Journeys to Foreign Battle Zones

The Path Taken

Tunisian fighters travel well-worn paths to reach foreign battle zones. Since 2011 most Tunisian recruits bound for Syria have crossed overland from Turkey through several main routes: direct air travel from Tunisia to Turkey; air or sea travel to Turkey via Libya; or air travel to Turkey via a third country. Once in Turkey, facilitators working with jihadi-salafi groups provide logistical support, including lodging and transportation for the journey across the Turkish-Syrian border. These fighter routes are dynamic and shaped by a combination of conditions, including border and visa policies, policing and legal restrictions, and transportation options such as commercial air travel. Individual factors such as an aspiring recruit’s financial means and companions can also influence the path he or she takes.

Since 2011, flows of Tunisian fighters have come in two main waves.

First Wave

From mid-2011 to March 2013, Tunisians traveled relatively freely to Syria via Turkey and Libya. Tunisian authorities at the time had little incentive or legal mandate to stop young Tunisians from traveling to Syria. Meanwhile, prominent Tunisian religious leaders and government officials tacitly encouraged fighting the Assad regime. Tunisian jihadi-salafists also saw their fight as being in Syria rather than in Tunisia during this period. Furthermore, recruits took advantage of a relative lack of logistical barriers. Tunisians do not require visas to enter Turkey, and direct flights on commercial carriers like Turkish Airlines ferried recruits from Tunis to Istanbul, from where they could continue by plane, car, or bus to the gateway cities of Antakya or Gaziantep.

Second Wave

Since March 2013, mounting concern over radicalized youth has forced Tunisia’s government to take a series of steps to choke off the flow of young Tunisians into Syria and Libya. Along with stricter counterterrorism laws, the government has enforced restrictions on the international travel of people under the age of 35, requiring proof of parental permission to leave the country; has increased border patrols; and has built trenches along key stretches of the Tunisian-Libyan frontier. In response, Tunisian recruits have increasingly turned to indirect paths to reach Turkey via third countries. UN investigations have identified Tunisian fighters traveling through North African and Eastern European countries where Tunisians still benefit from visa-free entry, including Morocco, Algeria, and even Serbia. Libya, however, is the most accessible transit stop—and an increasingly popular final destination for Tunisians seeking to join the Islamic State group (ISG).

Tunisian recruits have increasingly turned to indirect paths to reach Turkey via third countries.

Young Tunisians often journey by land across the Tunisian-Libyan border, sometimes at the official Ras Jedir and Dhehiba crossings. Smuggling networks trafficking in licit and illicit goods also facilitate cross-border traffic across the central Jefara region and the vast southern desert. Some Tunisian recruits stay in Libya to train at camps operated by the Islamic State group or other jihadi groups before proceeding to their next destination, which can include returning to Tunisia to carry out attacks, fighting in Libya, or traveling to Syria. From Libya, Tunisian recruits can take sea routes to points on the central and eastern Mediterranean coast or direct flights to hubs such as Istanbul and other destinations as Libya’s beleaguered air routes permit.

Although fighters take similar and overlapping routes to reach jihadi groups, each individual path and story is unique.

Common Routes

This map depicts routes Tunisian fighters and recruits have traveled to reach the battlefield in Syria and Iraq as well as Libya. The data is compiled from a range of sources including the United Nations, governments, news reports, and third-party analysts. It is not a comprehensive representation of all routes utilized by Tunisian fighters, but rather a sampling of paths taken.

Each of the three leading routes—from Tunisia to Syria via Turkey; from Tunisia to Syria via Libya and then Turkey; and from Tunisia to Libya—is illustrated with the biography of a fighter who made the journey. A fourth biography highlights the role Tunisians have played in facilitating recruitment and transport networks.

Primary Transport Route

Secondary Transport Route

  • Click on each fighter to discover more about his journey
  • The Preacher

    • The Medic

    • The Veteran

    • The Prisoner