More than 5,000 Tunisians are currently fighting for al Qaeda and the “Islamic State.” Extremists have been especially successful at recruiting youth there. Sarah Mersch reports from Tunis.
“He said he was going to spend the night at a friend’s house. A day later we received a text message that he was in Syria.”
Iqbel Ben Rejeb’s voice trembles as he recalls the day in March 2003 when his younger brother Hamza vanished. The programming student had been contacted by the Nusra Front and traveled to Syria via Libya. He was told he could manage the Qaeda affiliate’s websites. Hamza is physically disabled and uses a wheelchair to get around.
“I feared they wouldn’t have time to take care of him,” Iqbel remembers. “I thought they would stick a bomb to his wheelchair and blow him up.”
Hamza’s family was able to save him and get him back to Tunisia. Soon thereafter, Iqbel founded a group to help other Tunisians who were stuck abroad get home – and to prevent others from being brainwashed by extremist ideas.
Radicalization after revolution
In the 1990s, some Tunisians went abroad to fight in conflicts in Afghanistan, Chechnya and elsewhere. After the country overthrew the strongman Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in 2011, however, the number of Tunisians who have joined terrorist organizations has increased dramatically.
Historian and security expert Faysel Cherif says there are two main reasons why Tunisia produces so many extremists, and both are directly connected to the political upheaval of 2011. “Many people want to spread the euphoria that came with the revolutions of the Arab Spring to countries where this didn’t happen,” he says. Cherif adds that not all Tunisians were radicalized before they left the country.
At the same time, extremists in Tunisia began the process of radicalizing young people after the Arab Spring. Most of the leading minds here had been detained during the Ben Ali era and were freed during the prison breaks and amnesties of the revolution.
The recent terror attacks on the Bardo museum in Tunis and a hotel in Sousse, in which dozens of foreign tourists were killed, illustrate the dangers posed to the country by radicalization.
Recruiters are paid between $3,000 and $10,000 (2,700-9,100 euros) for each new person they sign up, according to information gathered by the United Nations. According to the Tunisian government, actions are already underway to hinder the recruiting process, including targeting mosques where radical preachers are known to disseminate their views.
The Tunisian government has also taken repressive measures. More than 15,000 suspected extremists have been monitored since the beginning of the year, according to officials, with 700 added after the Sousse attack. Tunisians under the age of 35 are no longer able to travel freely to Libya, Turkey or Serbia, typical transit countries to Syria and Iraq.
“We need a real strategy,” the security expert Cherif told DW. “You can throw a hundred people into prison, but the machine will continue to run. Before you know it, 2 … 3 … 4,000 more will be spit out.”
The greatest challenge will be to come up with a long-term strategy that will prevent young Tunisians from being attracted by extremist ideology. This has even been recognized by the head of the Tunisian government.
“We need to create jobs, especially for people living in rural regions,” Prime Minister Habib Essid said, admitting that prospects for many young Tunisians are limited. “Young people have to be economically independent to resist these extremist currents. We are progressing, but slowly.”
In September, the government will organize a congress for government institutions and civil society that will address the issue of radicalization of young Tunisians.
Iqbel Ben Rejeb’s younger brother Hamza refuses to speak about what he went through in Syria. “But he was the one who came up with the logo for our group,” his brother says with a proud smile.