Worry in Tunisia Over Youths Who Turn to Jihad
By Carlotta Gall, NY Times, December 18, 2013
ZAGHOUAN, Tunisia—Hayet Saadi says the trouble with her son Aymen began more than a year ago, when he was just 16. He started attending the mosque five times a day, she said. Then he began talking of jihad, and of going to Syria to join the rebels fighting the government of President Bashar al-Assad. In March, he skipped his high school exams and left home.
Finally, on Oct. 30, Ms. Saadi came home to find the police surrounding her house. A suicide bomber had blown himself up in Sousse, a seaside resort about an hour’s drive south. Another was caught before he could detonate his payload. The police confiscated the family’s computers and phones, and her husband spent the rest of the day at the police station. He called her later from there. “Yes, it is your child,” he told her. Aymen is now in prison.
In the weeks since the attack, Aymen’s trajectory from promising student to potential suicide bomber has shaken Tunisia, where the Islamist government has recently shown moderation by striking a compromise with its secular opponents. Homegrown suicide attacks, previously unheard-of here, are the latest sign of spreading radicalization among young people in a country that has become fertile ground for Islamist groups recruiting fighters for the conflicts convulsing the region.
For now, jihadist violence in Tunisia is on a low boil, with two political assassinations and 30 members of the security forces killed this year. But there is growing concern that hundreds of young volunteers have been recruited through a widening network of hard-line Salafist mosques and then trained to fight in Syria, with the potential to return home to cause more trouble, as Aymen and his companion did.
"Even if just 200 come back, that could cause real problems," said Mehdi Taje, the director of Global Prospect Intelligence and a specialist on North Africa. And Syria is not the only place radicalized Tunisians have gone to fight. They have also been found with jihadist groups in Algeria, Iraq, Libya and Mali.
There is a precedent next door. Algerians who went to Afghanistan in the 1980s to fight Soviet forces returned to fuel an Islamic movement and then a civil war at home that killed about 200,000 in the 1990s. Twenty years later Algeria is still dealing with insurgents, who have retreated into the desert.
The Tunisian police and army officials have warned of signs that Islamist insurgents may be laying the groundwork for an armed insurgency in their own country, which lies between Algeria and lawless Libya.
Since Tunisia began the Arab Spring almost three years ago by ousting its longtime dictator, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, who had forcibly secularized the country, fundamentalist Salafist groups have sprouted in almost every town. They draw thousands of young men and women to their mosques, where they recruit volunteers ostensibly for missionary work in Tunisia, but also for jihad.
Some began vigilante attacks, including an assault in September 2012 on the United States Embassy in Tunis, days after the fatal attack on the American Mission in Benghazi, Libya. In the spring, armed groups also appeared in the hills bordering Algeria, apparently remnants of insurgents retreating from the French intervention in Mali.
Tunisia’s top general, Rachid Ammar, warned in a television interview in June that militant Islamists lodged in the mountains on Tunisia’s western border were training quasi-military units and were set on overthrowing the Tunisian state and setting up Islamic rule.
"This is not terrorism, it’s a rebellion," warned the general, who has since retired.