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The curious case of the Tunisian 3,000

A surge of Tunisian jihadists into Syria tells much about the wider story of violence and politics after the Arab Spring.

Jonathan Githens-Mazer Rafael Serrano Trahaearn Dalrymple
19 July 2014

According to recent reports, some 3,000 Tunisians have become foreign fighters in Syria, joining organisations like Jabhat Al-Nusra (JAN) and the Islamic State (ISIS). Although Tunisia’s population of a mere 11m is sandwiched between two much larger states—the financial and military might of Algeria and resource-rich but chaotic Libya—this implies the country is the largest exporter of jihadists into the Syrian imbroglio.

Some see Islamists in Tunisia as simply bent on perverting democracy in the aftermath of the dictatorship of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. More nuanced analysts, such as Aaron Zelin and the International Crisis Group, see a dialectic. Before the 2011 revolution, the dictatorship precipitated a clandestine turn to Salafism in response to the long-running repression of Islamism. Unencumbered after Ben Ali, the Islamist milieu has presented a “Petrie dish” for radicalisation and a growing cultivation of Salafiyah among the disaffected and the losers from the revolution. Now the genie has been let out of the bottle, with the emergence of the Islamist party En-Nahda permitting the rise of Salafism, whose “rejectionism” can imply a demand for literal imposition of Sharia law and/or commitment to violence against Islam’s “enemies within”.

Yet, scratch the surface of Tunisian political discourse and one finds deep support for accommodation. En-Nahda insists that Salafists need to be included in the political process just as much as “radical syndicalists” (Marxists). And, while part of an ethnically homogenous yet politically heterodox whole, a range of actors—also including former military officers and members of the powerful police unions—seem committed to thinking through what Tunisia will look like in the future via a fundamentally inclusive process.

Indeed, there are relatively successful initiatives bringing together these disparate strands of Tunisian politics, to assuage potentially violent divisions and contribute to the elaboration of the constitution and associated arrangements. True, the implications for constitutional development and political culture may prove painful all round. But, given the deep-seated mistrust stemming from the confrontations during the revolution and the violence of the dictatorship, such dispositions are nothing short of miraculous.

Clear evidence

So, if Tunisia is, according to many on the ground, striving to be a more inclusive state and society, why are so many young men attracted to groups like JAN and ISIS in Syria?

There is little doubt that Tunisians have been taking part in jihadist activities since the 1980s—in Afghanistan, Lebanon, Iraq and the Balkans—and there is clear evidence of their participation in Syria. An article in Al-Monitor in March 2013 cited a detailed report in the Tunisian paper El-Shorouk that dozens of Tunisians had recently been killed in Syria. It noted that most jihadists originated from Ben Guerdane, south of Tunis, in Medenine province near the Libyan border. Al-Monitor reported a reputed claim by the former head of Al-Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi: “If Ben Guerdane had been located next to Fallujah, we would have liberated Iraq.”

Prior Tunisian participants in foreign jihad tended to be firmly middle class and often educated to a relatively high standard. Research on returned Tunisian jihadists had found that recruitment of the poor by such organisations had previously been seen as counter-productive and tactically foolish. But most reports suggest that today’s jihadists have extremely limited education and come from the poorest urban areas.

How many?

It is worth considering the figure of ‘3,000’ itself. This would make the Tunisian component of foreign fighters in Syria not only larger than any Saudi Arabian or Libyan contingent but also larger than any previous Tunisian involvement in other jihadist conflicts. Going by the Sinjar documents dating from around 2005-07, Tunisia had 48 recorded Al-Qaeda-affiliated jihadists in Iraq and, although the actual number may have been somewhat higher, this ranked the country seventh in terms of foreign fighters and well behind Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Algeria and Libya. So the surge of Tunisian fighters in Syria is astounding.

The figure is cited in a Soufan Group report, written by Richard Barrett, and appeared to be corroborated by the Tunisian Interior Minister, Lotfi Ben Jeddou, when he told a press conference on 23 June that at least 2,400 Tunisian jihadists were fighting in Syria. While some have joined JAN, ministry figures estimate that around 80% are fighting with ISIS. The Moroccan Institute for Strategic Studies (CMES) also estimates Tunisian fighters in Syria at around 3,000. While this is assumed to reflect only male participants, some reports cite female inclusion, particularly through recruitment of young women for marriage to ISIS fighters. Others close to the Tunisian Ministry of the Interior however suggest the actual figure may be much lower, in the hundreds rather than thousands.

But let us assume the figure is correct. How then are these 3,000 being explained? According to El-Shorouk, some Qataris are allegedly funneling money to Tunisian NGOs to recruit jihadists and dispatch them to Syria: from a pot in Qatar, these networks obtain “a pledge of $3,000 in exchange for every Tunisian youth who enlists”. Zelin describes the recruitment and patron-client process for some of these young men, who are not just promised money for themselves, should they become foreign fighters in Syria, but also comfort for their families who remain behind. Zelin however suggests that the funding is Saudi rather than Qatari. These accounts mesh well with what is known of recruitment by Ansar Al-Sharia in Tunisia (AST) and participation in militia groups in Libya.

Another factor was the release of 2,000 prisoners in the amnesty which followed the revolution in January 2011—some would go on to form AST three months later. The assassination of two senior secular political figures, allegedly at the hands of AST, was to lead to its proscription as a “terrorist” organisation.

Arresting the flow

There is a second surprising figure: 6,000. It is alleged that 6,000 young Tunisian men have been stopped from travelling to Syria to fight with JAN and ISIS. This appears to reflect a blanket ban on the exit of rural males under 35—more a blunderbuss approach to stem the flow of Tunisians to foreign conflicts than a targeted effort against specific networks or individuals. Yet this story is also confusing. Why ban rural young men from travelling, when Tunisian jihadists are most often described as coming from poor areas of Tunis and other cities?

These young men are reportedly embracing and observing Salafiyah because they perceive themselves as facing “la mort, la mort et la mort”. Death by staying in Tunisia and being without gainful employment or purpose—some researchers find use of marijuana and crack cocaine massively on the rise in these neighbourhoods. Death on the high seas or as an illegal migrant in Europe, with haunting images of bodies washing up in Lampedusa, Malta and beyond. Or an honourable death as “a man”, fighting with moral purpose, assured of spiritual gain—a resonant and potent narrative for recruitment to foreign fighting.

Geography is also part of this story. Sharing a border with Libya and Algeria has posed a series of challenges for Tunisia. With the collapse of Muammar Qaddafi’s regime in 2012, there were stories of massive arms dumps in places like Shousha, the now-closed Libyan refugee camp on the border. With the amnesty for political prisoners in Tunisia after the fall of Ben Ali and the rapid onset of conflagration in Libya, some suggest that old networks, “sleeper” cells and new clandestine organisations were formed to promote Islamist violence in Tunisia and export it to Algeria and Libya—if not beyond. Recently, there have been violent confrontations in Mount ChaambI and Selloum, again reported to involve Salafists who cross the border with Algeria at will.

Partial truth

There is truth to each of the explanations of Tunisian jihadism, yet each is a partial truth. Undoubtedly, post-revolution Tunisia has opened new and different spaces for Islamist activism, yet this is not an undifferentiated “radicalisation”. Indeed, it has forced the activists to come to terms with their respective positions and what it means to “do politics” in the current environment.

At the same time, there is no doubting the appeal of the dignity of jihad to the urban disadvantaged—and the economic benefit that they, their families and communities glean from participation as foreign fighters. Sociologically, the source of this alienation and disaffection needs examination: why do these young men, so much at the centre of the revolution, feel so remote from its results? Tunisia’s proximity to conflict and a global discourse of jihadist “cool” and “honour” subject it to strong push and pull factors towards potential violence.

So the curious case of the Tunisian 3,000 is about more than an exodus of fighters to Syria. It is a portal to the trials and tribulations of a post-revolutionary region, buffeted by the wider politics of Islamism and state recalibration in the 21st century.

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