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Tunisia's democracy faces tough choices with return home of Islamist militants

Tunisia's democracy faces tough choices with return home of Islamist militants
Mohamed Iqbel Ben Rejeb and members of his organization, Rescue Assn. of Tunisians Trapped Abroad, meet to discuss ways to prevent Islamist radicalization in Tunisia. (Courtesy photo)

It’s been five years since Mohamed Iqbel Ben Rejeb’s brother Hamza left the Al Qaeda-affiliated militants he joined in Syria and returned home.

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But life in Tunisia has not returned to normal.

Hamza, a 28-year-old who suffers from muscular dystrophy and uses a wheelchair, is under government surveillance and struggles to find a job, Ben Rejeb, 40, said in a phone interview.

Tunisians make up one of the largest groups of nationals that joined extremist groups in Syria, Iraq and Libya. Of the estimated 40,000 foreign fighters that fought for Islamic State alone, upward of about 7,000 were Tunisians, according to a 2015 report from the Soufan Group, a security firm based in New York.

In Tunisia, militant Islamists took advantage of the politically open environment following the “Arab Spring” in 2011 to tap into long-standing grievances over unemployment and religious and political disenfranchisement.

Since the collapse of Islamic State’s self-styled caliphate, troves of foreign fighters have returned home or to third countries. Ben Rejeb’s brother is one of an estimated 2,000 Tunisians who have come back to Tunisia.

Consequently, the government has faced the dilemma of how, or whether, to reintegrate thousands of radicalized jihadists into the relatively open society.

Some secular politicians have sought to strip returnees of their citizenship, but the constitution bars them from doing so. Human rights advocates and terrorism experts are calling for programs to de-radicalize fighters.

By and large, Tunisian officials have imposed arbitrary detention and travel restrictions and engaged in surveillance, according to Amnesty International and other human rights groups.

Such measures run counter to Tunisia’s law and threaten its fragile democracy, said Fida Hammami, an Amnesty International researcher based in Tunisia. The country’s democracy is one that has been lauded as the sole success of the Arab Spring uprisings across the Middle East that began in December 2010.

Hamza did not respond to repeated requests for an interview. Ben Rejeb, his brother, said it was because of concerns about privacy.

Ben Rejeb said he was often asked why Hamza decided to join militants in Syria. It’s a question he says he is unable to answer.

The brothers are from Ibn Khldoun, just outside Tunis, the capital. A 2018 study by the Washington-based New America Foundation estimated that Tunis was home to 36% of the foreign fighters from Tunisia. It also found that jihadists exploited the grievances of those struggling to find work or feeling politically marginalized.

By the time Ben Rejeb found out Hamza had left Tunisia to join the Al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al Nusra, it was too late to stop him. It was March 2013 and Hamza, despite being in a wheelchair, had found his way into Syria through the border with Turkey.

Because of his physical impediments, Hamza joined the militant group’s online team. But it didn’t take long before he regretted his decision. He spent just five days in Syria before returning to Tunisia, Ben Rejeb said.

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Now, the pair help de-radicalize former fighters, thus far serving 150 families. Their organization, Rescue Assn. of Tunisians Trapped Abroad, or RATTA, is one of a handful in Tunisia seeking rehab programs for returnees.

Terrorist attacks in Tunisia in recent years have left many Tunisians wary and led authorities to double down on repressive tactics.

After two high-profile massacres in 2015 — one at a beach resort in Sousse in which at least 38 people were killed and the other at a museum outside Tunis where 23 people died — the government declared a state of emergency.

Three years later, the measure — restricting freedom of assembly, imposing curfews and house arrests, and allowing media censorship — has yet to be lifted.

“The state of emergency framework has shown that human rights have been sacrificed in several aspects,” said Hammami of Amnesty International.

On the other hand, Tunis lawyer Mounir Baatour, 38, wants the government to impose even harsher restrictions on returnees and potential extremists who never left. “This is for the security of the people. I feel less safe than before,” he said.

While the Arab Spring created room for political openness by toppling an autocratic despot, President Zine el Abidine ben Ali, it also cast a spotlight on long-standing economic and religious grievances.

Released from prison with the fall of Ben Ali, jihadists and leaders of Tunisia’s militant group Ansar al Sharia were able to openly spread their ideology.

“In North Africa, the Arab Spring and its aftermath created opportunities for jihadists to organize and mobilize on a wider scale than previously possible,” said David Sterman, senior policy analyst at New America’s International Security program and coauthor of the study. “The fighters were socioeconomically underprivileged and came from regions characterized by a lack of access to economic and political power.”

Citing escalating violence, Tunisian authorities in August 2013 banned Ansar al Sharia, but little could be done to reverse the ideology that it spread.

Five years later, the government has yet to formulate a cohesive plan to deal with radicalized jihadists and returnees.

Prime Minister Youssef Chahed, a member of the secularist Nidaa Tounes party, said in 2016 that returnees would be tried under the country’s 2015 anti-terrorism law, but collecting sufficient evidence to send returning fighters to prison has proved difficult, said Sarah Yerkes, a fellow at the Washington-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Moreover, jailing returnees could strain Tunisia’s already overcrowded prisons and further radicalize inmates, experts said.

“The easiest thing is for the government to put these people in jail, but this doesn’t defer radicalization,” Yerkes said.

Hamza’s decision to go to Syria has left him and his family with lasting consequences, Ben Rejeb said.

Hamza has struggled to find work or friends. “My brother is handicapped and cannot carry a weapon. In order to drink a glass of water, he needs to use two hands,” Ben Rejeb said.

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Such obstacles worry him about Tunisia’s future, Ben Rejeb said. “He’s trying to rebuild his life as normally as he can, but he’s rejected.”

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