The Tunisia Conundrum: Sowing dictatorship, harvesting terrorism

A Tunisian protester in March 2015 carrying a poster speaks that says "no fear and no terror" and reaffirms “Tunisia will be protected by its people”. The years immediately following the 2011 revolution have been tense years as extremists mounted violent attacks on security and military personnel but gradually expanded this to political activists, civilians and tourists, and diplomatic property. ©Al-FAnar Media

Hanny Megally

Why is Tunisia producing the world’s largest numbers of jihadi foreign fighters when the country is seemingly the one success story emerging from the 2011 Arab uprisings? It is a conundrum that has confounded analysts not least because the answers have been very contradictory. Delving back into Tunisia’s modern history may help in contextualizing the answer to this question. It points to decades of heavy-handed top down secularization policies, oppressive human rights practices, a mismanaged economy that privileged the few and neglected large parts of the country, and bad neighbors. Ultimately, as Rachid Ghannouchi the head of the En-Nahda party, a leading Islamist partner in the governing coalition and the largest political force in the country with about 80 -100,000 members, put it “ if you sow dictatorship, you harvest terrorism”.

What is so confounding about the data?

If as UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon notes in his Plan of Action to Prevent Violent Extremism “we know that extremism flourishes when human rights are violated…. political space is shrunk”, this does not seem to match the profile of post-2011Tunisia. According to Freedom House, it had become by 2015, “the Arab world’s only free country”, with many restrictions on freedoms lifted and a greater openness to participate in political processes. Yet according to the Soufan Group, out of a global figure of around 30,000 foreign fighters from about 86 countries who have gone to Syria and Iraq to join the Islamic state or other violent extremist groups fighting there, Europe as a whole has produced around 5,000 and Tunisia 6,000 (though Tunisians authorities put the number around 3000).

Some analysts have sought to interpret these figures in a positive light, as an indication that Tunisia’s pluralistic society is hostile to extremists. They argue such militants cannot get a foothold or a base in the country and so are mostly fleeing abroad. They point to how civil society has strongly come together in a number of mass protests to condemn political violence - for example after the assassinations of two prominent political opponents – Chokri Belaid and Mohamed el Brahmi, in February and July 2013, or after the attacks on foreign tourists at el-Bardo National Museum and at a beachside resort near Sousse killing over sixty people. Others, however, argue that the numbers of foreign fighters are only the tip of the iceberg, pointing as examples to an Ansar al-Sharia rally in 2012 in Kairouan which drew some 10,000 followers, or to the large number of Islamist radicals in detention (estimated around 12,000), and of course the attacks on the Museum and the hotel and the assassinations as evidence to the contrary.

Finally, there is the argument that following the fall of Ben Ali in 2011 the transitional government was weak and divided and there was a collapse in the security apparatus, as a result those so inclined were easily able to travel (as compared with other countries in the MENA region where potential fighters were stopped from leaving). This is again countered by those who hold the view that security forces are still powerful, for example turning back some 15,000 to leave, seekingarresting 100,000 in the first six months of 2015 and utilizing an ongoing state of emergency and a strict anti terrorism law.

The reality is there is some truth in all of these explanations. Why?

The roots to violent extremism in Tunisia go back decades

Two caveats to begin with. A wealth of information has been developed around the key factors or drivers that may lead to an environment conducive - a bit like an incubator - to turning individuals to terrorism or violent extremism. While this is essential groundwork, it is still a fact that that too many assumptions have not been rigorously tested and more empirical and evidence based research is needed. Otherwise we would be counting violent radicals in the tens of millions and not in the tens of thousands.

Additionally, radicalization in itself may not necessarily lead to violent extremism or to negative outcomes. Many radical movements in the past have brought about important positive changes and reforms. The issue is radicalization that leads to violence and the data about why particular individuals living in the same environment become radicalized and resort to violence while others do not remains sparse.

These caveats also apply to Tunisia, but what we do know is that the phenomenon of individuals going abroad to fight in “just wars” goes back a number of decades and should not be read as something that has arisen out of the new “democratic Tunisia”. Research shows that Tunisians were going to fight with the Afghans against the Soviets in the 1980’s or in Bosnia against the Serbs in the 1990’s. The US invasions of Afghanistan in 2001 and in Iraq in 2003 appear to have been turning points with increasing numbers of Tunisians going to wage “jihad” abroad. In those days there was no Islamic State or Daesh but there was al-Qaeda and its affiliates. The Sinjar documents, the cache of al Qaeda personnel data discovered in the fall of 2007 by U.S. forces in the northern Iraqi town of Sinjar, show that Tunisians were present in Iraq, mostly coming via Syria, though when some were denied access through that route they ended up in Lebanon at the Nahr al Barid refugee camp (joining Fath al Islam there). Research points to Tunisians being present among the very early foreign fighter networks arriving in Iraq and that Ansar al Sharia emerged from among Tunisians imprisoned in Iraq.

Why was this happening?

There is no one explanation but a combination of reasons has been put forward as to why radicalization and travel to fight abroad was happening in the decades before the 2011 uprising. Many of them relate to frustrations arising from grievances and resentment about political repression, absence of freedoms, economic neglect and marginalization. But there are also strong elements of a search for identity, religion and meaning in life, and of exploitation by radical recruiters promising solutions, financial gain or a role in fighting back against the West. This is all very similar to experiences related in other countries where people have turned to violent extremism. More specifically:

  • The sometimes heavy handed secularization policies from above during President Habib Bourguiba’s 30-year rule (1957-1987)- banning headscarves, abolishing religious courts, placing mosques, including al Zeitouna, under government control, nationalizing religious endowments, introducing secular universal education –jarred with religious sensibilities and conservative attitudes. Islamist recruiters exploited the resentment against these policies.
  • The progressively oppressive human rights policies of Ben Ali’s 23 years of rule (1987-2011) - arbitrary imprisonment and untried detention; unfair trials; torture, restrictions on freedoms of expression and association - produced resentment, and even more so among Islamists after they did well in the 1989 elections and were then specifically targeted by the regime. Rachid el-Ghannouchi and some En-Nahda leaders were forced to flee into exile. Thousands of suspected Islamists and returnees from Afghanistan and Iraq were also imprisoned during this period (leading to further radicalisation processes and relationship formation in detention). Ben Ali then followed this up with stricter state control over mosques, education system and dress code. Conservative headscarves for women were banned; men with long beards were frequently harassed.
  • The rampant corruption and unfair distribution of wealth in the country despite the glowing reports coming from the UN on how Tunisia was achieving its MDGs and was “far ahead in terms of governance, effectiveness, rule of law, control of corruption and regulatory quality”. According to a World Bank study in 2014, 21 per cent of the country’s private sector GDP was in the hands of Ben Ali and his clique.
  • The neglect by the central government of parts of the country, even while Tunisia was supposedly meeting its MDGs was quite evident. The contrasts between the developments in coastal places like La Marsa or Carthage and the hinterland close to Algeria or Libya’s borders was stark. An estimated 92 per cent of Tunisia’s industrial production is concentrated in three urban coastal areas: Tunis, Sousse and Sfax, leaving the country's western regions economically deprived. Many of the Tunisians foreign fighters tracked in the pre-2011 period came from these marginalized inland parts of the country, along the Algeria border to the West, the Chambi mountains or the Libya border to the south east - including places like Kasserine and Ben Guerdane.
  • Neglect also included poor slums and neighborhoods of the major cities like Douar Hicher on the west of Tunis or Sejnane in Bizerte.
  • The absence of decent jobs, particularly for those with a higher education. Job creation did not keep pace with population growth but additionally, thanks to free access to higher education, the number of university graduates coming into the job market rose from 11% in 2000 to 33.2% by the end of 2013. Basically the situation was “the higher the education level a person has the lower the probability of finding work”. Educated Tunisians were twice as likely to be unemployed as uneducated ones because the economy created so few professional jobs.

Geography also appears to have been a big factor. Being neighbours of Algeria (which until 2014 was the bigger challenge with infiltration into Tunisia of foreign fighters affiliated to AQIM, - who formed the “Uqba ibn Nafi” brigade, the biggest armed group in Tunisia at the time – and out to Europe and on to Turkey) and Libya (which more recently has become the biggest threat both in providing training grounds for Tunisian fighters, routes to Syria, and routes back to Tunisia for IS-linked groups) has helped facilitate this travel. Research has also found links with smuggling of contraband such as cars, cigarettes, oil and arms.

Pre-2011 one could point to areas from the western border areas of Jebel Chambi to the Libya border areas of the south east where repeated examples of neglect, social unrest and contraband smuggling lead to migration but also to foreign fighters following similar routes. Additionally, tribal and family connections influenced this process so that once one family member left others followed, and in some cases whole families were documented as having left to join the Jihad.

If you sow dictatorship, you harvest terrorism

Ben Guerdane in the province of Medenine is a case in point. It is a mainly tribal community of around 79,000 people. It is conservative and religious but not historically known as a hotbed of extremists or radicals. That, however, began to change after the 2001 attack on the world trade center in New York and really took off after the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Here we see a combination of recruitment drives taking advantage of outrage at events broad, unrest about the worsening economic situation, anger at the state’s repressive policies in putting down protest and easy access to routes for slipping way to join the Jihad. Despite its cultural vitality and natural wealth (ACRPS) it was marginalized in Tunisia’s modern history with little agricultural or industrial investment. Sitting near the border with Libya made travel easier and there is a long history of smuggling (petrol, consumer goods and post 2011 human trafficking and weapons smuggling) and shadow economy. Large protests had been happening pre-2011 after economic decisions by the central authority based on a worsening of political relations with Libya. One was the switch to greater reliance on the maritime route between the ports of Sfax and Tripoli, reducing the land route via Ben Guerdane. Another was the tax imposed by the Libyan authorities on imports of around 150 dinars (then about 80 Euros); and third was the retaliation by Tunisia in imposing import/export licences for anyone selling Libyan goods. This effected livelihoods in Ben Guerdane and protests about growing unemployment erupted openly on several occasions. As a crackdown followed, and particularly targeted bearded men and Salafis the numbers leaving grew.

People interviewed from Ben Guerdane speak of youths and others “disappearing” individually or in groups and later it becoming apparent they had gone to fight in Iraq. Leaving was a conglomeration of those going to join a just cause, those fleeing state repression and those seeking economic opportunities abroad. In 2007 a prosecutor general referred ten Tunisians to trial caught fighting with Fath al Islam. Eight of them were from Ben Guerdane

What changed after 2011 and the fall of Ben Ali?

With the “ Jasmine Revolution” two separate and opposite processes began unfolding in the country. One process was taking the country towards greater openness and freedoms and another was seeking a take it towards strict application of the Sharia, restrictions on behavior and dress and on the role of women.

The first process saw Tunisians elect a president, voted for a representative parliament, form a technocratic government, adopt a constitution and establish a transitional justice mechanism. But while these were given the highest priority in terms of efforts to bring about change and progress – and involved much debate and negotiation – there was a failure to adequately address the economic promises of the revolution, something I will come back to later.

The second process needs a bit more elaboration. Initially there had an immediate lessening of the Ben Ali era restrictions on freedoms of expression and association, and there was a temporary collapse in the functioning of the security apparatus and in overall surveillance. An early visible outcome was the increased appearance in the public domain of bearded Salafis, who until then had been working underground fearing state repression, and of women wearing conservative head scarves - something that in the Ben Ali era was frowned upon.

An amnesty in 2011 released more than 2,000 prisoners, including suspected Salafis and Jihadi leaders who had returned from fighting global jihad in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. They included the likes of Abu Iyad al Tunisi, a founder of Tunisia’s Ansar al Shariah, who in the year 2000, while fighting in Afghanistan, helped found the Tunisian Combat Group - an al Qaeda affiliate calling for regime change in Tunis. He escaped Bora Bora in 2001 with Ben Laden but was later captured in Turkey, handed over to the Tunisians and subsequently tortured, then in 2003 sentenced to more than 40 years imprisonment.

Soon black flags began appearing on buildings in some of the slum areas around Tunis and other cities. Over time, these Salafi extremists (who were essentially opposed to parliamentary elections - which they saw as maintaining the old regime ways - and calling for an Islamic insurrection) were going beyond proselytizing to seeking to impose their ways and beliefs. They did so by taking over hundreds of mosques and kicking out Imams, trying to enforce Islamic dress codes in the streets, ransacking stores selling alcohol, attacking cultural events and even desecrating Sufi tombs.

At first state policy was at best more accepting of these actions or at worst too weak or divided to act on them. The En-Nahda party, a leading Islamist partner in the governing coalition and the largest political force in the country with about 80 -100,000 members, argued the Salafis as well as the radical syndicalists (extreme leftists) should be included in the political process and not ostracized.

But 2012 and 2013 were tense years with the country watching these two seemingly inexorably oppositional processes developing alongside each other. When the security apparatus began to act against the Salafis, they complained that the old order was back pointing to the use of arbitrary detention and torture. Some mounted armed attacks on security personnel - which brought further security restrictions and surveillance on their activities - and eventually on non-military personnel, such a the political activists Chokri Belaid and Mohammad Brahmi, tourists at el Bardo museum and at a resort hotel in Sousse, and diplomatic property such as the ransacking of the USA Embassy.

En Nahda, was gradually getting blamed for these violent actions. EnNahda and the Salafis had spent time together in detention and shared many common experiences, which partly explains the slowness to react. But as the violence increased and the targets became civilians and tourists, it eventually took the step in 2014 of banning Ansar al Shariah as a terrorist group. With the ensuing state crackdown, which saw more than 100,000 arrested in the first half of 2015; many Salafis went underground or left the country, some heading to Syria. In his in-depth analysis on “exporting Jihad” in the New Yorker George Packer quotes Mohamed, a local from the poor Douar Hicher district of Tunis. He relates how once the crackdown began many of the disenchanted youths whom he had grown up with began to leave. “Ninety per cent have , and not to Italy. They went to Syria and Iraq”. He goes on “two weeks ago, thirty people disappeared from here” - on the run from the police. He gave the main reasons for them going as “marginalization and joblessness.

The failure to seriously tackle the economic situation has been admitted by Ghannouchi as one of the reasons En Nahda lost in the 2014 elections. More attention had been given to political reforms and the constitution and less to social and economic issues. The revolution had raised expectations that were then frustrated, creating a conducive environment for radicalization. The Salafis were playing on the aspirations that were unfulfilled by the revolution.

So to review the post 2011 period and answer the question as to why even more Tunisians have been departing to fight a jihad abroad:

  • Initially a lifting of restrictions allowed groups like the Salafis to come into the open and to proselytize and exercise their newly acquired freedoms of expression and association. This coupled with a temporary breakdown in the functioning of Ministry of Interior and in the security services, made it easier for recruits to travel to join the Jihad in Syria.
  • The reason for the increase in numbers of radicals or Jihadis amongst Tunisian Salafis trying to impose their views on behavior and dress code relates to the role of the returnees from Jihads in Afghanistan and Iraq and their interface with local Salafis calling for change at home. That radicalization process was happening in the prisons during the Ben Ali era and took off the once they were all released in the October 2011 Amnesty.
  • The resort to violence, and particularly the attacks on civilians, tourists and politicians lead to increased repression by the state, including by declaring a state of emergency and the banning the Ansar al Sharia in 2014 and promulgating a strict Anti Terrorism law in 2015. Those who did not go underground were soon leaving the country.
  • Events next door, after the fall of the Qaddafi regime brought a proliferation of arms to the Tunisian-Libyan border. Libya was lawless and a terrain for Tunisians to find safe haven, to train before going to Syria or to plan and prepare for return to Tunisia equipped to bring down the system of governance.
  • The tough structural steps needed to improve Tunisia’s economy have not been taken. Five years after the revolution national unemployment rate is 15.3% but goes up to 32% for the under 25’s. That number is even higher in the west and south of the country. More than one third of the 650,000 unemployed are graduates according to Zied Ladhari Employment Minister. The wide disparities between the wealthy coast and the underdeveloped hinterland remain stark.

Kasserine, 30 kilometers from the Algerian border and close to the Chambi moutains paints a similar picture to Ben Guerdane. The population is about the same size and it lies on the smuggling route, bringing in cheap petrol from Algeria. A fifth of adults in Kasserine are involved in the contraband trade. Analysts point to symbiotic smuggling and terrorism networks on the Algerian border with jihadists controlling routes and levying taxes on contraband such as drugs or weapons. Official figures for unemployment in May 2015 were around 20.6 per cent virtually unchanged from pre-2011.

If we return to Ben Guerdane in 2016 we will hear that the USA is helping the state to build a berm on the Libya border, directly imperiling their smuggling and, in their eyes, cutting off livelihoods. On March 12, the Tunisian newspaper El-Shorouk released a detailed report, citing the Asia News Agency, stating that dozens of Tunisians had recently been killed in Syria. It included their names, their pictures, and their home provinces, as well as the places and dates of their deaths in Syria. It noted that most jihadists originated from the town of Ben Guerdane.

A few new elements have also crept into an individual’s calculation about joining the Jihad abroad, namely the lure of financial support ($3,000 a month), the promise of property, positions of authority and power, and the excitement of being a part of something being created in Syria/Iraq (the Caliphate) that holds the promise of solving all the problems the region has faced.

Perhaps one last factor to put on the table is the evolution of En Nahda party, under the leadership of Ghannouchi, something which came to fruition last month at the party’s Congress in Hammamet when it took the historic step of separating the party’s religious, cultural and social mission from the party’s political activities, in essence creating a political party that is separate from the religious organization or movement. Under Ben Ali the party was banned and Ghannouchi fled the country. After 2011 the party was legalized and then won a landslide election to get to power. Since then the party has been evolving as Ghannouchi put it “from defending identity to ensuring the democratic transition and arguing that mosques should be completely neutral and play no role in politics.

Its pragmatic approach lead to compromises in the drafting of the Tunisian constitution that now does not mention implementation of al-Shariah and bans polygamy. That evolution also saw En Nahda defend, then tolerate, then move away from and finally ban Ansar al Sharia in 2014 when the latter resorted to acts of violence.

Many rightly see this evolution as having prevented the democratic transition in Tunisia from coming apart, but it may also have lead to some, perhaps only a small minority, of it conservative/religious supporters drifting to the right as they and no longer see the party as representing their ideals.

So how is all of this useful for dealing with violent extremism in Tunisia?

A central theme in the UN Plan of Action to Prevent Violent Extremism is the call to member states like Tunisia to develop national plans, policies and strategies with the promise of an “All United Nations” support to help them do this. However, knowledge gaps will need to be plugged in two key areas for this to work effectively for Tunisia.

First, information about what programmatic responses developed by other states facing similar challenges should be made more readily accessible. Tunisia should not be starting from scratch or inventing the wheel. There can be no template approach, but Tunisia can benefit from looking at other relevant experiences around the world and lessons learned from them and the UN from its vantage point should be globally collecting, comparing, analyzing and providing this information in a useful form. It has not been doing this in any systematic way so far, neither for Tunisia nor for anyone else.

Second, there is very little solid information about what programmatic responses to violent extremism have actually worked or which have not and why. At a time when resources are limited no nation can afford to try everything set out in the menu proposed by the UN Plan of Action and hope some of it will work. This requires an investment by the UN and donors into evidence-based field research and in comparative analysis to learn much needed lessons so we avoid wasted resources and repeating past mistakes.

To close, key grievances that may have radicalized young Tunisians before 2011 had to do with the economic situation, the neglected regions of the country and the state’s repressive human rights policies. The World Bank report of 2014 pointed to key structural weaknesses that need tackling if there will be headway on unemployment and a decrease in the neglect and marginalization of large parts of the country. Progress on rights issues has been impressive and dramatic, but risks being undermined by the “war on terror” and how the state of emergency and the Anti Terrorism law are enforced.

The good news is that most Tunisians have shown time and again that they want to pursue the peaceful path of transition that is currently underway and do not want to resort to violent means to force a particular change. The formation of the National Youth Initiative Against Terrorism is one expression of this affirmation for peaceful transformation. The ability of En Nahda to evolve and to compromise may be another. The massive demonstrations against terrorist acts are also strong indicators. We should also note that despite the deep resentment against the state for cutting off their livelihoods and not prioritizing their economic needs, when in March this year supporter of the Islamic State came across the border from Libyan seeking to establish a base in Ben Guerdane it was the local population that rose up against them and worked with the security forces to defeat them.

Hanny Megally is a Senior Fellow at the Center on International Cooperation. | Twitter: @hmegally