Hazem Al Amin

Tunisia’s jihadists: sons of
a nation in transition

Salafist Tunisian students. (AFP/Fethi Belaid)

TUNIS - Tunisia is still sending jihadists to Syria, albeit at a more modest rate than before. Promises made by the Tunisian government to work on restricting the phenomenon slowed the initial surge, but have not brought it to an end. Over the last few months as the Islamic State (ISIS) overran opponents in Syria and Iraq, Tunisian suburbia has seen a wide ranging movement of enrollment into the group.


As few Tunisian jihadists have returned to their homeland from their wars in foreign lands, their numbers abroad have steadily increased since the beginning of the Syrian conflict in 2011. Today, approximately 5,000 Tunisians are “waging jihad” in Syria and Iraq. The vast majority of them are fighting with ISIS, while a smaller number has joined the Al-Nusra Front and Ahrar al-Sham. Approximately 2,000 of these Tunisian jihadists have died in combat in Syria. These numbers come from Tunisian civil society organizations, while state authorities admit to figures that are almost as high.


However, what is more important than these estimates is that you rarely meet anyone in Tunisia who does not know of a relative, neighbor, colleague or friend who has “immigrated” to Syria. With the passage of time many details connected to this phenomenon have become clear, and discussion of the subject has become more coherent. The large number of people with acquaintances who have gone on “jihad” in Syria, Iraq and Libya indicates over 5000 Tunisians went to fight in Syria. It is rare to find an area of Tunisia where there hasn’t been a case of a young man who went to Syria. 


You can meet an art-college teacher who tells you that the brother of one of his female students was killed in Syria, a journalist who tells you that the janitor in his building had a cousin who met the same fate, or a businesswoman who says her housekeeper’s two sons went off to fight. Everyone here in Tunisia has a story about “jihad” in Syria. There are even many “security agents” - the name given to people working in Tunisia’s intelligence agencies - whose brothers and relatives have gone to fight with takfiri groups in Syria.


The phenomenon’s accumulative effect has made it possible to observe new factors that “going abroad for jihad” did not witness in the past, either in Tunisia or elsewhere. The new jihadists are not poor. Hailing from middle or lower middle class groups, they are the sons of a modern and corrupt education system who left the country at a time when that system was going through a momentous upheaval brought by the revolution and the post-revolutionary state. The large movement out of the country that took place under the rule of the post-revolutionary state seems almost like a disguised expulsion of groups whose relation to the revolution and what followed it remained uncertain.


Almost sixty percent of them left for “jihad” shortly before they were due to graduate from university, and they were not poor academic performers. On the contrary, some of them were distinguished students. Most had recently devoted themselves to religion, and many of them had lived a wild life of alcohol and drug consumption. They devoted themselves to religion only a few months before leaving Tunisia for “jihad,” becoming more attached to rituals of piety and accelerating their progression from one phase to another until reaching the climax of “jihad.” This process unfolded over a few months, suggesting that the world they were living in before devoting themselves to religion must have collapsed completely during that short period.


A search for values


These youths are not destitute paupers as we previously thought when the phenomenon began to take shape. Most of them have come from Tunisia’s economically successful coastal areas; the areas that the Ben Ali regime, and the Bourguiba regime before it, counted upon as the main support base for their rule. Meanwhile, the inland areas, which are seen today as the Islamist Ennahda movement’s support base, have made a smaller contribution.


This is also a sign that the “jihad in Syria” phenomenon has been fueled by the complete collapse of an economic, social and educational system, and by a lack of values in the wake of the former regime’s demise. However, this certainly does not mean that there is any direct correlation between “jihad” and the values of the former regime. It means there is a correlation between “jihad” and the collapse of that regime, as for the most part the jihadists came out of that regime’s strongholds.


They are the sons of the educational system Ben Ali’s regime inherited from Bourguiba’s. They are also the sons of low-level civil servants and employees in private companies that made their money from jobs the regime institutionalized. They did not believe in the regime, but they lived under its rule without incurring any great damage. They are not traditionally the sons of pro-Ennahda families; some of them belong to pro-RCD families (former supporters of Ben Ali’s party the Constitutional Democratic Rally) and some of them are from families that were not politically active in the past. This certainly does not mean that Ennahda had nothing to do with their decision to “wage jihad.” In fact many signs suggest that the Tunisian Islamist movement helped facilitate their departure, especially during the time it was in power between 2011 and 2014.


These brief impressions are the result of reading the profiles of 150 Tunisian jihadists who went to Syria and Iraq. The profiles were put together by the Rescue Association of Tunisians Trapped Abroad, an organization that includes several families of jihadists in Syria.


Amin al-Susi is a retired Tunisian army officer whose son Mohammad went to fight, and died, in Syria. “My son was a distinguished student in university,” he says. “He went to Syria around a month before graduating. Even before he devoted himself to religion he was a secretive young man. His relationship with his mother was very strong.”


There are three points in what Mohammad said about his son that recur when the families of other jihadists in Syria talk about their children. The first is high academic achievement that does not culminate in graduation. The second is a strong relationship with the mother, suggesting estrangement from the father or a response to the lack of any relationship with the father. As for the third point, which was secrecy and introversion in the case of Mohammad al-Susi, it varies from case to case. Some youths were similar to Mohammad, while others came to “jihad” from wild and radical lifestyles that deviated from traditional values. Other youths were completely separated from family traditions and were usually deeply engrossed in academic study.


Affluent lifestyle


Amm Hassan, who preferred not to use his real name because his son is in prison, says that the young man went to Syria in March 2013. He stayed there for around two months before calling his father and asking him to pay for a ticket back to Tunisia from Turkey’s Hatay Airport. When he returned he was arrested in the airport and imprisoned for forty days before being released. Nevertheless, the young man soon regained his enthusiasm when ISIS began its successful advances in Iraq and Syria. He tried to leave the country again, but the Tunisian authorities arrested him and three of his friends on the Libyan border, where they were heading for a flight to Turkey and then Syria.


Amm Hassan says that his son Abdul Rahman returned from Syria after losing his faith in “jihad,” but while he told his father stories of emirs in the Al-Nusra Front who crossed over to ISIS and lived in luxury, his Salafist friends gathered money to pay for plane tickets, and then headed for Syria. The young man came back having lost his faith in “jihad” then built his conviction back up. Like many others he was on the verge of graduating from university. He was studying computer science in Tunis University, where he was an exemplary student. Abdul Rahman’s father says that a mosque and a computer were behind his son’s recruitment on both occasions.


The father of Rashid, a young Tunisian man who left for Syria two years ago and has not contacted his family since, distinguishes between the Salafism of Ben Ali’s time, which he says was peaceful and the type of Salafism that arrived with Ennahda. He says that his neighbor, who lives in the Douar Hicher area, is peace-loving and does not own a computer - a clear sign of the family’s conviction that a computer was what corrupted their son’s mind. It seems that the families are firmly convinced by the mosque-computer-Ennahda equation despite the fact that their sons were never members of the Ennahda movement.


The new immigration


Over the past six months the phenomenon of travel to Syria has become active once again. More groups have left from Douar Hicher, and a few days ago news arrived that several young men were killed. Nidal Salemi is one of the dead. His family in Douar Hicher received the news in a telephone call from Syria. Nidal, who was 24-years old and had only been in Syria for a few months, was Rashid’s second cousin.


The measures taken by the Tunisian government, rather than effectively restricting travel to Syria seem only to have made it more complicated. Family permission for travel to Turkey was the condition set by the government to prevent young people heading to Syria. This was sidestepped by heading to Libya first and after that to Turkey. When travelers headed for Libya were put under scrutiny, people went to Morocco, which Tunisians do not require a visa to enter, and from there to Turkey.


They tried, they failed


In fact, the easy-going measures taken by the Tunisian government make the questions raised by the families of these young jihadists worth considering. The large number of young men leaving for “jihad” would not have been able to grow if government measures had been serious. On more than one occasion Interior Minister Lutfi Ben Jeddo, who still holds the post he assumed under the former Ennahda government’s rule, has provoked an uproar over the role his ministry played in the case.


While he says that around 9,000 Tunisian youths were prevented from going to Syria, 600 jihadists are known to have left in the last three months alone. Moreover, it was the same minister who unleashed the “Jihad al-Nikah” media frenzy when he announced last year that 100 young Tunisian women had returned from Syria after practicing “sexual jihad.” Subsequently, the Minister of Women’s Affairs from the same government revealed to Al-Hayat that there was no truth to the statement at all, and that her ministry had not been able to find any of the young women the minister claimed had returned.

Ben Jeddo’s statement was interpreted as an attempt to cast doubt on the jihadist phenomenon by spreading implausible stories that would make attempts to explain it seem illogical and impossible to believe.


It is not neighborhoods, universities or mosques alone that made Tunisian youths turn from their former lifestyles and devotion to religion to a new type of piety; computers also played a role. That is what their families constantly repeat to people who ask. These young men isolate themselves in their rooms, stay up all night and sleep during the day, says Rashid’s mother. Within a short period of time, they stop telling their mothers what is happening in their lives, and after just a few months they become jihadists—strangers within their own families.


Ahmad, who managed to unlock his brother’s computer after he left for Syria, said that the idea of “jihad” takes root in the minds of young men when they begin to tell a sheikh about past acts that make them feel guilty. These feelings of guilt are usually related to dating a girl, drinking alcohol or frequenting a bar. The sheikh then begins to amplify the young man’s feelings of guilt, turning them into major offenses for which the young man has to do a great deal for penance, the ultimate penance being “jihad in Syria.”


Universities are not tolerating this sheikh-disciple relationship and mosques are open to monitoring by security forces, especially after the international pressure Tunisia has been subject to since ranking as the top country exporting jihadists. The direct relationship between sheikh and disciple has proved to be the most effective recruitment technique. Ahmad found out that Rashid’s sheikh is Tunisian and managed to discover his identity. It also transpired that the man has a son the same age as Rashid, who he did not sent on “jihad.”



This article is a translation of the original, which appeared in Al-Hayat newspaper.

Approximately 5,000 Tunisians are “waging jihad” in Syria and Iraq. (AFP/Fethi Belaid)

Everyone here in Tunisia has a story about ‘jihad’ in Syria.