The Geography of Discontent: Tunisia’s Syrian Fighter Dilemma

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 12 Issue: 20

Nidhal Selmi, a former professional soccer player who was recently killed in Syria. (Source: BusinessNews.com.tn)

In June, Tunisia’s interior minister said that at least 2,400 Tunisian jihadists are fighting in Syria. The majority of them, about 80 percent, are allegedly fighting within the ranks of the Islamic State organization, previously the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), although some of them have joined Jabhat al-Nusra, the other major jihadist actor in Syria. Earlier in February, the minister said Tunisian authorities had prevented a further 8,000 people from traveling to Syria, while some 400 Tunisians had already returned from fighting there (AFP, June 23). However, this is still only a partial picture: in October 2014, the number of Tunisian jihadists rose to 3,000, making them, by far, the largest contingent of foreign fighters who have joined jihad in Syria (DirectInfo, September 2). Tunisian authorities are now increasingly involved in prevention activities. In early October, security forces dismantled a recruitment network in Bizerte made up of six people operating in the areas between d’El Alia and Ras Jbel (Africa Manager, October 2). This is only the last operation carried out by the authorities. The prime minister of the Tunisian caretaker government, Mehdi Jomaa, has revealed that Tunisia has arrested about 1,500 alleged terrorists in 2014 (Reuters, October 10).

Tunisia has a history of jihadists active abroad. Tunisians were the two militants who killed Ahmad Shah Massoud, the famous anti-Taliban leader in Afghanistan, just two days before 9/11. They were linked to the Tunisian Combatant Group, a group established in 2000 by Abu Yahd (a.k.a. Seifallah Ben Omar Ben Hassine, the future leader of Ansar al-Shari’a, who was arrested in Libya in very unclear circumstances in December 2013) and Tarek Maaroufi in Afghanistan. [1] Tunisians were fighting in a number of other jihadist theaters such as Iraq, Somalia and Mali. As such, the presence of Tunisian jihadists in the ranks of global jihad is nothing new. What has changed now is the scale of this phenomenon, since Tunisians represent the largest national group within the ranks of jihadist organizations fighting in Syria.

The Path to Radicalization

The profiles of most of these jihadists are similar: young adults aged 17 to 27. Many of them are university or high school students, but some are civil servants (Middle East Online, October 10). Although it is possible to profile the average Tunisian jihadist in Syria, there are also a number of examples of jihadists who did not fit these categories. Tunisian fighters in Syria come from a variety of socioeconomic backgrounds, For instance, Nidhal Selmi, a former footballer who played for the Etoile sportive du Sahel and the national team, was killed in Syria in October 2014 (BusinessNews.com.tn, October 16).

Tunisians have often blamed the process of radicalization on the revolution as many mosques have fallen into the hands of radical imams. Shortly after it took office, the new caretaker Tunisian government stated that up to 1,100 mosques, out of the 5,100 in Tunisia, were in the hands of radical imams. In June, the caretaker government announced a plan to regain control over these rebel mosques. A commission created under the control of the Ministers of Religious Affairs, Interior and Justice will examine all mosques already under observation and will appoint new imams, who would need to receive accreditation from the Minister of Religious Affairs in order to preach (La Croix [Paris], June 23). These extremist imams became radicalized in the jails under Ben Ali and during their periods abroad, especially in Afghanistan and Iraq. In many cases, these two processes converged, as many Tunisians fighting abroad were jailed once they returned home (as was the case for Abu Yahd, who was arrested in Turkey in 2003 and extradited to Tunisia). [2] Once the revolution erupted, many of these radical militants were released from prison during the March 2011 amnesty and were able to deepen their presence in the society. This led to a marginalization of the local versions of Islam, which were much more syncretic, tolerant and less radical than the Salafi purism and jihadist maximalism that had developed in the Islamic world over the past two centuries.

Jihadist Recruitment as a Response to Marginalization

In the specific case of Tunisia, wider regional and global dynamics interact with a number of local elements that are fundamental to understanding the rising radicalization of significant groups of Tunisians. The 2011 revolution that led to the overthrow of Ben Ali was prompted by the suicide of a street vendor in Sidi Bouzid, an extreme protest triggered by the dissatisfaction with the government and humiliation that the average Tunisian suffered under the pervasive control of the security forces at that time. Sidi Bouzid is one of the areas in Tunisia with a stronger radical Islamist presence and is emblematic of the kind of marginalization and alienation that some interior parts of the country suffer. The socio-economic polarization between the north (a network of major urban coastal centers) and the south (a loosely connected network of rural centers and small villages) is a well-known reality in Tunisia and one of the structural causes underlying the 2011 revolution.

This socio-economic cleavage also had a number of political consequences: the ruling elites were very much linked, economically and politically, to the interests of these coastal areas. As such, the interior has suffered for years of serious neglect that has widened this gap. A visible paradigm of this cleavage is the declining state of infrastructure as one moves from the northern coast of Tunisia to the interior of the country. The success of the revolution triggered high expectations from the disposed peoples of these regions, but they were soon disappointed. This further disillusionment has created the cultural and social conditions for the radical message of new imams and groups to spread. Ben Gardane, geographically the farthest Tunisian city from Tunis, is considered the core of the jihadist recruitment network. It is a coastal town in southeastern Tunisia, based in the Medenine Governorate, and is close to the border with Libya. This border has increasingly become a major problem for Tunisia, as weapons, fighters and illegal goods have inundated Tunisia from Libya. Interestingly, Ben Gardane’s extreme distance from the capital (559 kilometers by road) has become a symbol of the distance between the center and Tunisian periphery. It shows that – in the marginalized and peripheral areas of the country far from the relative stability of the center – there is a latent social crisis and jihadist recruitment and journeys to Syria are a major flashpoint.

The Speculations on Ennahda

According to media investigations, the significant outflow of Tunisian jihadists toward Syria can be explained as the result of a pact between Ennahda, the major Islamist political party, and Salafi organizations, whose broker was Said Ferjani, a notable Ennahda politician. The rationale, according to the Tunis Tribune, was a sort of political exchange following the troubles created in Tunisia by the attack against the U.S. Embassy in 2012: go to Syria to fight Bashar al-Assad if you do not want to spend the rest of your life in prison. This plan has been carried out with Qatari and Libyan support, with a number of Islamist Libyan groups providing training for those Tunisians willing to join the ranks of jihad in Syria (Tunis Tribune, May 26, 2013). The existence of a sort of “tacit agreement” between Ennahda and radical Tunisian Salafist groups has always been discussed in Tunisia, but in this specific case, journalistic speculations aside, elements that would visibly support the idea that Ennahda had a role in this process are still missing. Yet, this strategy appears to be politically feasible; a policy of turning a blind eye could explain why such a tiny country as Tunisia has provided the largest group of jihadists fighting in Syria. Indeed, one of the most striking differences between the new caretaker government and the previous one led by Ali Larayedh – one of the key figures of Ennahda – has been their diverse approaches toward the issue of Tunisians flying to Syria. While the new government has made preventing Tunisians fighting abroad a significant priority, Larayedh was instead criticized for the laxity of his government toward this significantly growing phenomenon. Larayedh responded, “there are Tunisians who travel to another country, such as Libya or Turkey, officially for work or tourism, and then move to Syria. We do not have the right to impede this” (Kapitalis, March 25, 2013).

Conclusions

Tunisia, similar to other countries who experienced violent turmoil and regime change during the Arab Spring, has struggled to get back on track. For now, the polarization and fragmentation of the political environment remain significant; the economy struggles to stay afloat and local crime is on the rise in Tunis and other urban centers. Nevertheless, Tunisia is in a much better situation than regional fellow countries as its political transition has been fairly successful. Yet, the increasing presence of radical militants, and their narratives, and the peaks in political violence the country has experienced raise concerns within the wider political spectrum.

The strong presence of Tunisians in the jihadist ranks in Syria does not have a single explanation. It can be rather understood through a number of concurrent explanations. On the one hand, Tunisia has experienced what many other countries have experienced: some of its citizens, like many Europeans and Asians fighting in Syria, has found in the fight against Bashar al-Assad, depicted as an enemy of Islam, a way to make sense of their lives. Economic problems alone are not enough to explain why these people have joined the war in Syria although there a number of other factors to take into consideration on a social and psychological level. This frustration is exploited by radical preachers, whose cross-cutting, simple and direct messages provide these people with relief for their insecurities and existential problems.

This radical rhetoric, as well as the rising tension between Ennahda and the groups to the right of it politically, brought the government headed by Ennahda to list Ansar al-Shari’a as a terrorist organization in 2013 and to adopt a more resolute stance against it (BBC, August 27, 2013). This evolution in Ennahda’s approach showed the recognition of a problem. Despite all the shortcomings, Ennahda remains a rather pragmatic actor, whose primary aim is to avoid the marginalization it has suffered under the Ben Ali regime. As such, in order to reduce the threats to its renewed post-revolutionary political centrality, it had to curtail some of its links with Salafi groups, as their radical stances were detrimental to the interests of the party. In this sense, turning a blind eye to the moves of Tunisian jihadists fleeing the country to go to Syria could be consistent with the need to reduce domestic troubles and the pressure that Ennahda may face from its right side. However, while the causes for this strong Tunisian presence in Syria may be several, in the long-term the return of further radicalized, and trained jihadists, will pose a strong security threat.

Dario Cristiani is an adjunct professor in international affairs at Vesalius College in Brussels and a senior analyst at the Global Governance Institute.

Notes

1. Please see http://www.un.org/french/sc/committees/1267/NSQET9002F.shtml.

2. Ibid.