraq, Algeria and Turkey".

These countries exchange long lists of names to track the movement of suspects internally and from one country to another, he said, especially travels in which Syria is the ultimate destination.

"Co-operation is currently being intensified between countries that neighbour Syria, namely Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq, since these countries share long common borders with Syria," al-Zaini said.