TUNIS, Tunisia – He is an orphan of the Islamic State group’s self-proclaimed caliphate, a Tunisian toddler who is now caught in diplomatic limbo and has been stuck in a Libyan prison for a year.
Tamim Jaboudi’s grandfather has managed to visit the child twice in the prison in Tripoli, delivering a winter jacket and as much familial warmth as he can manage in the brief meetings. But Tamim barely knows him, and by now can hardly remember his parents — a Tunisian couple who left their homeland to join the Islamic State group and were killed last year in an American airstrike, according to the grandfather, Faouzi Trabelsi.
Living among a group of around two dozen Tunisian women and their young children imprisoned in Tripoli’s Mitiga prison, Tamim is being raised by a woman who herself willingly joined IS, according to his grandfather and human rights groups.
“What is this young child’s sin that he is in jail with criminals?” asked his grandfather, Faouzi Trabelsi, who has traveled twice to Libya to see the boy and twice returned home emptyhanded. “If he grows up there, what kind of attitude will he have toward his homeland?”
European governments and experts have documented at least 600 foreign children of fighters who live in or have returned from IS territory in Syria, Iraq or Libya. But the numbers are likely far higher. In Libya, the fate of 44 Tunisian children is particularly uncertain. The North African nation descended into chaos after the 2011 civil war and has been split into competing governments with numerous militias, tribes and political factions. Militias in December captured the main IS stronghold in Libya, Sirte.
Both Tunisia and Libya say they want the return of the women and children, but for months any effort to hand them over has fallen apart with little explanation. That has raised complaints in Tunisia that the government does not want them back for security concerns. But the militia running Mitiga prison, even as it says it want to hand over the families, has tightly controlled access to them, saying the Tunisians need permissions from the office of Tripoli’s top prosecutor. Part of the problem also appears to be that Tunisian officials are reluctant to deal directly with the militia, since it isn’t a government body.
On Wednesday, a Tunisia delegation was in Tripoli and was supposed to come to the prison, but the visit was cancelled at the last minute, and the delegation returned home emptyhanded.
Tunisia is willing to…