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Islam is on the rise in repressed Tunisia

Times Staff Writer

The jihad journey of the Nasri brothers began in this mud-splattered town where shipyards rust and umbrella sellers wait with mercenary fervor for storms to rumble in from across the lake.

The siblings’ chain-reaction quest for holy war was ignited in 2003, when Qabil Nasri, a tall man with a sparse beard, was imprisoned on terrorism charges. His case radicalized his siblings, two of whom were arrested after sneaking into neighboring Algeria to train with Islamist militants. A third was caught before he crossed the mountainous border to join them. Nasri was freed in 2005; his brothers, including a former police officer, are still in prison.

The Nasri family saga poses troubling dilemmas for Tunisia, a U.S. ally whose beach resorts and cities emanating a bygone colonial charm are among the most popular tourist destinations in the Arab world.

The nation wears an intriguing facade. Women enjoy a degree of liberation, men in suits have their shoes polished while reading newspapers on the sidewalks -- and secret police slip in and out of lives like uninvited guests.

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Decades of stifled religious and political freedoms have ignited two trends: an underground radicalism producing militants willing to wage jihad in Iraq, Afghanistan and Europe, and a more moderate, yet potent, religious yearning that can be seen in the increasing numbers of beards and head scarves in cafes and on university campuses.

The Nasri brothers and thousands of young Tunisians like them epitomize the intersection of ideological currents and technological wizardry fueling Islamic extremism across North Africa. Raised under the repression that has long defined their nation, and outraged by the Iraq war and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the brothers turned to satellite television and the Internet, where they found provocative mullahs and subversive websites beyond the reach of government censors.

“A young man cannot find true Islam in state-sanctioned religion,” Nasri said. “So a young man, with all his power, starts searching for messages on TV and the Internet. . . . Young Tunisians are peaceful, but when we face pressures because we are religious, our thoughts start to change. Why are we subjected to this? Why are they attacking my religion? Eventually, a young man starts to think that his government is the enemy of Islam.”

A Tunisian government official, who asked not to be named, acknowledged the rise in extremism, the dangerous prospect of battle-hardened Tunisian Islamic militants returning from Iraq and what he described as the “Internet seepage” of radical Islam.

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“It’s a great concern for all North Africans,” he said. “But these Islamist militants don’t have the appeal of the Islamists of decades past. They’re a very radical sub-phenomenon. They are influenced by radical organizations that operate across borders. But our security forces are ready. We are careful and vigilant.”

A Western diplomat who requested anonymity said, “I think the Tunisians are beginning to wake up. They used to see it as a blip: ‘Let these young guys go to Iraq -- what do we care?’ But now they’re dealing with these guys coming home.”

In 2005, about 300 Tunisians were jailed for religious-inspired militant activity. In the last year, that number has jumped to 2,000, mainly the result of a new Anti-Terror Law that has security forces scouring mosques and mountain crevices for suspected radicals, said Samir Ben Amor, a lawyer in Tunis, the capital, who represents dozens of alleged extremists.

This year, police killed more than 20 militants in a series of gun battles in a suburb of the capital and in mountains near the Algerian border. The extremists, including Tunisians and a Mauritanian, were part of a group that trained in Algeria and was allegedly planning attacks on the U.S. and other Western embassies in Tunis.

The Algerian connection was another indication of affiliations forming among militants across North Africa, most notably around the Algerian-based Salafist Group for Call and Combat, known by its French initials, GSPC.

The mobilizing passion for many young Tunisian Islamists is the Iraq war and the perception that their nation is a proxy in Washington’s wider battle against the Muslim world. Defeating U.S. interests in Iraq and Afghanistan, their thinking goes, would weaken the regime of Tunisian President Zine el Abidine ben Ali, whose 20 years in power have been marked by frequent criticism from human rights groups over torture, random arrests and other harsh tactics of security forces.

“Despite the Tunisian government’s attempts to ban the veil, beards, and to jail Islamists, there’s a religious revival in the nation. The veil has swept the streets and the Islamists are here,” Ben Amor said. “Ninety-five percent of Islamist terror- related cases involve young people who only started praying two to three years before their arrests. Government oppression at home and the Iraq war have turned them into time bombs.”

Jamila Ayed slips two pictures out of her black purse. They are of the sons she has lost to Islamic militancy. The younger, Marwen, was studying business at a university when he left to fight in Iraq, where he died in Fallouja in 2004. The older, Maher, was an engineering student whose college ID card was confiscated by police, who told him he wouldn’t get it back until he shaved off his beard. He is now serving a 10-year sentence for belonging to a terrorist organization. Ayed mourns her sons less than she celebrates what they have done.

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“Our government doesn’t have any sovereignty. It does the work of the Americans and the Zionists,” she said. “The religious resurgence is much stronger here than it was in the 1990s. This new movement includes the rich and the poor, the rural and the city, and the religious and those who had not been religious before.

“My sons were depressed at Friday prayers and by the sermons they heard from government-controlled preachers. They looked for the true version of Islam on TV, the Internet and in banned books.”

Ayed sat next to another mother, Noura Ben Slimene, whose pale, angular face seemed to glow against a black hijab. Her son, Anas, fought with the insurgency in Baghdad and died, she said, in a U.S. airstrike along the Iraqi-Syrian border.

“He came to me and said, ‘I’m going to Iraq. I need my passport. I’m prepared to do this for God,’ ” Slimene said. “I felt the same way about the injustice he saw. I was convinced he was going to fight injustice. . . . In the neighborhood where I live, the police arrest many people who feel like my son.”

Ayed gathered her pictures, and she and Slimene walked down a drizzly side street and into the gaze of President Ben Ali, whose image hovers on billboards and posters across the city. Ben Ali is everywhere, Tunisians say, in their neighborhoods, on the coastal cliffs, at the desert’s rim, even in the ancient city of Carthage, where whitewashed homes with blue shutters look out into the haze at yachts and tankers crossing the Mediterranean.

Violence in the 1980s and early ‘90s prompted Ben Ali’s government to arrest hundreds of Islamists and crack down on religious organizations, including the Nahda movement, whose leader, Rachid Ghannouchi, lives in exile in Britain. The government licensed mosques, banned religion-influenced political parties and stripped national identity cards from 10,000 to 15,000 suspected radicals. Human rights groups complained that the measures violated religious freedom.

“The radicalism today is the result of Tunisia not allowing even moderate Islam to exist,” said Ali Larayedh, a member of Nahda who spent 14 years in prison. “But this radicalism is not a large part of the Islamist revival we’re seeing in Tunisia. . . . The government is exaggerating the radical threat to justify the blockade it imposes on Islam.”

A young man with a receding hairline sat in a windbreaker, his hands nervously folded. He would give his name only as Abdel. In 2003, he was one of six men and boys charged with downloading subversive Internet files and trying to make a bomb in the southern town of Zarzis. He was 17 when he went to prison and 20 when he was freed. The case became a national sensation, pitting a government wanting to show it was fighting terrorism against critics who claimed security forces were exaggerating Islamic threats and making arrests to impress the United States.

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“The police said I was a Salafi, a radical. I didn’t know what Salafi meant back then,” Abdel said. “I was tortured. My face was paralyzed for a while. I signed some papers confessing to things, but I don’t really know what I signed. The police still follow me. I’ve noticed young Tunisians have changed a lot since I went into prison. They have gone to either radical Islam or criminal delinquency.”

Qabil Nasri stood the other day along a roadside near a pile of bricks on the outskirts of Menzel Bourguiba. Rain had come the night before; the fields were muddy, and the lake, separated from the Mediterranean by a rim of hills, was still.

The Greeks and the Phoenicians sailed these waters centuries ago. Then came the French and the Soviets, but the shipyards and the steel mill are not as busy as they once were, and young men gather in clumps at the Cafe Flamenco.

There was no coffee-shop idling for Nasri. In 2003, he crossed Tunisia’s rugged terrain and was arrested at the Algerian border, where he was charged with belonging to a terrorist group. He said he wanted to fight with the Palestinians, but police said the leaders of his group were planning terrorist attacks in Tunisia.

Nasri has remained defiant. Because his young face wears a light beard, most employers, under government pressure, will not hire him. He often violates parole by not reporting to police stations, each time spending a month in prison.

Discussing his frustration, Nasri paused as two men came across the field and tried to eavesdrop.

“In prison, the guards and interrogators insulted God in front of me,” he said. “They wanted to take my religion.”

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jeffrey.fleishman@latimes.com

Noha El-Hennawy of The Times’ Cairo Bureau contributed to this report.


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