Tunisia continues to send jihadists to Syria, albeit at a slower pace than previously. The promises undertaken by the Tunisian government to try to curb this phenomenon have changed the modus operandi for recruiters and recruits, and slowed its momentum. However the government has failed to completely put an end to the movement, while the suburbs of Tunisian cities became the scenes of widespread enlistment into the ranks of the organization over the past few months, as the Islamic State (IS) spread into cities of the Levant.
While very few jihadists have returned home, the years since the start of the Syrian revolution saw a rise in the number of fighters, who now total around 5,000 Tunisians, joining the jihad (holy war) in Syria and Iraq. The vast majority of them are in the ranks of IS, but also as members of Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham (Islamic Movement of the Free Men of the Levant), with the number of dead among them estimated to be around 2,000.
The above figures come from Tunisian civil society organizations, but Tunisian authorities acknowledge very similar numbers. However, the most important fact in those estimates is that one would be hard pressed to find people in Tunisia who do not have a relative, neighbor or friend who had “emigrated” to Syria. As time has gone by, additional details have surfaced about this phenomenon, while discussions concerning it have gained cohesiveness and insight. There are many who know people who have gone to fight the jihad in Syria, Iraq and Libya, to the point where you are left with the impression that the number of fighters far exceeds 5,000, particularly considering that there are few areas, cities or suburbs that have been excluded from this exodus of young people toward “jihad in the Levant.”
One might encounter a faculty of arts professor who recounts that the brother of one of his female students was killed in Syria, or a journalist who speaks about the cousin of his building’s doorman, or even a businesswoman whose housemaid’s two sons also emigrated. Everyone in Tunisia has stories about the jihad in Syria. Many agents in the security services even have brothers or relatives who have gone to fight in the ranks of takfiri organizations in Syria.
The cumulative effect of this phenomenon has led to some conclusions that could not have been made at earlier stages of this “jihadist exodus,” whether from Tunisia or elsewhere. The jihadists are not necessarily poor, but are often from the middle and lower-middle classes. Furthermore, they are the offspring of a new and corrupt educational system, who left their country at the height of a great upheaval that marred that system — namely the revolution and post-revolutionary regime — from which began the great implicit exodus of social classes, whose relationship with the revolution and post-revolutionary state remained nebulous.
Approximately 60% of recruits left to fight the jihad shortly before graduating from university. Some of them were actually outstanding students. Most became devout Muslims only recently and many lived boisterous lives of drinking and drug taking, only to become religious zealots mere months before leaving Tunisia to fight in the holy war. They began to strictly adhere to religious rituals and advance through the various stages of extremism that culminated in jihad. This occurred within a few months, which indicates that the world in which they previously lived had totally and suddenly collapsed.
Lack of Values
They were not destitute people, as was believed when this phenomenon began to take hold. Most were inhabitants of coastal, economically prosperous Tunisian areas considered to be pillars of the regime of former Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, and that of Habib Bourguiba before him. Meanwhile the inland areas, considered to house the popular base upon which the Ennahda Islamist movement has relied, contributed less in bolstering the phenomenon. In itself, this is an indication that the “jihad in Syria” phenomenon was fed by the total collapse of the economic, social and educational constructs, as well as by the lack of values inherited from the previous regime. No direct relationship existed between jihadist tendencies and the former regime’s values; for, in fact, the connection lay between jihad and the fall of that regime, with jihadists primarily emerging from the latter’s strongholds.
They were the offspring of the educational system that Ben Ali’s regime inherited from Bourguiba’s, as they were the offspring of low-level government personnel, or employees in private companies that thrived on activities created by that regime. They did not believe in that regime, but lived, relatively unharmed, in its shadow. Traditionally, they were not children of Ennahda supporters, with some of them coming from families that supported Ben Ali’s Democratic Constitutional Rally, and others coming from apolitical backgrounds. This in no way meant that Ennahda did not play a part in their espousing the jihadist way, for many indications point to the Tunisian Islamic movement’s involvement in facilitating their exit, particularly when it came to power between 2011 and 2014.
This overview was reached after analyzing personal data collected by the Rescue Association of Tunisians Trapped Abroad on 150 Tunisian jihadists who headed for Syria and Iraq, which included information provided by parents of jihadists in Syria. Amin Alsousi, a retired Tunisian army officer whose son Mohammed died fighting in Syria said: “My son was an outstanding university student. He left for Syria roughly one month before graduating. Prior to totally immersing himself in religion, he was a secretive young man whose relationship with his mother was very strong.” In Alsousi’s words, three key messages emerge that are common to all the descriptions offered by other families about their jihadist children in Syria — that they were superior students who left before graduating and their closeness to their mothers, which suggests that they had tense or nonexistent relationships with their fathers, supplemented, as was the case for Mohammed Alsousi, by them being withdrawn and secretive to varying degrees. Mohammed was withdrawn, while others lived boisterous radical lives that circumvented family and community values until they went off to fight their holy wars; not to mention those who completely forsook family traditions and immersed themselves in their often technical, academically superior lives.
Hassan, not his real name, is a Tunisian man who requested anonymity because his son was in jail. He said that his son went to Syria in March 2013 and stayed there for approximately two months until he telephoned his father and asked him to purchase a return ticket for him via Turkey’s Hatay airport. The boy returned to Tunisia where he was arrested on arrival and jailed for 40 days. But the young man’s enthusiasm re-emerged when ISIS began making progress on the ground in Iraq and Syria. He thus tried to return only to be apprehended, with three of his friends, by Tunisian authorities at the Libyan border, through which they intended to transit on their way to Turkey and, ultimately, Syria.
Hassan recounted how his son, Abdul Rahman, came back from Syria when his fervor for jihad waned. He told his father about Jabhat al-Nusra leaders who joined ISIS and lived lavish lives, while his son’s Salafist friends were scrounging to amass enough money to pay for the cost of airfare to Syria. As a result, the young man grew disillusioned with jihad and returned to Tunisia, where his faith in jihad was ultimately restored. He, like many others who were on the verge of graduating from university, was studying computer science at the University of Tunis in the capital, where he excelled. His father added that a mosque and a computer were all that was needed to recruit his son on two different occasions.
The father of Rashid, a young Tunisian man who left for Syria two years ago and was never heard from again, likes to distinguish between pacifist Salafists present in Tunisia since Ben Ali’s days, and the Salafists who emerged with Ennahda. He cites his neighbor in the Douar Hicher neighborhood as an example of those who are pacifists and do not own a computer, a factor that many parents are convinced is responsible for corrupting their children’s minds. This mosque-computer-Ennahda equation was seemingly a constant source of blame among parents, despite that their children were never members of the Ennahda movement.
The last six months have seen a resurgence of the emigration to Syria. New batches of people have left Douar Hicher, with news reaching their families a few days ago that some had been killed. Nidal Salimi was one of those who died, and a telephone call from Syria informed his parents in Douar Hicher of his death. He was the 24-year-old cousin of Rashid’s mother and had arrived in Syria just a few months ago.
The measures adopted by Tunisian authorities do not seem to have been effective in ending this phenomenon as much as they were successful in impeding it. Getting permission from the parents of young people to travel to Turkey, a condition imposed by the government to prevent travel to Syria, can be circumvented by going to Libya first and then to Turkey. In addition, when measures were taken against people departing for Libya, Morocco — which does not require entry visas for Tunisians — became the transit point on the way to Turkey.
They tried and failed
The inadequate measures adopted by the Tunisian government raise legitimate questions among the parents of departing young people. The large number of those leaving would not have grown as it has had the measures been more serious. Furthermore, Interior Minister Lotfi Bin Jeddo, who retained the post he held in the previous Ennahda cabinet, caused successive uproars about the role played by his ministry in this affair. Despite him stating that more than 9,000 Tunisian youths were prevented from going to Syria, it was revealed that within the last few months alone more than 600 jihadists had traveled there.
Moreover, it was Jeddo who reported the bombshell that more than 1,000 young Tunisian women had returned from Syria where they partook in ‘sexual jihad’ — information that was later disputed when the Minister of Women’s Affairs in the very same government told Al Hayat that the information was baseless and that her ministry had not found any trace of a single women referred to by the minister of interior, while noting that the whole episode was viewed as an attempt to cast doubts on the veracity of the phenomenon as a whole, by spiking it with unrealistic, illogical and improbable elements.
In this instance, computers are playing a role equal to that of neighborhoods, universities and mosques to facilitate the transition of young Tunisians from a certain level of “religiosity” and Salafism to another, entirely new one, as their parents constantly repeat to anyone who asks. These young people are obsessed with their computers, staying up all night and sleeping during the day, as Rashid’s mother said. They also just recently stopped involving their mothers in events in their daily lives, and a few short months later became jihadists alienated from their families. Ahmad, who managed to gain access to his brother’s computer after he left for Syria, said that generally the jihadist recipe begins simmering in the minds of young men when they confess past sins to their clerics, sins that mainly revolve around dating a girl, drinking alcohol or frequenting bars. The cleric then begins to exaggerate the seriousness of those sins, transforming them into unpardonable offenses that the young man must atone for through certain deeds, the culmination of which is to fight the jihad in Syria, as Ahmad discovered on the computer of his brother Rashid.
Universities do not tolerate such bilateral relationships between clerics and disciples, while mosques are monitored by security agencies, particularly following the international pressure put on Tunisia in its capacity as the pre-eminent exporter of jihadists. As a result, this one-on-one relationship between cleric and youth became the best tool for recruitment. In this context, Ahmad learned the identity of the Tunisian cleric involved in his brother’s case, and discovered that he has a son the same age as his brother Rashid, a son who was not sent to fight in the holy war.