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Soon after former dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali was overthrown in January 2011, Tunisia became the biggest per capita exporter of jihadist fighters in the world. United Nations (UN) experts estimate that more than 5,500 Tunisians joined al-Qaeda or the Islamic State (IS) group in Syria, Iraq and Libya. Some observers fear that the real figure is higher.
Tunisia is now bracing for the return of hundreds, and possibly thousands, of these fighters following the crushing defeat IS has suffered across the region. After much debate, Tunisians remain polarized over what to do with them once they come back.
President Beji Caid Essebsi has already taken the bold step of signing a controversial counter-terrorism law that dramatically increases state surveillance. Rights groups say that the move is neither productive nor does it respect civil freedoms.
Ridha Raddaoui, who co-authored a report on terrorism in Tunisia by the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights, has lobbied the government to implement a rehabilitation program, with the goal of helping jihadists to reintegrate into society. He stressed that hyper state surveillance and threats of imprisonment were “pushing jihadists away”.
The threat of state reprisal, he argued, could deter thousands of fighters from coming home, entrenching them deeper in terrorism networks abroad. The worst scenario, of course, would be if fighters carried out attacks once they return to Tunisia, as some did in 2015 at a beach resort and the Bardo Museum in the capital Tunis.
Tunisia’s political class seems to have arrived at the same conclusion. In early September 2017, the country announced the launch of a de-radicalization programme, though its contents remain shrouded in mystery.
Alessandra Bajec, an Italian journalist who has followed the issue, wrote that many intellectuals and civil society activists refuse to accept the return of jihadists. Many have even advocated stripping fighters of their nationality or jailing them for life. While the former is unconstitutional, the latter requires the state to build court cases against fighters, which is difficult without obtaining concrete evidence of the crimes committed.
Unlike many people from Tunisia’s coastal cities, communities in the impoverished interior and southern regions are welcoming the return of foreign fighters, who largely come from these areas. Ben Guerdane, a city on the Libyan border, is one notable example. The town’s inhabitants have long been neglected by the state, leaving them susceptible to jihadist recruitment.
During the American occupation of Iraq, thousands of men left Ben Guerdane to join al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), the precursor to IS. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who was the group’s leader at the time, allegedly said that if Ben Guerdane had been located next to the Iraqi city of Fallujah, AQI would have “liberated” the country from American forces.
But Ben Guerdane is in Tunisia, where homegrown jihadists pose a serious security threat to the country. On 13 March 2016, dozens of insurgents stormed through the city, hitting police officers and soldiers. The fighters, who pledged their allegiance to IS, tried to take over the city but failed. By the time the battle was over, 36 insurgents and 12 security personnel had been killed.
“Most of the [fighters] were from Ben Guerdane, we know their faces. They knew where to find the house of the counter-terrorist police chief,” one inhabitant, Sabri Ben Saleh, told Reuters. “They were driving around in a car with weapons, my neighbours said they knew some of them.”
Like most towns away from the coast, the lack of opportunities in Ben Guerdane has pushed many young men to look for a living wage or sense of belonging by taking up the extremist cause.
That is precisely why Elissa Miller, a non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, argued that any rehabilitation programme must also address the structural inequalities that leave Tunisians susceptible to extremism. The programme, she suggested, has to run parallel to policies that improve the economy in impoverished regions.
“What good is rehabilitating these youngsters and taking them back to the same situation from which they came?” Miller said in an interview with the Italian online platform Aspenia. “There needs to be changes to the social and economic status of the country’s disenfranchised areas.”
Equally important, she said, is for the government to communicate the importance of a rehabilitation programme to its citizens.
Some have already tried. In 2014, Tunisian filmmaker Youssef ben Ammar documented the fate of families whose sons joined extremist groups abroad. His film focused specifically on one family, whose 16-year-old boy Seddik became a jihadist in Libya.
Ben Ammar wanted to challenge the prevailing view that runaway fighters should be treated as terrorists and prohibited from coming home. What about boys like Seddik? Should they be treated as terrorists too or runaway children? he wondered. The film hinted at the idea that a wider rehabilitation programme was needed.
Aitemad Muhanna-Matar, assistant professorial research fellow at the London School of Economics Middle East, is also concerned for young Tunisian jihadists. She conducted research with 28 Tunisian Salafi youth between 2014 and 2016, and found that all of them voluntarily renounced their violent beliefs in favour of a more pragmatic Salafi stance that supports political engagement.
Drawing from her research, Muhanna-Matar advised the state to psychologically support young men and children who are probably traumatized by the brutality they witnessed or committed. Others, she noted, may be devastated that the dream of a caliphate has been destroyed.
She further recommended that the Tunisian government solicit the advice of various specialists, including experts in jihadist ideology. Despite the crimes that many of the young fighters have committed, a rehabilitation programme would have to be careful not to stigmatize them but empower them socially and economically to transition into normal lives.