The number of Tunisian militants flocking to join the hostilities in Syria and Iraq is one of the highest among those traveling to fight alongside extremists in the Middle East's two most dogged conflicts, the United Nations Working Group on the use of mercenaries confirmed today.
“Sophisticated travel networks operate to take recruits across the porous borders, and sometimes through areas where trafficking in people and illicit goods may not be effectively controlled,” Elzbieta Karska, the Working Group's chairperson, said in a press release. “Testimony has documented that the routes taken entail travel through Libya, then Turkey and its border at Antakya, and then Syria.”
The motivational factors pushing Tunisian fighters into the arms of extremist and so-called takfiri groups are as varied as they are numerous. According to the UN experts, some are prompted by religious and political ideologies while others are lured by financial gains, a sense of purpose and a sense of belonging.
In addition, the majority of the Tunisians traveling abroad appear to be young and fall within the 18 to 35 demographic range but include both men and women alike. To that point, recruiters of militants are also well-compensated for their efforts.
“We were told repeatedly that many foreign fighters undertake training in Libya before going to Syria, and that the instability in Libya has fuelled a lot of the support activities for the growth, training, and travel for foreign fighters,” Ms. Karska continued. “Resolution of the conflict and political impasse in that country would thus benefit Tunisia's counter-terrorism efforts considerably.”
The new information is the result of an eight-day fact-finding mission to the North African country in which Ms. Karska and her Working Group colleagues – Chile's Patricia Arias, South Africa's Anton Katz, the United States' Gabor Rona, and Yemen's Saeed Mokbil – consulted with local officials, civil society organizations and representatives from UN agencies and other international partners.
During their mission, however, the Working Group was told that the Tunisian fighters are also populating a number of conflicts beyond Syria and Iraq with up to 1,500 combatants currently in Libya, 60 in Mali and 50 in Yemen.
As a result, the experts suggested, the Tunisian Government should develop a national strategic plan with the aim of responding to the diverse profiles and recruitment methods. Moreover, they added, the plan should have an immediate, medium and long-term impact, balance punitive against social measures, and ensure the comprehensive adoption of international human rights standards in all its elements.
The Working Group experts are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN human rights system, is the general name of the independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms of the Council that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world.
Special Procedures' experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity.