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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 27 March 2019

Tunisia: returning foreign fighters could contribute to radicalising others, activists say

As many as 6,500 Tunisians may have travelled to Syria

People walk in front of the Tunis Palace of Justice in Tunis. More than 40 people have been summoned to face trial over Tunisia's deadliest attack in a Mediterranean resort in 2015. AP
People walk in front of the Tunis Palace of Justice in Tunis. More than 40 people have been summoned to face trial over Tunisia's deadliest attack in a Mediterranean resort in 2015. AP

That ISIS has been shedding its foreign fighters for some time comes as no surprise. By Saturday night, a population that once colonised a landmass equal to the United Kingdom was reduced to a tiny patch of land in eastern Syria.

The beginning of the end of Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi's group came in the spring of 2016, which saw the initial scattering of many of ISIS's foreign fighters. Some relocated to conflict zones elsewhere in the world or, defeated, returned to the families and countries they had left behind.

Nowhere is this truer than in Tunisia, one of the largest per capita contributors to ISIS and its antecedents.

According to recent estimates by the Washington Institute around 2,900 Tunisians left to fight in Syria and Iraq.

Two western diplomats have told Human Rights Watch the number could be higher than that cited by Tunisia officials, with up to 6,500 having travelled to Syria and up to 1,500 to Libya. The numbers, says HRW, include as many as 1,000 women.

According to a senior government source, around 1,000 of those fighters have returned to Tunisia over the last eight years.

While none of the returnees have been linked to the recent attacks in Tunisia, activists have expressed concerns that their presence in the country may contribute to the radicalisation of others, whose actions could continue to blight Tunisia’s fragile democratic transition.

The country has been under a state of emergency since 2015, following a series of mass attacks on civilians by ISIS and other groups.

Of the over 1,000 Tunisians who have returned between 2011 and 2018, an unspecified number remain under house arrest, detained in the same towns and communities where they were first radicalised. Some are subject to travel restrictions that block them from leaving Tunisia. While others have been crammed into Tunisia’s creaking prison system – far from the country's civilian population, but just a stone's throw away from other inmates. Often, too easy a prey for recruiters.

Some officials worry that parts of the prisons are run like statelets, says Aaron Zelin, a Fellow at The Washington Institute.

“Who knows how true that is, or to what extent. But there are definitely gang-like dynamics at play," said Dr Zelin. Religious extremism, he added, is often the binding element, rather than drugs or money.

Despite being housed separately from the rest of the inmates, radicalisation remains a risk, says Mohamed Iqbel Ben Rejeb.

Mr Ben Rejeb is the president of the Rescue Association for Tunisians Trapped Abroad, an NGO dedicated to liaising between the families of fighters and the authorities. His research is based on his communication with returning fighters and their families.

In the absence of de-radicalisation programmes, said Mr Ben Rejeb, returnees, “are already radicalising other people, even if they say that there is separation between the terrorist prisoners and the other prisoners.”

Thus far, there appears to be little intermingling between the relatively small number of Tunisia’s hardscrabble insurgents, whose sporadic, though vicious, raids from Tunisia's mountains appear to have little connection to the grand designs of groups likes ISIS.

“The state considers [that] those who are on probation or waiting to appear in court are not dangerous and are easily monitored and evaluated,” said Nabil Barkati, a researcher with the Tunis-based think tank Maghreb Economic Forum.

However, added Mr Barkati, returning fighters to the community where they were first radicalised does entail a security risk. Assessing the overall risk can be difficult, with the screening criteria ambiguous at best.

With a shrinking economy and job opportunities increasingly scarce, the likelihood of integrating returning fighters into their communities remains daunting.

"In Tunisia, there aren't many chances for normal youths who didn't leave for conflict zones," Mr Ben Rejeb told The National. "So imagine what the chances are for a young person with a criminal record, never mind one tied to terrorism.

Under current conditions, it is almost impossible for any young person to find a normal life."

Updated: March 4, 2019 01:25 AM

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