Sunday, February 28, 2016

How Tunisia Became a Top Source of ISIS Recruits
Thousands of Tunisians have gone to fight with Islamic State in Syria, Iraq

Feb. 25, 2016 5:30 a.m. ET

TUNIS, Tunisia—The cradle of the Arab Spring, Tunisia remains the freest Arab democracy. It has one of the region’s most developed economies and highest literacy rates. And it is also by far the largest source of foreign fighters heading to join Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.

Between 6,000 and 7,000 Tunisians have left the small North African country to fight for the self-proclaimed caliphate—several times more than from much-more populous Algeria or Egypt. As many as 15,000 others have been barred from international travel because Tunisia’s government suspects them of planning to follow suit.

The Tunisian exodus is remarkable because it defies conventional wisdom that has long sought to explain terrorism by evoking “root causes” such as political repression by dictatorial regimes, or the frustrations of poverty.

The working-class Hay Ettadhamen suburb of Tunis, a spread of drab concrete buildings that wouldn’t be out of place in parts of Spain or Eastern Europe, is one of the hot spots for such departures to Syria and Iraq.

Ahmed Amine Jebri, a 27-year-old architecture student, counted some 20 neighbors who had joined Islamic State: a childhood friend with whom he used to play the “Counter-Strike” videogame, a classmate, an older man who sold dried fruit and cigarettes in a corner store. Several of them are now dead.

“So many people have left from here, and quite a few of them were rather well-off,” Mr. Jebri said. “Some in the neighborhood believe these guys are fools who had gone to Syria to get killed. But many others say they are now in paradise with the virgins.”

Increasingly, Tunisians also form the backbone of Islamic State’s growing presence in neighboring Libya. A U.S. airstrike last week on an Islamic State training camp west of Tripoli killed as many as 50 people, most of them Tunisian fighters.

So what explains this paradox? In a country that remains deeply divided, the answer, predictably, depends on whom you ask.

Tunisia’s functioning democracy remains an exception: Arab Spring revolutions elsewhere have either turned into civil wars, as in Syria, Libya or Yemen, or were crushed by re-established dictatorships, as in Egypt.

Yet even in Tunisia, popular disappointment is spreading, said Moncef Marzouki, a human-rights activist who served as democratic Tunisia’s first president from 2011 and until the end of 2014. While the country’s Jasmine Revolution ushered in democracy, it failed to spur economic growth or curb rampant corruption, he said.

“Why do we have educated people, people with jobs, who go to ISIS?” wondered Mr. Marzouki. “It’s not the matter of tackling socioeconomic roots. You have to go deeper and understand that these guys have a dream—and we don’t. We had a dream—our dream was called the Arab Spring. And our dream is now turning into a nightmare. But the young people need a dream, and the only dream available to them now is the caliphate.”

Mr. Marzouki’s successor as president, 89-year-old Beji Caid Essebsi, served as foreign minister and parliament speaker in prerevolutionary administrations. Many other former officials returned to power after the 2014 elections. To some, especially in disadvantaged areas, the new Tunisia isn’t that different from the Tunisia of old.

“In Tunisia, a policeman can, just as before, stop a citizen on the street and slap him,” said Rafik Ghaki, an attorney who represents hundreds of Tunisians who returned from battlefields in Syria and Iraq, usually to face immediate detention. “A woman who wears the veil, a young man with a beard—they still feel discriminated” against.

To more-secular Tunisians, such explanations ignore what they see as the ambiguous attitude of postrevolutionary governments toward Islamist extremists. The local branch of the Muslim Brotherhood dominated Tunisia’s administration after the first elections in 2011, and remains a minority partner in the current government.

An amnesty declared soon after the revolution freed imprisoned jihadists and allowed others to return from exile. The government initially tried to entice radical groups to participate in politics. It began to crack down on Islamist radicals after their attempt to storm the U.S. Embassy compound in 2012, followed by a series of assassinations and terrorist attacks.

To critics—including some relatives of jihadists—the government is still far too lenient to those who incite radicalism.

“These people have political cover here. Nobody interferes with them,” said Mohammed Iqbel Ben Rejeb, president of the Rescue Association of Tunisians Trapped Abroad, a group that unites some 250 families of Tunisians who joined extremist groups in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere.

Mr. Ben Rejeb’s brother Hamza—who moves in a wheelchair and has to use both hands to raise a glass of water because of his muscular dystrophy—left for Syria in 2013 along with six friends. Realizing how inhospitable Syria was, the brother managed to return home quickly.

“When a person is hypnotized, he doesn’t even know why he’s going there,” Mr. Ben Rejeb said. “It is like a virus.”

Write to Yaroslav Trofimov at

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