What next for the IS fighters returning to Tunisia

What next for the IS fighters returning to Tunisia
7 min read
28 November, 2017
Indepth: Hundreds of Islamic State fighters are returning to Tunisia, but what can be done to prevent the spread of radicalisation in a country reliant on tourism, writes Francesca Mannocchi.
A Salafist arrested in Tunisia for attacking the headquarters of a private TV station [AFP]

Fadha Ghozlani is thirty-five years old, her appearance is shabby, her clothes threadbare and her face marked by wrinkles and the outward signs of pain.

Since her brother, Sayed, was killed by an extremist group linked to Islamic State at their home in the Chaambi mountains, she has decided to move in with her four daughters.

"They entered the house, gathered the men, asked them to kneel and then took Sayed.

"They shot him in the head.

"I picked up the pieces of his head and his brain with my hands. I never thought Muntasir could do such a thing."

Muntasir, the man who Ghozlani claims shot Sayed, is their cousin.

The two men - both aged twenty-five - had grown up together in a family of shepherds, sharing a childhood in one of Tunisia's poorest rural areas.

"They were two kind and generous guys, until high school, then Sayed decided to enlist as a soldier in the army and Muntasir began to support the extremist groups here in the mountains.

"Sayed felt he was in danger, he knew that, but he did not want to denounce his own cousin."

"That night - the night he died, I remember him moving around at home as if he knew something was going to happen.

"He'd come to bring me and our mother money to buy food. Sayed supported us and now he's dead while Muntasir is still free in the mountains with the terrorists."

Fadha's home today is a single room in a small shack in the village of Thmab, near Kasserine, only 30 kilometres from the Algeria border.

There are some dirt blankets on the floor, a cooking stove, a jug of water and some shoddy furniture covered with a dusty plastic sheet. On the furniture stands a photo of Sayed.

"Sayed was working in the army, defending the security of the country, and today my mother and I are begging the government for help and we have nothing from them, we feel abandoned, we are like all the guys here living surrounded by unemployment and extremism."

History teaches us - prisons increase the problem rather than solve it. Tunisia is not ready for their return

Fadha's description of Kasserine carries more weight than any sociological analysis of the reasons why thousands of young Tunisians joined IS.

According to the UN, between five and six thousand Tunisians have joined IS in Iraq, Syria and Libya in recent years.

Most of them came from rural areas of the country and the outskirts of Tunis - areas where social marginalization, political exclusion and a high unemployment rate were decisive factors in leaving the country and fighting for the Caliphate.

In a country of eleven million people, there are more than six hundred and fifty thousand unemployed – roughly 40 percent of all young people.

These social factors have had a very real and very deadly effect.

Anis Amri, the attacker who crashed a truck into a Christmas market in Berlin, and Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhle, who did the same in Nice in July 2016, were both Tunisian.

Similarly, the gunmen who attacked the tourist resort of Sousse and the Bardo Museum were Tunisian. All these attacks have been claimed by IS.

The look on Fadha's face is the same look of resignation given by hundreds of young people in Kasserine's crowded cafès. Young people with no confidence, disappointed by the unkept promises that followed the 2011 Jasmine revolution.


Now that three more cities of the Islamic State have fallen – Mosul, Raqqa  and Deir az-Zour - there are said to be around 300 fighters linked to IS who have arrived in the mountainous region surrounding Kasserine.

The fighters reportedly have training camps there, and attack the local villages at night, threatening residents for food and stealing their cattle - one of the main source of income for many local farmers. It was during one of these missions that Muntasir allegedly shot Sayed.

The IS fighters also gather information on who works with the army via a network of children, later killing those they suspect of being spies.

Many of the youths have been radicalized out of an economic necessity rather than for a religious ideology. Islamic terrorism has been combined with the smuggling of weapons and fuel to make it a persuasively attractive option.

The caves of Chambi Mountain in the Algerian mountains have become the hiding place of al-Qaeda linked groups and IS. The two groups are divided by ideology but united by illegal trafficking and attacks against the army and police that have tried to defeat them in vain.

According to the UN, between five and six thousand Tunisians have joined IS in Iraq, Syria and Libya in recent years

Young radicalized people who were not touched by the successful success of the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet - winners of the 2015 Nobel Peace prize for its role in the post-revolution democratic process.

Indeed, the elections in 2011 and 2014, and the new constitution that followed, arguably did not lead to any real change in living conditions for young people. Many still expect the government to address the country's structural problems.


Fast forward to the present day and Tunisia has opened a phase that, if possible, is even more delicate: the return of thousands of Jihadist fighters.

"We have no means to control them," said Badra Galoul, president of the International Center for Strategic and Military Studies in Tunis.

Galoul, like most of the country, is against the return of the fighters, despite the 2014 constitution which says that no Tunisian citizen can be deprived of  nationality or be denied a return home.

"Rehabilitation centers have a cost and we do not have any money - there is no trace of deradicalization projects and even if there were I do not think they would work.

"They might work in France, Belgium - on decisively smaller numbers - but here we are talking about 900 people that are already in prison and three thousand more fighters that might have returned already.

"What should we say to them? Welcome back?

"You have lost your war and your Caliphate, now please come here to destabilize the country again with your hatred and violence? Definitively no."

Galoul mentions that imprisonment remains an option, but the numbers of fighters returning are too large to be dealt with effectively.

"We are talking about thousands of 25 to 30 year-old men who have tried to build their own identity by affiliating with armed groups and returning defeated after spending years on the frontline," she said.

Galoul also argues that returning foreign fighters could also become an example for large numbers of young poor people to emulate.

One of the laws issued for the state of emergency in Tunisia has imposed that men under the age of 35 would need a written permission from their parents to leave the country.

According to the Galoul's estimates, the numbers of potentially radicalized youths couled exeed at least 27,000.

Outside her office, along the streets of Tunis, is the funeral of Riadh Barrouta, the police commander stabbed in the neck in front of Parliament on November 1st.

The crowd is angry, two men on a truck raise the man's picture. Barrouta's colleagues escort the coffin, the Minister of Interior stands by the coffin at the cemetery. Some cry, calling him Riadh, the martyr.

The attacker, Zied Gharbi, a 25 year-old computer sciences graduate who became unemployed, would be linked to the fundamentalist groups of Cité Ettadhamen, a suburb of northwest Tunis with a high concentration of Salafis.

In the past, these groups have been members of Ansar al-Sharia and was a hotbed for IS recruitment.

Ettadhamen's support for extremist groups is still solid and when the police searched Gharbi's home, the neighbors threw stones.

"Perhaps they will be convicted of terrorism, so after 15 - 20 years they will be out, more rancorous and even more radical than before.

"History teaches us - prisons increase the problem rather than solve it. Tunisia is not ready for their return."