Hazem Al Amin

Tunisia’s jihadists: Turkey facilitates, Ennahda sees all

Turkey has played a role as central hub for jihadists coming from Tunisia, where past cabinets run by the Islamist Ennahda movement did little to stem the flow

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan (C-R) greets the leader of Ennahdahe Islamist movement, Rached Ghannouchi (C-L), upon his arrival on September 14, 2011 in Tunis (AFP PHOTO / FETHI BELAID)

TUNIS - Mohammad, the son of retired Tunisian army officer Amin al-Susi, “emigrated” to Syria to “wage jihad.” When his father went to see Rachid Ghannouchi, leader of the Islamist Ennahda Movement, accompanied by another family whose son also went to Syria, Ghannouchi told them: “It is better for your son to die in Syria than here. He will be a martyr and he will mediate for you on Judgment Day. Fighting Bashar al-Assad is better than staying here.”


Susi stresses that what Ghannouchi said to the two families, who had gone to him for help getting their sons back, reopens the case of Ennahda’s responsibility for the growth of the phenomenon of Tunisians going abroad to fight while the party held power. Despite the fact that Ennahda does not actively participate in sending young people to Syria, and despite the fact that its support bases have remained uninvolved in “emigration for jihad,” a comprehensive Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated ring has been involved. This involvement took place in Tunisia, Libya and Turkey, and the Muslim Brotherhood has long and influential arms in those three countries.


Turkey’s position as the central hub for jihadists sent from Tunisia to Syria has laid out the three stages of recruitment in a way that makes the process in all three countries very clear.


Susi knows everything about his son’s story. He says that he was recruited through the internet by a Tunisian sheikh called Bilal al-Shawwash, who then followed him to Syria, where he has remained, calling Tunisian families when their sons die.


Amin says that two days before setting out on a successful journey, his son Mohammad, who was killed in Latakia, made an initial attempt to leave for Turkey, but the airport authorities prevented him from traveling. That was in February 2013. At that time the authorities had banned travel to Turkey for young men under 25 who did not have their family’s permission. Mohammad went back to the capital’s Ras al-Tabiya Mosque, which he had been frequenting at the time, and calls were made. He then made another attempt to travel to Turkey, and this time he succeeded.


Mohammad arrived in Istanbul, where he was received by people who arranged his journey to the Antakya border area. He stayed in the city for a few days then traveled to Idlib and from there to Latakia. Both Mohammad’s father and mother have been in the Tunisian military for a large part of their lives. His mother is still an officer in the army. Through their positions, they have had access to some interesting information about their son. Mohammad took on administrative and missionary tasks after he arrived in Syria, as he had a master’s degree in finance. His aptitude for the missionary side of his activity was gained at his local mosque in Tunis. His father, though, is doubtful about his missionary competence since only a few months separate his son’s adoption of jihadist Salafism and his departure for Syria.


Medical treatment in Turkey, burial in Syria


Susi says with certitude that his son suffered a back injury during a clash in the Latakia area. He was sent for treatment in Turkey but died there, and his body was returned to Syria for burial. His father managed to find out where his son was buried, and is waiting for an opportunity to visit, if circumstances allow.


The families of these “emigrants” have a lot of evidence on the role played by the authorities in facilitating their sons’ departure, through the two Ennahda governments as well as the party’s continuing influence in the Interior Ministry. According to the families, Ennahda has covered a number of bases by doing this. First of all, the young men are not protégés of the Tunisian Islamist movement; they are from a different environment and a new Islamist conscience. Getting rid of these jihadists means getting rid of a rival that has always worried Ennahda. Secondly, by facilitating their departure to Syria via Turkey, the party would be doing a regional “Brotherhood” duty. This duty becomes crystal clear in its Turkish phase. That is, easy passage to Syria via Turkey would never have been possible if it had not been tolerated by the Turkish authorities.


The Rescue Association of Tunisians Trapped Abroad (RATTA) is an NGO that documents the cases of Tunisians who go to Syria, and includes family members of some of the young men who went to fight. RATTA director Mohamed Iqbel says he asked the Tunisian Foreign Ministry to obtain the names of all the young Tunisians still officially in Turkey six months after entering the country. He made this request in the hope of reducing the number of jihadists and defining the size of the phenomenon, especially as Tunisians can legally remain in Turkey without a visa for up to six months.


Iqbel confirmed that the Turkish authorities refused the request as it would have revealed numbers that might be in excess of expected figures. Iqbel also says that there are three routes Tunisians use to get to Syria, and all three of them meet at one final destination: Turkey. They travel from Tunisia directly to Istanbul, and from Tunisia to Libya via illegal roads. When they reach Libya they are received in the coastal city of Derna, where they receive military training before flying on to Istanbul. The third route is via Morocco and from there to Istanbul. Iqbel points out that smuggler gangs “with no ideology” perform the task of overland transport to Libya now that the Tunisian authorities have clamped down on the use of official border crossings.


Tunisian activists assert that Turkey is the central link in this tragic jihadist chain. A few days ago, a large number of families whose sons recently left for Syria gathered in the city of Kairouan. They formed something resembling a demonstration before heading for the house of a dentist they say recruited their sons. They say money transfers sent to this dentist via Turkish banks were used to pay for travel to Syria. While it is difficult to verify the story of these money transfers, the families’ insistence that they took place shows the extent to which Turkey has become the center of “jihadist relations” in their minds, while they see the Ennahda Movement as the junior partner in the business of recruiting their sons.


Lump sums


The families say that foreign businessmen and states are funding jihadist “emigration.” Jihadist middlemen from Tunisia assume the task of recruitment and receive $5,000 per fighter, while the recruit himself receives nothing. They mention the names of many individuals, some of whom are now in prison, some of whom have disappeared, and others who are still at large. These are men whose economic situation changed dramatically after they began sending jihadists to Syria and Iraq. While it is easy to track the path of jihadists in the suburbs of Tunisia’s cities and meet their families, reaching the middlemen is a hard task in light of the police surveillance and social besiegement that surrounds their places of residence and follows them everywhere they go.


The recruits are not poor and their faith is not deeply rooted, says Buthaina Sidi, who carried out a psychological study on three university students who made attempted journeys to Turkey, but were stopped by authorities nearly two years ago. Sidi says that during her last visit to one of them, she noticed he had stopped wearing Salafist clothes, shortened his beard and had begun to shake hands with women. This matter brings us back to the fact that the traditional environment in which the Ennahda Movement grew – an environment of “deep-rooted faith” – is not what produced these new jihadists. It also shows that Ennahda, by investing in these individuals, was using a social and political currency which it is not traditionally linked to in any way. Out of all the Tunisian areas that sent jihadists to Syria, the coastal areas rank first; the southern areas bordering Libya second; and then the tribal areas. In this order, the rate of departure runs contrary to Ennahda movement influence.


The phenomenon has not excluded anyone in its uncontrolled spread across Tunisia. Mohamed Iqbel says he went to a culture and sports club in the capital’s El Menzah area – an upper-middle class part of town – and was surprised to learn that the club owner’s son recently carried out a suicide bombing in Iraq. The man could not understand the choice his son had made, and accused Ennahda of facilitating his journey. It is also noteworthy that the young man had been working as a flight attendant for TunisAir.


Iqbel says the transfer of Tunisians from Istanbul to Antakya is supervised by “Syrian mafias” that are paid for their services by funders of jihad. Their relationship with the Turkish police, he adds, is such that they are able to operate freely. Iqbel’s brother arrived in Istanbul sporting a Salafist-style beard and apparently the police didn’t look twice at him. He was accompanied by seven bearded men and a woman wearing a niqab, and they were headed for Antakya after Istanbul. Despite this, they did not feel that their journey was disrupted in any way. His brother informed him that crowning moment of the journey came when the jihadist group arrived in the Syrian city of Idleb, where a sheep was slaughtered in their honor. The jihadists ate the animal’s meat and the fat was like “loose fringes of white, twisted silk,” as Imru' al-Qais described the fat of his camel.


The complicated jihadist


It seems that ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra, or the two groups’ Tunisian branches in Syria, developed a “national” conscience that responded to some of the concerns back home. They sent Mohamed Iqbel’s brother back from Syria a few weeks after he arrived because the young man – not yet 23 when he arrived in “the land of jihad” – was not physically able to fight; in fact, he had crossed the Syrian-Turkish border in a wheelchair. Iqbel says his brother had decided to participate in jihad in any way he could, but the story of someone with a physical handicap going to jihad had provoked an outcry in Tunisia.


Al-Nusra felt that having recruited a wheelchair-bound jihadist would damage its reputation, so the group sent him back to Tunisia via the same Turkish route he had taken to get to Syria. It was not necessary for Mohammad’s brother to shave his long Salafist beard to disguise himself for the journey in either direction; he left his house sporting a Salafist beard and clothing and he returned a hardened fighter, lacking nothing in terms of form and bearing.


According to Mohammad, his return was just as easy as his departure. The route was the same; from Antakya Airport to Istanbul, and from there to Carthage International Airport in Tunis. He traveled via Turkish Airlines, which jihadists prefer because tickets are paid for via money transfers from Turkish banks, the service is friendlier, and there is less emphasis on security procedure. As soon as a jihadist sets foot on a plane, he feels he has stepped into the “land of jihad.”


Mistaken identity


Ahmad, a Tunisian journalist, says that while he was on his way to Istanbul for a holiday with a female friend, two Salafist men sitting close to him on the plane mistook his short beard for an attempt at a disguise. Thinking that he, too, was Syria bound, they asked him about it, and when he said he wasn’t, they replied that he had no need to hide his secret – they too were going to “wage jihad” in Syria.


They told him about the common route and asked him who would be receiving him at the airport. He could trust in their group, they said, adding that they could take him with them if no one came to meet him. Ahmad repeated that he was going to Turkey for a holiday, not for jihad in Syria, but they would not believe him until they saw his girlfriend waiting for him in Istanbul.


“They were no less happy than me when we arrived in Istanbul,” Ahmad said. “There was someone waiting for them in the airport and there was someone waiting for me. My nymph was there waiting for me and there were two others waving to them in the distance, down on the Syrian border… and neither they nor I needed a visa to enter Turkey.”


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

Turkish authorities and past Tunisian governments look the other way as Tunisians travel for jihad. (AFP Photo/Fethi Belaid)

It is better for your son to die in Syria than here. He will be a martyr and he will mediate for you on judgment day."