Self-proclaimed “caliph” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s call in June for Muslims worldwide to pledge allegiance to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria has been heeded by numerous Tunisians.
While chaos engulfs much of the Middle East, Tunisians in 2014 alone passed a “progressive” constitution, elected a new parliament, and will choose a president.
However, some 3,000 Tunisians have flocked to Syria to fight against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, a large number of them joining ISIS or other extremist groups, the Washington Post reported.
This figure means that Tunisia, though praised for its democratic transition, is the largest exporter of ISIS fighters. Tunisian terrorism experts cite deteriorating security as the chief reason.
Security and politics
“Some people limit the reasons to economic and social factors,” Ahmed Nadhif, a journalist whose work has involved many encounters with Tunisian militants, told Al Arabiya News. “But the economic and social situation in Tunisia isn’t worse than that of other countries.”
Going to conflict zones for “jihad” is not a completely foreign concept for Tunisians, Nadhif added.
Tens of Tunisians were documented to have fought in Afghanistan in the 1980s and 1990s, in Iraq following the U.S.-led invasion, and during the civil war in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
However, numbers skyrocketed after the Tunisian revolution because the “state lost its central power,” Nadhif said, adding that many Tunisians are currently fighting in Libya and Algeria but are unaccounted for.
Relying on intelligence and force, the regime of former President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali was able to curb extremism and recruitment cells in Tunisia, a country usually known for its tourism and secularism.
However, “intelligence and surveillance programs were disrupted after the 2011 revolution,” said Dr Alya al-Alani, an academic and expert on Islamist movements.
“Around 90 percent of the 3,000 Tunisian ISIS fighters entered Syria during the Troika rule,” said Alani, referring to the Islamist-led coalition government that navigated Tunisia through its transitional period from Oct. 2011 to Jan. 2014.
“The Troika government didn’t have a clear strategy toward the Salafist jihadist movements,” he said.
It was only after the caretaker government of Mahdi Jomaa took over in Jan. 2014 that going to Syria became criminalized, he added.
Some analysts say Ben Ali’s two decades of dictatorial rule might also be a reason for the surge in militancy.
“Tunisian youths were deprived of expressing their beliefs and ideas, and of performing their religious rights,” said Dr Abu Yareb al-Marzouki, a Tunisian philosopher and expert on Salafist movements.
After the revolution, many Tunisians were no longer scared to express their ideological beliefs.
More women began to wear the full-body cloak, and more men grew their beards – seldom seen under Ben Ali.
Religious preachers such as Egyptian Wajdi Ghoneim, who is often accused of glorifying terrorism, were also allowed to give lectures in Tunisia for the first time. “In their own ways, they’ve encouraged the youth about jihad,” said Alani.
Nadhif said the absence of regulations over “hate speeches” and “incitement to violence” allowed the “Salafist jihadist discourse to have a place in society and in public podiums, such as the mosque or even newspapers and TV.”
He added: “I’ve encountered cases where a person becomes ideologized, travels to Syria to fight and gets killed, all in one month.”
The state only acted after “it was too late,” and after tens of Tunisians were killed, Nadhif said.
“The scenario is almost identical in most cases. The person starts adhering to a new set of ideas, they start frequenting the mosque, then they meet someone who suggests sending them to Syria to fight,” he said.
“Some are escaping reality. They want to die and get into heaven. It’s suicide covered in a religious cloak.”SHOW MORE