A driving force behind the fight against terrorism,

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The Tunisian-Libyan cooperation at an impasse

Souheil M’dimegh

Lawyer and researcher

Translated into English by 

Hatem Laouini

University professor

The document we propose to analyze for the purposes of this paper is the report drawn up by a Tunisian mission to Libya charged with repatriating the children of Tunisian terrorists currently living in the neighboring country. The five-page report, intended for the Tunisian Minister of Foreign Affairs, is initialed by Mr. Tawfik Gasmi, Consul General of the Republic of Tunisia in Libya.

The mission was composed of a representative of the Ministry of the Interior, the Director of Cooperation at the Tunisian Consulate, a pediatrician, a representative of the Ministry of Health, the General Delegate for Child Protection (DPE), a representative of the Office for Tunisians Abroad and four social workers.

The mission was carried out from April 17 to 20, 2017. The meeting with the Libyan Deputy Minister General of Justice, on the second day, immediately brought to the forefront a disagreement between Tunisians and Libyans on what is now called the “Children’s Dossier”, a dossier that stands at the intersection of security, justice, politics and technicality and that requires a great deal of cooperation between the two parties. However, this cooperation never materialized.

The Tunisian humanitarian mission whose sole purpose was to repatriate the children of Tunisian terrorists was faced with the much weightier dossier of regional and international cooperation in the fight against terrorism. The report notes that the mission has failed on two levels: the humanitarian level (I) and in respect of the cooperation in the fight against terrorism between the two countries (II).

I. Failure of the humanitarian mission: Repatriating the children of Tunisian terrorists

The mission to repatriate the Tunisian children was carried out at the official invitation of the Libyan authorities, through the Libyan Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation. The children were detained in the prison of Mitiga in Tripoli and in a care center in Misrata, probably with their mothers, who were themselves detained.

The meeting was held at the headquarters of the Libyan Ministry of Justice on April 28, 2017. Disagreements between the two parties quickly emerged on the modalities of repatriation of the children.

  1. For the Tunisian side: the repatriation of the children of Tunisian terrorists is a purely administrative matter

For the Tunisians, the repatriation of these children is a purely administrative question that should be settled in accordance with the usual repatriation procedure: consular documents, an administrative decision, official accompaniment of the repatriated children and the provision of psychological and social care. The composition of the mission clearly indicates this understanding of the nature of the task at hand. Indeed, the mission had no members representing the Ministry of Justice or any other judicial bodies.

The sole mandate and powers of the members of the mission were therefore purely administrative.

2. For the Libyan side: the repatriation of the children is a judicial and police matter.

The Libyans, as for them, considered the question from a judicial perspective, which, they argue, requires legal cooperation between the two countries. Indeed, it was necessary to establish the filiation of the children, something that could be carried out only before the courts. 

In the case of children likely to have been born to terrorists, the intervention of the Technical and Forensic Police Department to provide accurate evidence to the judiciary regarding the filiation of the terrorists held in Libyan prisons was required. For the terrorists who had died, their corpses needed to be examined by the Forensic Police. 

The presumed terrorist mothers or fathers of the children who were to be repatriated to Tunisia were either dead or detained in Libyan prisons. The markedly administrative mandate of the Tunisian mission clearly obscured these dimensions, while the Libyan side put strong emphasis on them.

  • Deceased terrorists

120 corpses of suspected Tunisian terrorists in Libyan morgues since 2016

In order to identify these 120 corpses, it is necessary to take and analyze DNA samples from them. Since terrorists use war names, it would be difficult, if not impossible, to know who they are exactly if they lose their lives.  

The cooperation of Tunisian forensic medicine to the identification task, in addition to helping with establishing filiation, is paramount to the fight against terrorism. Only under such circumstances would it be possible to trace back the journey of Tunisian terrorists and to unveil the people and networks that recruited them as well as their modus operandi.

  • The allegedly Tunisian terrorists: 80 men and 22 women affiliated with ISIS

A group of allegedly Tunisian terrorists, 80 men and 22 women, are detained at the Mitiga prison in Tripoli and at the Misrata detention center. To establish filiation, DNA testing is needed. However, no matter how low the number of women is compared to men, it stands as evidence not only to women’s presence in terrorist organizations, but also to the fact that entire families are affiliated with terrorism. Indeed, some of these families were formed by individuals after they joined the ranks of the terrorist organization while other already established families became at some point affiliated with ISIS, a sign of the growing impact of the terrorist ideology among Tunisians. The Ministries of Interior of Libya and Tunisia need to cooperate tightly to establish the identities of these terrorists. How did they cross the borders? The answer to this question will make it possible to trace back the terrorists’ route across the common border,  

In addition, it was necessary to seek the opinion of the foster mothers who looked after the children, if necessary.

The Libyan side has proposed to Tunisians that they participate in the entire judicial process in Libya for the establishment of filiation. This would mean that Tunisian judges, technical and forensic police and forensic doctors take part in the work to be done.

Both the procedure and its outcome, i.e. repatriating the children or handing them over to the mothers having custody, would be carried out in accordance with the law and the relevant international conventions.

Pending the response of the Tunisian side regarding judicial cooperation for the establishment of filiation, the Tunisian delegation was expected to visit the children.

II. The predictable failure of regional cooperation in the fight against terrorism

Even if a terrorist group may operate in a specific country without crossing the country’s borders, it oftentimes does not operate in isolation. Indeed, terrorist groups have links with other similar organizations and swear allegiance to regional and international terrorist networks. In exchange for this allegiance, these networks finance the local terrorist groups and provide them with logistical and technical support, particularly in respect of recruitment. In this regard, regional and international cooperation is fundamental.

  1. Crucial regional and international cooperation

In this meeting, the Libyan side revealed information that could have been crucial for the fight against terrorism in Tunisia.

Indeed, the Libyans claimed to be in possession of:

  • Several pieces of information on ISIS, its activities in Libya and the neighboring countries, and the networks recruiting terrorists to Libya.
  • 600 SIM cards owned by Tunisian terrorists. These cards could provide information about networks unknown to the Tunisian authorities and about planned terrorist attacks in Tunisia and abroad, as well as provide access to secret information and unveil possible complicity with parties or personalities in Tunisia. Be they audiovisual or not, these call data require cooperation with the Tunisian authorities to be deciphered.
  • Information about Yassine, alias Abu El Bara Ettounsi, a terrorist classified as dangerous by the Tunisian authorities, and a native of the El Khadra neighborhood, who may have returned to Tunisia after he had spent some time in Libya where he almost got arrested by the Libyan authorities.
  • A sound recording of Abu Baker El Baghdadi the former ISIS leader urging his Tunisian troops to stop carrying out suicide bombings in Libya pending a Fatwa to move the battle to Tunisia, described as the “Impure Land ” in the sense used by the Islamist Abu Baker Neji in his book ” The pure soul and the attack in Riyadh”. The appointment of Jalel Eddine Ettounsi, in charge of terrorist operations in Africa, was a harbinger of upcoming attacks in Tunisia, including the attack on the city of Ben Guerdane on March 7, 2016.
  • Data on the movement of terrorists on the Tunisian border. Not much detail was provided by the Libyan side, though. This information could however have shed light on the attack on Ben Guerdane.

2. The reasons for failure

Libya has demonstrated a willingness to cooperate on judicial, police, and security issues related to Tunisian terrorists and to terrorism in general. The repatriation of the children of Tunisian terrorists could have been a prelude to prompt and effective cooperation in the fight against terrorism.

This Libyan offer of cooperation was met with the silence of the members of the Tunisian delegation who invoked their purely administrative mandate. However, a case so closely linked to the fight against terrorism could not be resolved by a Tunisian delegation that has no decision-making powers.

Clearly, the position of the Tunisian mission amounts to a refusal to cooperate which could could be accounted for by an intention to cover up high-level complicities with terrorism. Indeed, investigating the ins and outs of the recruitment and sending of Tunisian terrorists abroad, particularly to Libya, proved impossible, partly for these reasons.

Cooperation with the Libyan intelligence services could have helped to prevent, among other things, the attack on Ben Guerdane, and would have enabled the judiciary to identify the terrorists not known to Tunisian authorities. It could also have helped to cross-check information in respect of ongoing cases and to supplement the missing information for others. This is all the more important given that the Tunisian judiciary does not possess any data other than that obtained from the confessions of terrorists during their interrogations.

Cooperation between the two countries, a driving force in the fight against terrorism in its security, judicial and humanitarian aspects, did not see the light of day at the end of this children-repatriation mission, mainly because of the lack of will of the Tunisian authorities.


In conclusion, we could point out the functional and structural failures of the Tunisian institutions in charge of the fight against terrorism at the regional and international levels, the overlapping mandates of the various bodies in charge of the fight against terrorism and the lack of cooperation between them. The failures were also noted at the level of political, diplomatic and security decision-making. To make things worse, the unofficial, parallel interventions further fudged the issue and more often than not contributed to undermining Tunisian national security.

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