Sacred Terror in Secular Tunisia

A decade after the revolution that toppled Ben Ali’s dictatorship in Tunisia, a defector from ISIS reflects on the frustrated hopes that sent them into the arms of the extremists

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Sacred Terror in Secular Tunisia
A man waits by a graffiti depicting silhouettes of a man metamorphosing into a bird symbolising freedom, in Mohamed Bouazizi Square/Tunisia/Fethi Belaid /AFP via Getty Images

Mohamed hurries up the steps of his house, dust and concrete on his shoes. “Be careful,” he says pointing his finger at the photo on the ground. He bends to look at it. In his hands, in that slightly faded image, there is an old portrait of himself — a boy with a thick and long beard, his thawb (tunic) down to his ankles, and a black taqiyah (skullcap) on his head. All marks of religious devotion. “Here,” he says, “I had just arrived in Şanlıurfa” in southern Turkey, “the city of Maqam Ibrahim” (the birthplace of the prophet Abraham, according to one legend).

After several phone calls and messages, he met the man who had recruited him months earlier, while he was still in Tunisia. Within a few hours, the man took him to Deir ez-Zor, Syria. It was the fall of 2014, and Mohamed, with the youthful determination of a 29-year-old, had just joined the Islamic State group, also known as ISIS.

“It’s not easy. You have to be resilient,” he says. “They test you first. They speak with you for a while. They check your knowledge of religion.” For four weeks, you take only Sharia lessons — the sacred law of Islam. “The focus is on two key concepts: tawhid, strict monotheism, and al-wala’ wal bara’, total loyalty to Islam and disloyalty to anything un-Islamic.” This is followed by camp training and a month learning how to kill. “I don’t know if all of that was right or wrong, but I finally felt that I belonged, that I had a reason to live, a new identity.”

Tunisia is the world’s largest exporter of jihadists. According to the United Nations, by 2016 more than 5,500 nationals between the ages of 18 and 35 have joined militant organizations across Syria, Iraq, and Libya, including ISIS, and the al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al Nusra.

How did this happen in one of the most developed, liberal, and democratic countries in North Africa?

To date, about 1,000 foreign fighters have returned to Tunisia from various conflict zones. Of these, 800 are in prison and 200 have been set free under judicial supervision. Many of them, like Mohamed, were radicalized in the early years of the Arab Spring. Mohamed now lives in a modest house in Kalâa Kebira, a village in the Tunisian Sahel, a few kilometers from Sousse. He grabs his cell phone. “Look at it,” he says, showing me the photo of a young man. “It all started here.”

It’s the face of Mohamed Bouazizi, “the urban warrior, the hero, the martyr.” The 26-year-old unlicensed street vendor who set himself on fire on Dec. 17, 2010, in front of the Town Hall of Sidi Bouzid, his native village, a place of dust and poverty in central Tunisia. He sacrificed himself at 11:30 a.m. sharp, shouting “How can I earn a living?” With his whole family dependent on his precarious income, Bouazizi was exasperated by police harassment and the corruption and indifference of local officials. “His gesture was a sign of protest, a desperate cry, an appeal for change,” recalls Mohamed. That act started the Jasmine Revolution 10 years ago, which later rippled out into what became known as the Arab Spring.

The protests soon engulfed the whole country, from Kasserine to Bizerte, and within weeks led to the fall of Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali’s dictatorship of 23 years. A democratic transition followed with promises of justice, development, and reform.

But a combination of chaos and neglect after the revolution meant that little improved. The expectations of the young — betrayed by history and humiliated by dictators — faded due to the indifference of the powerful. The economy did not restart and, in an increasingly unstable Tunisia, discontent grew. “We have been deluded, deceived, betrayed,” thunders Mohamed. “Things didn’t go as we hoped.”

The relationship between state and citizen frayed further, and the political, social, and intellectual vacuum was filled by propaganda from Salafist jihadists who exploited the permissive post-revolutionary environment to form new associations, raise funds, and engage in da’wa — religious proselytism. “We had two destinies,” Mohamed points out. “Either become delinquents or join the ‘cause.’”

In less than three years, Ansar al-Sharia — a Tunisian militant group founded in April 2011 and loyal to al Qaeda and the Islamic State group — recruited over 70,000 members. By the time the government declared it a “terrorist group” in 2013, it had already infiltrated local communities, capitalizing on people’s frustrations with the government. It was “the only one that took care of people,” Mohamed stresses.

The movement “operated like a state within a state,” says Oussama Helal, a Tunisian lawyer and former professor of law at the University of Tunis. It organized religious meetings that until then were banned, condemned the country’s secularism, used social networks to promote its vision of the world, and recruited proselytes to fight in the name of the Islamic State group in Syria and Iraq.

Mohamed joined other militiamen in Syria in trying to “conquer land and expand the Islamic state.” They rationalized these actions as necessary in trying to prevail against the Damascus regime — “that corrupt regime that prostrates itself to the power and secularism of the West.” This notion of corruption, however, was expansive enough to allow IS militants — most of them foreign — to fight local Syrians, who were also fighting the regime, but for rights and dignity, not as a fulfilment of some apocalyptic prophecy. “Whoever supports the infidels cannot be considered a good Muslim,” Mohamed says. “He is an apostate.” And soon enough, even President Bashar al-Assad’s opponents were being declared “apostates” and eliminated without mercy.

And then there was the fighting. The roar of shells, the explosion of mines, the screams of men, humans reduced to strips of flesh or stains on a wall. Ubiquitous death, excruciating pain, unrelenting fear. “If I had died, I would never have hugged my son again,” he says.

The contradictions of ISIS doctrine and the rigors of fighting seem to have finally gotten to him. Assailed by doubt, he wavered and eventually gave up.

“I still believe in the Islamic State, in the return of a pure form of Islam, but not getting your hands dirty with blood,” he insists. “Not beheading, torturing, raping.”

In the summer of 2015, Mohamed returned to Tunisia. He was immediately arrested and charged with belonging to a terrorist group. “I’m guilty, I know. But I served my sentence.” He spent five years in the Mornaguia prison, the largest penitentiary in the country, 14 kilometers (9 miles) from Tunis; 60 months in a freezing cell with 47 other people. There were anonymous bodies piled on top of each other in a gloomy, cramped space, filled with the smell of blood and sweat, where the torment dragged on.

Several times a day, between bars and concrete, the biggest offense took place: torture. First verbal, and then physical. First the threats, then the violence. First, the demands: “Collaborate or I’ll tear out your nails”; “Do you want to feel the razor blade on your genitals?”; “Answer, otherwise you are dead.” Then, “the cuts on the skin, the beatings, the slaps in the face … hands and feet tied, mouth gagged, the water on, the feeling of drowning.”

Article 23 of Tunisia’s new Constitution — approved on Jan. 26, 2014, and enacted on Feb. 10 of the same year — prohibits “moral or physical torture.” In practice, however, it all persists. The imperative, behind those gates, is just one: to obtain information. Because inside the increasingly crowded and unhealthy prisons, inmates for terrorism — who represent almost one-tenth of the Tunisian prison population — share space and time with those serving sentences for minor crimes. These are men who are psychologically weakened, eager to find significance in notions of Arab heroism and thus receptive to the “cause,” to Jihad, to the sirens of violent extremism. The combination of loneliness and shared pain gives rise to new dangers as the close contact, steady exchange of ideas, and fraternization breed what the discipline and control of prison is supposed to contain: the risk of radicalization.

“The detention centers multiply the possibilities of recruitment,” observes Moez Ali, president of the Union of Independent Tunisians for Freedom (UTIL), who works on the prevention of radicalization and violent extremism. “Those who enter for stealing or selling drugs, with no particular religious inclination, have a high probability of approaching the most radical Islam and become jihadists by internal osmosis.” This risk has been known to authorities at least since the early 2000s.

During long years of detention, young prisoners, in particular, began to absorb the messages of the “veterans” of Iraq, the Tunisians who had joined militant groups in Iraq to defend dar al-Islam — the territory of Islam — against the infidel. “The appeal was, and is, clear,” UTIL’s president points out. “No to foreign occupation and to the dismemberment of the Arab world; yes, instead, to the offensive, to resistance, to a return to the origins, to the pure forms of Islam.”

Since then, the prisons have become recruiting grounds for potential jihadists, adhering first to the vision of al Qaeda under Osama bin Laden and Ayman Al Zawahiri and later to ISIS and its Caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (since replaced by Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurashi just over a year ago). To date, in a reeling Tunisia, little has changed.

Law 75 of Dec. 10, 2003, under the military dictatorship of Ben Ali, was aimed at countering terrorism with sentences of five to 12 years in prison. By 2011, it had been used to detain 3,000 alleged terrorists, many of them convicted based on evidence extracted through torture. It failed. The 7,000-plus arrests since the fall of the regime have also failed to stem the tide. A post-revolution law enacted on July 25, 2015, is even harsher, increasing from six to 15 the number of days a suspect can be questioned in a secret place without contact with the outside world.

“The real problem is the lack of a targeted and functional long-term strategy,” explains Fakhreddine Louati, researcher at the Tunisian Institute for Strategic Studies (ITES). There is a lack of dedicated prisons with a special management regime — single cells, reduction of collective activities, prohibition of communication between inmates — and an absence of de-radicalization, re-education, and social reintegration programs. The security system remains myopic. “Nobody asks: What kind of relationships did the detainee build during the detention period? On which networks was he based? And, above all, where did he end up after the end of his sentence?”

For many, it means an uncertain future, overshadowed by danger, frustration, and recrimination. According to an ITES report, 90% of the jihadists in prison and their new proselytes nurse an unquenched desire for revenge. Far from rehabilitating them, the system further narrows their horizons, turning their detour into radicalism into destiny.

Tunisia, today, remains mired in corruption and offers few prospects to its youth; it is a very different country than the one dreamed of by the thousands who took to the streets inspired by Bouazizi. The public debt has more than doubled, going from 40% of GDP in 2010 to 87% in 2020; youth unemployment has reached 30%, a figure that rises to 60% in the south of the country; and the poverty rate exceeds 15%.

“Only the Tunisian elite are saved, the sons of the hawks in power,” Mohamed murmurs, shaking his head. “For us, ordinary people, there is only anger.”

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