The Jihadi Factory

Why a suburb of Tunis has become a breeding ground for Islamic State foot soldiers.

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TUNIS, Tunisia — One month ago, Walid, a 28-year-old from the low-income Tunis suburb of Douar Hicher, left his home and family to fight in a foreign war. “He suddenly showed my dad a short-term work contract in Libya,” explains his cousin A.M., sipping coffee with a friend behind the counter of their small tool shop. But Libya wasn’t Walid’s real destination. It was just a way station, a place to link up with fighters of the Islamic State (IS), which has established several strongholds in the country. His final stop was Syria.

Walid is not alone. According to the Tunisian interior ministry and private security sources, approximately 3,000 Tunisians have joined the Syrian civil war, the overwhelming majority of them aiming to fight against President Bashar al-Assad. Soufan Group, a security consultancy firm, notes that this number is starkly disproportionate to the country’s 11 million inhabitants, and suggests that Tunisia has contributed more fighters to IS than both Saudi Arabia and Turkey. It may seem surprising that the Arab Spring’s only democratic success story has produced so many extremists. In fact, the country’s shaky democratic transition may itself be a primary cause. Lacking the heavy-handed security apparatus of an authoritarian state, but not yet strong or prosperous enough to offer its citizens a better life, Tunisia has become fertile territory for extremist recruiters — as demonstrated by this week’s bloody terrorist attack in the center of Tunis, for which IS has claimed responsibility.

Walid was radicalized in a one of his neighborhood’s mosques, say A.M. and her friend, who recall the day when he stopped greeting women. He was groomed, they suspect, by a recruiter from Ansar al-Sharia, a radical Salafist group that has exploited the fragility of the country’s political transition. Post-revolution Tunisia’s shaky security and expanded freedom of religion and speech — after years of forced secularization — enabled Ansar al-Sharia to mobilize its initially small and geographically dispersed constituency of ultra-fundamentalist Salafists.

The group quickly grew strong in Douar Hicher. “Some pupils have left school to join Ansar al-Sharia,” explains Sonia, a 42-year-old English teacher at Khaled Ibn Al Walid, a school just a few hundred meters from the Al-Noor Mosque, one of many that the Salafist group took over after the revolution. “The Salafists have tried to convince me many times,” says M. H., a boy who studies at the school. Some of the students passing in the schoolyard wear traditional Salafist clothing, “They told me: ‘If you go to Syria you can bring 70 of your family members to heaven,’” M.H. said. “They also told me that jihad is an obligation.”

Ansar al-Sharia was deemed a terrorist organization by the Tunisian government in August 2013, and confrontations with security forces have been common in Douar Hicher since the revolution. But this hasn’t stopped the organization’s recruiters from doing their business — locals believe at least 40 of the area’s young men have left to fight in Syria. Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, Tunisia’s pre-revolutionary dictator, had kept a tight lid on Islamists: Many mosques were kept under the eye of the government, and radicals were thrown in jail. But after the revolution, some 2,000 were released. A.M. said that the recruiters came from among their ranks.

Today the neighborhood remains tense. “If you question Islam, you are not Muslim, according to the Salafists,” explains Sonia, who is too afraid to challenge them openly. The school has come under pressure from Ansar al-Sharia, but the government seems helpless to resist. Her husband, also a teacher, was once intimidated by almost 100 Salafists who gathered at the school because he had asked a face-veiled woman to leave the classroom. Luckily, the police came — this time. Since then, the school has requested additional police protection, to no avail. “The police say we ask for too much,” explains Sonia. Meanwhile, the radicals’ influence has not gone away. She can sometimes hear young male students speaking about IS. “They say they are strong,” whispers Sonia, looking over her shoulder as we sit in one of the school’s empty classrooms.

Tunisia’s immature post-revolutionary political culture hasn’t helped. In an interview, security researcher Habib M. Sayah accused some conservative members of Ennahda, the moderate Islamist party that came to power in Tunisia’s first democratic election, of making statements supportive of jihad that could be interpreted as encouraging supporters to travel to Syria to fight Assad. (This can be explained partly by the fact that the Syrian uprising, then in its early stages, was widely viewed at the time as another Arab Spring revolution — not the internecine bloodbath it has since become.) After Ansar Al-Sharia emerged in earnest, the opposition argued that Ennahda had turned a blind eye to the group’s growth in the hope of winning Salafist votes. Ennahda legislator Sayida Ounissi conceded that “Ennahda didn’t really realize the weight of this problem at the beginning.” (In the wake of this week’s terrorist attack, Ennahda quickly issued statements unreservedly condemning it.) Historically, radical Islamism in Tunisia had been fought by heavy-handed repression of civil liberties, and some politicians — themselves subject to repression during the Ben Ali era — were determined not to return to these practices. “The fear was also that marginalizing Salafists could lead to violence,” Ounissi said.

Sonia, the English teacher, emphasizes that socioeconomic factors, such as unemployment and poverty, make people especially vulnerable to jihadi recruiters. After all, this is what drove street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi to immolate himself in 2010, triggering the Arab Spring. And these problems have, if anything, deepened since the revolution. In marginalized parts of the country such as Kasserine and Sidi Bouzid provinces, the starting points of the revolution, hopelessness is widespread.

“The risk is that young people here begin to support terrorism because of poverty,” explains Mohamed Nejibrhimi, who has made a short documentary about terrorism in which he argued that radical groups appeal to the young by offering them large amounts of money. His argument is supported by an unlikely source: an anonymous member of the Salafist party Hizb ut-Tahrir says that the injustice of the current secular system is driving many young Tunisians to join the jihad in Syria and Iraq. “They go looking for alternatives that will preserve their dignity,” he says. “The Islamic Revolution in Syria,” as he describes it, provides an outlet for these feelings.

Blogger and youth activist Aya Chebbi doesn’t want to give the socioeconomic factor too much weight. Her cousin, a young, non-religious student from a middle-class family, became radicalized too. “It all went so fast,” she explains, saying that it took him just three months to decide that he was leaving for Syria. “He started to go to the mosque and wear Salafist clothing and refused to shake my hand,” Chebbi says. She believes that he, too, was wooed by a recruiter. Luckily, his family stepped in, taking him to their farm to remove him from a dangerous environment. He never ended up going to Syria.

The most important role for a recruiter is to convince his targets that they can achieve something bigger and better with their lives, argues forensic psychologist John Horgan, author of The Psychology of Terrorism. These days, the internet and social media can be the most effective way to make contact with impressionable youth — and IS recruiters have become adept at using them. “Facebook is destroying the younger generation and the parents don’t even know about it,” laments Nejibrhimi. A 17-year-old boy in Kasserine explained to him how radicals had reached out to him online. It begins with preaching, propaganda videos and verses from the Quran. Then they ask questions about the military, where the police are stationed, and what the security looks like at different addresses. Soon enough, even middle-class youth may be tempted to join themselves. “The opportunities these recruiters have today are unique,” explains Horgan. “They are bigger than ever in the history of terrorism.”

In the coming months and years, Tunisia will struggle to make progress on democracy. Yet the challenge posed by ruthless extremists — ready to exploit any weakness — will almost certainly remain.

Photo credit: KHALIL/AFP/Getty Images

Correction (August 11, 2015): Due to an editing error, the original version of this story did not properly contextualize the claim that some Ennahda members encouraged their supporters to travel to Syria to fight Assad. This claim was made in an interview by security researcher Habib M. Sayah, as the corrected story now reflects. The story now also clarifies that at the time, the Syrian uprising was widely viewed as another in a series of Arab Spring uprisings.

Christine Petré is editor at YourMiddleEast.com and an independent journalist, researcher and analyst based in Tunisia. Follow her work at www.christinepetre.com and @ChristinePetre.