Tunisia: A Breeding Ground For Jihadists

It’s seen as the success story of the Arab uprisings. In four years Tunisia has gone from revolution to reform – a stable democracy in a region blighted by conflict.

There may have been bumps along the road but it’s been a relatively peaceful transition culminating in the first freely elected president in the country’s history.

So many are asking why Tunisia is currently the biggest exporter of foreign fighters in the world, with thousands of young men travelling to Syria and Iraq to fight with the extremists.

Khalil (not his real name), 24, says he fought with Islamic State in Iraq’s second city Mosul. Eventually he left, after being shot in the leg during battle.

But Khalil was not recruited to be a fighter. He says he was sought out by the group and offered money for a specific task.

“They told me you are doing something focusing on telecommunications, which is your specialty, so nobody can hack our communications. And in case someone is listening in, you would be notified,”Khalil told Sky News.

“In terms of their structure, it was very strong. Everything was carefully calculated ? even if you were going to the battlefield they would arrange things so a group would fight and another would pray and then they would swap … there were even a group of therapists available.”

Khalil describes himself as a moderate Muslim and admits he was attracted to join IS because it sounded adventurous, but after six months he started having doubts.

The Tunisian government says there are around 1,200 men who have left to fight in Syria, Iraq and now increasingly Libya, while other organisations say it’s more than double that figure.

Tunisia has a history of exporting fighters to other countries like Iraq and Afghanistan. But since the toppling of former president Ben Ali’s regime in 2011, the numbers have spiralled. The declining economy has certainly contributed to this phenomenon but not all the fighters come from poor backgrounds.

Mounir, 19, like hundreds of others here, was radicalised by Muslim preachers in his neighbourhood despite not being particularly interested in religion.

Seven of his friends have died fighting alongside extremist groups, including IS in Iraq and Syria. Although he says he’s never gone to fight, he admits he and his friends do think about it.

“All of my friends have dropped out of school at an early stage. Their understanding of social science, politics, even in religion is very little. Even in schools they don’t teach us about deep religious issues, you study simple Koran verses to please your parents, nothing complicated,” Mounir told Sky News.

Although they are operating less visibly now than in 2012, ultra conservative – or Salafi – mosques and associations in Tunisia actively recruit and traffic young men through a network of intermediaries that facilitate their entry into Syria and Iraq.

Under the 23-year rule of former president Ben Ali,Islamist movements were persecuted, mosques shut down and thousands imprisoned.

Some Tunisians blame the moderate Islamist Ennahda government, which took over after Ben Ali was ousted in 2011, for the spike in numbers of foreign fighters.

They may not have agreed with the former president’s crackdown but are also weary of the influence ofhardliners within the Ennahda party.

One imam taking matters into his own hands is Sheikh Farid Beiji, a moderate cleric. He works with the government to identify extremist mosques and preachers.

For him, deradicalisation is possible by using the Koran to counter extremist ideology, but he admits it doesn’t always work.

“We have studied how to turn young people from violence to non-violence… but for those who have reached an advanced state in adopting Islamic State’s thinking, they don’t listen to anyone,” says Sheikh Farid.

Hundreds of fighters are returning home. A crackdown on so-called extremists under the new president has resulted in mass arrests, but with an increase in attacks on the police, some think the government’s strategy is backfiring.

The heavier the crackdown, the more fuel you give to extremists to recruit young men, especially in prisons.

What’s happening today is sure to have repercussions in Tunisia and elsewhere for generations to come.

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6 March 2015 | 1:47 am – Source: orange.co.uk

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