The Canadian government is confirming that one of its citizens is being held in Tunisia, weeks after reports emerged that the man was detained after trying to reach an Islamic State foothold in Northern Libya.
Reports emerged before the new year that a Canadian man was arrested in the southern desert city of Tataouine, possibly to meet with a militant commander that was waiting for him across the border.
"We are aware that a Canadian citizen has been detained in Tunisia," a government spokesperson told VICE News. "Canadian officials in Tunis are in touch with local authorities and are providing consular assistance."
Citing privacy concerns, the government refused to disclose further information.
If the reports are correct and the Canadian man was trying to join IS in Libya — not in Syria or Iraq, where the ranks of Islamic State foreign fighters are concentrated — it could mark a new phase in the Islamic State recruitment strategy and an effort to send fighters to a location far from the so-called caliphate's core holdings.
It is still uncertain at this point, however, if he was trying to join the Islamic State affiliate in Libya or another group with Islamist affiliations, Fajr Libya.
The reports claim the Canadian was a recent convert to radical Islam and intended to use the Dehiba border crossing in Southern Tunisia to enter Libya, before he was apprehended by local authorities.
The Tunisian government has not replied at the time of publication to a request for confirmation from VICE News.
According to Tunisian news outlet Kapitalis, the Canadian was arrested on December 22.
"The suspect indicated to the police that he was doing his studies in Islamic and Arabic countries, and that he had no ties to terrorism. He, however, finished by admitting that he planned to reach Nalut, where a Libyan Jihadist commander was waiting to take him to a terrorist training camp," reads the unconfirmed reports in French. The report specifically names "Daesh" — the Arabic acronym for Islamic State, also known as ISIS or IS — as the group the Canadian was looking to join.
Two local news outlets in Tunisia also carried the reports on Thursday, one citing local police forces and the other relying on a statement from the Tunisian interior ministry. They both report that the Canadian was apprehended after he tried to elude security forces at the border.
The al-Wasat news outlet, citing Tunisian local radio, reported the man was 30 years old and said he travelled with only a small bag and no passport.
The news reports said the man gave up his travel itinerary while under interrogation, and that he will be transported to Tunis for further questioning.
His final destination was reportedly Nalut, a western Libyan city with a large Berber population and the site of fierce fighting between rebel forces and Qaddafi loyalists during the civil war in 2011.
According to Agence France-Presse, Nalut is controlled by Fajr Libya — an alliance of militias opposing the internationally recognized government of Libya. The city is some 400 miles (650 km) from IS-controlled territory on the northern coast of the country.
The Islamic State established its first stronghold outside of Syria and Iraq in February of this year, in the coastal Libyan city of Sirte. The Wall Street Journal reported the IS force in the North African country has grown from 200 fighters to 5,000 since its establishment and is generating oil profits.
It is unclear whether or not Kapitalist confused the Canadian intending to join "Daesh" forces or another jihadist militant group in the area. Fajr Libya is known to have Islamist radicals among its ranks, but is an enemy of the Islamic State in Libya.
If the reports are true, the man isn't the first Canadian to travel to Libya to pick up arms, according to Amarnath Amarasingam, a post-doctoral fellow at Dalhousie University in Halifax and an expert on foreign fighters. Most others, however, went there for "more nationalist reasons," he says, during the civil war that engulfed the country amid the fall of Muammar Qaddafi.
"With this particular case, it is difficult to tell whether this Canadian is part of some antiquities smuggling operation or whether he is going to join the jihad. There seem to be mixed reports. While the description of him in the Tunisian and Libyan media as a 'convert' likely means he's white, little else is known about him," says Amarasingam. "I'm not really sure what to make of his confession either."
However, the influx of Canadians to jihadist groups has become a growing headache for the Canadian government, he said.
"This is part of a much bigger problem, of course — the role of Canadians in conflicts abroad, and more specifically the role of Canadians within terrorist movements abroad, from Somalia to Syria, and many countries in between. We have signed international treaties promising to keep a check on this kind of thing, but the challenges remain."