Tunisia’s 'Road to Jihad' in Syria Paved by Muslim Brotherhood

Although the Tunisian government has taken measures to prevent citizens from traveling to Syria in order to fight, the government’s own policies have often facilitated this process.

al-monitor A supporter holds a Syrian opposition flag during a demonstration at the Ennahda party "Youth Festival" organized by the Renaissance Movement at the Conference Palace in Tunis, Dec. 23, 2012. Photo by REUTERS/Anis Mili.

Topics covered

turkey-syrian border, tunisian mosques, syrian crisis, jihadists in syria, islamic state of iraq and al-sham, global jihad, ennahda party

Oct 23, 2013

Today, "jihad in Syria" represents one of the most prominent forms of the political divide in Tunisia. The state that gave birth to the Arab Spring is now the nation that sends the most fighters to Syria. In the capital and in remote southern and central villages, there are thousands of families whose young men have traveled to Syria to participate in "jihad." Everyone you meet in Tunis has relatives, acquaintances or neighbors who have traveled to northern Syria via Turkey.

This issue is not limited to a specific social class. Though true that the poor regions were the first to send residents to participate in jihad, they were followed by hundreds of technical-university graduates from the middle and upper-middle classes. And while it was the southern Tunisians who first traveled to Syria — given that this region in the traditional base for Islamists — they were followed by residents from central and northern Tunisia. Residents of these regions even surpassed the south in enthusiasm, and now the far northern city of Bizerte has transformed into the capital of "mujahedeen in Syria."

During the first days of the recent Eid al-Adha holiday, Ayman Nabeli left his home in the city of Tabalba in the central Monastir province to participate in "jihad" in Syria among the ranks of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). Ayman is one of thousands of Tunisians who left for jihad in Syria. While Tunisian Interior Minister Lotfi Ben Jeddou said that authorities had prevented about 6,000 young Tunisians from traveling to Syria via Turkey in the last six months, thousands of others headed to Syria before the authorities issued their decision to restrict travel. Moreover, the delicate procedures that prevented 6,000 Tunisians from going to fight jihad are not sufficient to put an end to this "fire." These procedures ban any young man under the age of 25 from traveling to Syria's neighboring countries without official permission from his father.

However, it is very easy to forge parental permission. And there is something more effective than fraud, especially since there are transnational Salafist networks standing behind this phenomenon that have significant financial capabilities and field experience. The road from Tunisia to Libya is open to everyone, and the latter includes Salafist training camps to prepare jihadists before heading to Syria.

Yet Ayman's story did not begin when he sent his family a message using his Tunisian cellphone, saying: "I am in Libya searching for work, I'll talk to you later." Nor did his story end when he sent them a second message from Syria, using the same phone, saying: "Peace be upon you ... How are you? Thank God, I've arrived in Syria and I am doing well, living in bliss and pride. As the Messenger of God said, 'Jihad is one of the doors to heaven that displaces concern and worries.' I'll talk to you soon. If you want to know how I'm doing, follow ISIS's news releases. Don't believe the false and hypocritical media outlets."

Ayman's brother said he doubted it was Ayman who wrote the second message, since the language seemed unlike Ayman. According to his brother, Ayman's phone is likely in the possession of a Tunisian Salafist, and al-Qaeda asked him to send it. Ayman's trip to Syria was the final step on a track that began before the Tunisian revolution. According to his brother, he began to show signs of religiosity in 2009. However, he did not become very religious until after the revolution.

The youngest of his brothers

Ayman was born in 1986 and was the youngest of eight children. He studied economics and worked briefly as an importer. In the days of former President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, Ayman did not exhibit signs of religiosity, aside from performing prayer and a fleeting relationship with his mosque. This did not raise the ire of the family, especially given that his household was traditionally religious. His brothers and sisters fast during the holy month of Ramadan, pray and the women wear headscarves after the age of 40. However, they wear the traditional headscarf, considered illegitimate within overly religious circles.

After the revolution, the young man began to change. He became a Salafist. He grew out his beard and wore a "religious" robe. He began frequently watching Al Jazeera and spent long hours in front of the computer screen. He avoided speaking to his older brothers and only made short conversation with his mother. He also spoke occasionally with his young sister and pushed her to wear a full facial veil. 

The Tunisian elections were held and the Ennahda Movement (the Muslim Brotherhood) won and formed a government. This coincided with major changes that began taking place in Tunisia. Most notably, Salafists attacked many mosques and removed imams who had been appointed by the minister of religious affairs. The Ennahda government decided not to oppose the Salafists, and Ennahda leader Rachid al-Ghannouchi even said that the Salafists reminded him of his youth.

The Al-Iman Mosque is located near Ayman's house in the city of Tabalba. The Salafists removed the mosque's imam, who was a graduate of Zitouna University, and replaced him with a taxi driver who had transformed into an imam following the revolution and goes by Abdulrahman al-Maroui.

Following Ayman's disappearance, his father issued a complaint reading, "My son, Ayman Benomar Nabeli ... has ties with a group of young Salafists. They are terrorists who work with the Al-Iman Mosque in Tabalba and the Fatima al-Zahara Mosque in Sahloul. They are an interconnected network, the members of which have seized [control] of these two mosques for terroristic purposes. This is all done under the supervision of a man named Abdulrahman Mohammed al-Maroui, who gathers the youth, brainwashes them and sends them to a recruitment center in Benghazi, Libya.

"They then undergo training and are sent to Syria. ... These people have prevented normal worshippers from entering the mosque after they seized it. My son Ayman is not the only one, there are many such cases from Tabalba and other cities. It is worth noting that two other families issued complaints against Maroui, accusing him of sending their sons to Syria."

Ayman's brother says that no one has summoned Maroui to investigation, despite all these complaints.

The authority’s tolerance

Ayman’s brother explained the details of complaints filed by the family to official bodies, which served to uncover the degree of tolerance shown by the Tunisian authorities, led by Ennahda, regarding the thousands of Tunisian youth who had left for Syria. He recognized, however, that these details alone did not corroborate the contention that there is a direct relationship between the Ennahda authorities and the emergence of Tunisian jihad in Syria.

Throughout the first Ennahda government, led by Hamadi al-Jabali from December 2011 until February 2013, jihad in Syria resembled more closely a national sport played by young men from Salafist mosques right under the noses of Ennahda. Turkish Airlines flights from Tunis to Istanbul transported Salafists embarking on jihad in the same way it might with a sports team. During the flights, they sang their anthems and gave sermons. Mohammed al-Jalassi, who took a flight to Istanbul during that period, said that jihadists refrained during the flight from proudly sharing the story of their trip.

This trend did not stop with the inauguration of the second Ennahda-led government under Prime Minister Ali Laarayedh, who had been the interior minister in Jabali’s government. The story shared by the brother of Ayman, who left during the term of the current government, is probably but one example of the dozens of cases seen by Al-Hayat.

Ayman’s family went straight to the closest police station on the very morning they received their son’s message. The officer at the station told them he would call them back, but he never did. Ayman’s older brother called the police, who said that the case had been moved to the anti-terrorism team. Nobody called, however. The family went in person to the central police department and requested an investigatory dispatch. Nobody took their call. They then submitted a petition to the prosecutor of the republic at the Court of First Instance against the imam of the mosque, Abdulrahman al-Maroui, along with two other families whose members had traveled to Syria. The prosecutor replied that he requested that police investigate Maroui, but that Maroui did not respond to the summons. 

Unexecuted decision

If the decision to dissolve Ansar al-Sharia was one that the Ennahda government found to be inevitable amid intense pressure from the opposition, carrying it out has been ineffective beyond pursuing the organization’s major figures. Their names have been given in investigations on assassinations, while the other names have remained with the head of the organization, which was spread throughout mosques in Tunisia. It is worth noting that Ansar al-Sharia and similar groups have spread their influence throughout Ennahda-dominated electoral districts without creating any friction between them.

In the suburbs of Tunis, especially in Tadammon and Dawr Hayshir, Ennahda won the elections and sent out jihadist-Salafist sheikhs who had just been released from prison. In the suburb of Dibuzfil, Ennahda garnered the highest percentage of votes. Salafist sheikhs established a quasi-emirate there, edging out the police and imposing what has been called the “Salafist police.”

It is from within these Ennahda regions that the trend of leaving for jihad in Syria emerged. This was facilitated by Ennahda weakening the state institutions it had inherited from Ben Ali. The weakness of the state as an authority governed by law is what distinguishes the suburbs of Tunis. Ennahda compensates for this weakness through its political presence as well as its presence in the street and in jihadist-Salafist mosques where the leadership was changed.

The obstacle-free path from Tunisia to Syria passes through a second Brotherhood gateway in Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Turkey, which has made no effort to limit the passage through its territory. Tunisian mujahedeen must go through at least two Turkish airports in order to reach the Syrian border. Turkey’s compliance with the mujahedeen has become unwavering. The families who despair their sons’ travels have never once mentioned in their accounts that their sons were stopped, arrested or pursued in Turkey, no matter the jihadist brigade to which they belonged.

The connection between the two Brotherhood gateways in Tunisia and Turkey may seem to be conclusive, though it represents an inescapable conclusion in light of the many realities of jihad in Syria. Turkey’s silence is indeed reason to be scared, particularly since the countries that have invested in global jihad have not survived their recent withdrawals. The regime in Syria previously made its cities a crossing point for mujahedeen to Iraq, only to find itself now both funding them and fighting them at the same time. Pakistan also embarked down this path and bore the same fruits, as did Yemen and Egypt.

What is heard in Tunisia, be it from the political opposition or from Ennahda’s government partners, all points to Ennahda and Turkey's ignorance. Both cross through Libya where Abdel Hakim Bilhaj has established military training camps for mujahedeen passing through, before being transported to Istanbul on Turkish planes and then Gaziantep or Antakya.

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