The Return of Tunisian Jihadists, Between Anger and Fear, a Strong Civil Society Mobilization.

The Return of Tunisian Jihadists, Between Anger and Fear, a Strong Civil Society Mobilization.  (By Fatma Benmosbah*)

In Tunisia, after the revolution, there is no other concern that mobilizes the general public as much as terrorism. For more than one month now, with the turn of events in Syria and Iraq, the controversy about the return of thousands of Tunisian Jihadists from Syria continues to grow. Practically all the components of civil and political society are mobilized and have been demonstrating in response to this scourge, and they all agree on the need to get to the root of the problem of terrorism in order to suppress it, even if they differ on how to do that.

A concern fueled by the news from the Syrian front

The kick-off was given on 2 December 2016 by the President of the Republic, Béji Caid Essebsi, who told the Paris Club, as reported by Nawaat News : “We are not going to put them all in prison, because if we do that we will not have enough prisons, but we are taking the necessary steps to neutralized them. We’re watching them.”

These words were far from being reassuring to a population still traumatized by the political assassinations and terrorist attacks that shook the country between 2012 and 2016.

Thus, Tunisians reacted immediately, and in masse, particularly on the social media, expressing their anger and fear, and their refusal to allow the return of those they consider to be the “enemies of the human race”, a “cancer that threatens the security of the country,  with terrorist cells that will metastasize in a record time”. This strong mobilization of the Tunisian people prompted the President to modify his first statement. In an interview to on 9 December 2016, Mr. Béji Caid Essebsi declared: “No pardon, no amnesty, no law on repentance for terrorists returning from conflict zones”. On 29 December 2016, the Prime Minister Youssef Chahed, assured that ” the anti-terrorism law of 2015 will be enforced”

Who are the Tunisian jihadists who make up the largest contingents of armed groups in Syria and Iraq?

According to a study published in December 2015 by the Soufan Group (TSG), in October 2015, there were about 6000 Tunisian fighters, including 700 women, in Syria and Iraq, which is about the double of the figure provided by the Tunisian President of the Republic on 31 December 2016. It should be noted that already in 2015, the Soufan Group predicted a reverse flow towards North Africa that also could change the balance in terms of the number and origin of foreign fighters from Arab countries. “Tunisians, Saudis, and Jordanians continue to outnumber other national contingents, although a reverse flow to North Africa may alter the balance within the Arab group.” Always according to TSG, more than a third of Tunisian fighters come from three locations in Tunisia: 15, 2% from Ben Gardane (in the south, on the border with Libya), 10.7% from Bizerte (a port city in the North), and 10.7% from Tunis (the capital city).

Specifics of Tunisian terrorists

Do the alleged Tunisian terrorists have particularities that differentiate them from other terrorists in the world? Are there any common characteristics that would allow the profiling of a Tunisian “terrorist”? How do they become terrorists? What were they doing before becoming one? Where did they train? In the last issue of Inkyfada, Walid Mejri provides an analysis of their profiles, based on a sample of 1,000 suspected Tunisian terrorists.

These figures were compiled from a quantitative study published in October 2016, entitled “Terrorism in Tunisia through court files”. It was prepared by the Tunisian Center for Research and Studies on Terrorism, an organization created in 2015 by the Tunisian Forum for Economic Rights. Around 1000 cases of alleged terrorists – referred to as “terrorists” in the report – were analyzed and compiled.

The study is based on court files and documents available to the courts from 2011 to the end of 2015. The research team consulted 384 files, part of 2224 files about people accused of terrorism in Tunisia.

Out of a total of 1,000 people accused of terrorism, 965 are men and 35 are women. Almost 70% are single, and 30% are married, while the divorced or widowed represent only about 1%.

Forty percent of the accused attended a university, while 33% have high school education level. Thirteen percent have vocational training qualifications, and 4% a bachelor’s degree.

Forty-five percent of alleged terrorists are skilled or unskilled workers. The “liberal professions” come second with 14.9% of those concerned, and 1.1% are civil servants.

Nearly 90% of the accused are under 40 years of age, the 25-35 year old are the most targeted as potential recruits by terrorist networks in Tunisia.

 2013, a pivotal year for Tunisia

According to the CTRRT report, it is in 2013 that the largest number of terrorist suspects received combat training in the country. This is explained by the fact that in 2013 radical Islamist organizations in Tunisia took advantage of a certain laxity on the part of the authorities, when the governing alliance, the so-called Troika government, was led by the Islamist party Ennahdha, allowing these movements to grow, and some groups part of this movement to settle in border regions in the West of the country (in Kasserine, Le Kef, Jendouba) and in the South (Ben Guerdane, Medenine, Kebili, etc. ) 2013 also represents a pivotal year for Tunisian “terrorists” abroad.

It is therefore not surprising that the Ennahda party is pointed at by all those who fear the harmful consequences of the return of Tunisian terrorists.

At the demonstration against the return of terrorists of Sunday, January 8, in Tunis, organized by civil society organizations, and attended by nearly 8,000 people, slogans were chanted against the leader of the Islamist party Ennahda, Rached Ghannouchi. It is clear that the Tunisian people consider the former governing coalition (the so-called Troika) and especially the party of Ghannouchi to be responsible for the massive departures of young jihadists to Syria. The representatives of Ennahda can always try to diffuse the situation as they go around TV and radio platforms to defend themselves, the charges remain, and the grievances are often justified.

According to Adnane Belhaj Amor, a civil society activist and Head of Civil Society Coordination, the purpose of this important gathering was to “state our refusal to see terrorists walking freely or getting ludicrous sentences. These people must be arrested, tried and severely punished. We demonstrate against the laxity and complacency of the authorities, and to remain firm in the treatment of the returned terrorists.” Adnane Belhaj Amor also stressed that civil society organizations should be able to act as civil parties in the trial against  terrorists, as allowed by the law

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*This  Review was conducted by  Fatma Benmosbah, an analyst of local and Arab affairs based in Tunisia. It was translated from the French by the Maghreb Center.