Tunisia’s Jihadist Pipeline

4 minute read

Correction appended, July 14.

Just before noon on June 26 in the Tunisian resort city of Sousse, a young man calmly pulled an assault rifle from inside the parasol he had used to conceal his weapon. Standing on a sunny beach, he then opened fire. In a half-hour rampage before he was shot dead by police, 23-year-old Seifeddine Rezgui killed 38 people, 30 of them British tourists. The Sousse attack was the deadliest terrorist incident in Tunisia’s modern history. It followed another recent attack; on March 18 two gunmen stormed the Bardo museum in Tunis, killing 22 people—most of them tourists.

Rezgui appears to have received logistical support from other terrorists—­perhaps linked to the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS). He and the two Bardo gunmen had slipped across the border to Libya to train in terrorist camps there in January, a senior Tunisian security official told the Associated Press on June 30. Rezgui’s family and neighbors in the small inland town of Gaâfour struggled to explain to reporters how or when the young student became radicalized.

In post-revolutionary Tunisia, however, stories like Rezgui’s are becoming less surprising. The North African country may be the Arab Spring’s closest thing to a success story, but Tunisia is gaining another less hopeful reputation—as the world’s biggest contributor of foreign fighters to the conflict in Syria and Iraq. As many as 3,000 Tunisians have left to join ISIS and other extremist groups since March 2011, according to the Soufan Group, a New York City–based security firm. Hundreds have returned to Tunisia, and officials worry that there are many more like Rezgui, who are all too ready to bring the conflict home with them.

How did Tunisia go from the birthplace of the Arab Spring to the wellspring of fresh ISIS recruits? The answer is that many of the complaints that triggered the country’s Jasmine Revolution—a stagnant economy, endemic corruption, youth unemployment—still linger. Disenfranchised young Tunisians have become easy pickings for ISIS recruiters.

One such target was 31-year-old Jabeur Amami. An engineering graduate, Amami was unable to find a job after the ­revolution and began spending hours in his local mosque in Sidi Bouzid, an impoverished town just 177 km south of Gaâfour, where Rezgui grew up. It was in Sidi Bouzid’s main square that 26-year-old street vendor Mohammed Bouazizi set himself alight in December 2010, sparking a wave of protests across the region. Soon after, Islamist parties flourished in Tunisia, capitalizing on the widespread sense of disillusionment that followed the revolution. Amami’s sister Hayet, a social activist, says radical preachers in Sidi Bouzid would distribute flyers and hold classes after prayers to teach young people about Islam. “In reality, it was a process of brainwashing,” she says.

On July 4, 2014, just a few days after ISIS proclaimed its new Islamic state, Hayet woke up to discover that her brother had left the family’s home during the night. He had gone to Syria to join ISIS. But while there, Amami became disillusioned with jihad, concluding­ that many of the militant groups were working for their own gain rather than to defeat Syrian dictator Bashar Assad. When he returned to Tunisia on Sept. 7, authorities arrested him at the airport on charges of belonging to a terrorist cell. In the hope that she can prevent other young people from following her brother’s path, Hayet has set up initiatives that help un­employed graduates find jobs.

Some Tunisians say the government has not done enough to tackle recruiters or to prevent would-be jihadists from leaving the country. On April 17, Interior Minister Najem Gharsali said his ministry had prevented 12,490 Tunisians from traveling to combat zones in Iraq, Libya and Syria since March 2013. The recently elected secular government, plagued by economic hardship and political instability on its borders, has said it will do more to combat extremism. But unless it can deliver a more promising future to the young people of Tunisia, the anger that once sparked the country’s democratic revolution could just as easily derail it.

Correction: The original version of the story incorrectly described the graffiti in photo No. 7. It memorializes fighters who died helping to overthrow the ruling Tunisian government in 2011.

Tunisia jihad
Since Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution in December 2010, several young men have left the small town of Regueb in the center of the country to join jihadists in Syria.Giulio Rimondi
Tunisia jihad
Eve Abidi, 21, is a computer graphics student in Tunis. Her brother Mahjoub became radicalized in France and left Tunisia in 2014 to fight in Syria.Giulio Rimondi
Tunisia jihad
Amine Sayehi holds a sketch of his brother Anis, a university professor who suddenly left their central Tunisian town of Sidi Bouzid on Feb. 22 2014. He called home two days later from Turkey but the family believe he was killed in the Syrian city of Aleppo less than a month later. They still don't know the exact details of how or when he died.Giulio Rimondi
Tunisia jihad
Idoudi Kaabi holds a photo of her son, Bilel, who left their small hilltop town of Oueslatia with four friends on Sept. 16. Bilel, a 23-year-old business management graduate, told his mother he was going to the funeral of a friend’s father in a nearby town, but actually headed south to train in a jihadist camp in neighboring Libya. On Oct. 18, the Kaabi family received news that Bilel had killed himself and at least 20 others in a suicide attack in the Libyan city of Benghazi. Giulio Rimondi
Tunisia jihad
Najeh Abdaoui, 26, shows a Facebook photo of her younger brother Walid, who is holding a Kalashnikov. Walid, 24, worked as a nurse in Ben Arous Hospital, just south of Tunis. Najeh says he became radicalized once his twin brother Khaled left for Syria in January 2013. Although Najeh says her father informed the police of Walid's intentions to join his brother, Walid managed to leave undetected for Libya in September 2014. He committed a suicide car bombing in Benghazi on Nov. 25. His body was never returned to the family. Giulio Rimondi
Tunisia jihad
Hayet Amami, 33, works with young people in her impoverished hometown of Sidi Bouzid to discourage them from joining jihadists in Syria. She says her brother Jabeur, an unemployed engineering graduate, became increasingly isolated and aggressive before he left the country to join ISIS in July 2014. When he returned to Tunisia in September, authorities arrested him on charges of belonging to a terrorist cell. He is still awaiting trial in Tunisia’s Mornaguia Prison, the country’s largest facility. Giulio Rimondi
Tunisia jihad
The graffiti above memorializes fighters who died helping to overthrow the ruling Tunisian government in 2011. Correction: The original version of this caption incorrectly described the graffiti.Giulio Rimondi

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