Recruiting for Extremism – Rise of Islamic Extremism in Tunisia and Youth Recruitment for Syrian WarApril 11, 2013 in Tunisia
Fear of Extremism in Tunisia Rising
Tunisians fear a rise in Islamic militants will result in a threat to the moderate, democratic ideas that were intended in the birthplace of the Arab Spring. A weakened government, porous borders, and clashes between extremists and security forces, are causing tensions to increase in the nation.
As Malian and French-led forces battle to eliminate the Islamic extremist stronghold in Northern Mali, members of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and its allies have been searching for new locations to build power bases. Among those nations at risk are Syria, Yemen, and Tunisia. Analysts believe that Islamic extremists are exploiting the weakened government and security infrastructures resulting from the revolution, and using the frustration at the government to widen their support base. Sources estimate over 3,000 extremists currently live in Tunisia.
Over the last several months, Tunisian security forces have discovered several large arms caches and arrested dozens of suspected militants. Many of the weapons are believed to have come from Libya, and are assumed to have played a large role in the 2012 takeover of Northern Mali by AQIM and their affiliates. Tunisians fear that arms are also being stockpiled inside the country for use against the government if it continues to resist Ansar al-Sharia’s demands for Islamist rule.
Recruiting Tunisian Youths for Extremist Action in Syria
Last month, Tunisia began judicial investigations into networks which recruit Tunisian youths to fight in Syria. The Tunisian Ministry of Women’s Affairs and Family reports that many teenagers disappear after networks target both male and female youths. The youths are then recruited through “intellectual and doctrinal mobilisation.” In most instances, families are unaware of their children’s departure from Tunisia until they receive a phone call informing them of the youth’s arrival in Syria.
The investigations follow demonstrations by Tunisian families who demanded that authorities put an end to the recruiting networks. For several months, media outlets have reported stories about Tunisians in Syria, indicating that thousands had gone to fight, and over 100 have reportedly been killed in the revolt against the Assad regime. Government opposition figures have accused the Ennahda-led government of knowing about the recruitment networks and hiding their identity. Ennahda leaders have denied these accusations.
Tunisian Prime Minister Ali Larayedh said that the government is addressing the files of Tunisians known to be fighting in Syria, and also stated strict security measures have been implemented on the Libya/Tunisia border to prevent potential youth extremists from passing through Libya on their way Syria. Some youths are believed to travel to Libya or Turkey under the pretext of work or tourism, and then go on to Syria. However, stopping these youths is problematic; security forces could be stopping people who are legitimately travelling for work, school, or tourism, and authorities cannot legally prevent citizens from travelling. Most critically, Tunisian security forces are spread thinly, and unable to fully protect the porous border.
The greater fear is that returning extremists will return to pose a threat to Tunisia. Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki states, “They must be persuaded that the real jihad in their own country is combating poverty, unemployed and ignorance.”
Tunisian Extremists Return from Syria, await Domestic “Jihad”
The first arrest in connection to Tunisian extremists returning from Syria was issued last week against Abu Zayd Al Tounsi, a militant who fought in Syria for eight months and returned to Tunisia in March. Upon his return, Al Tounsi appeared on “Attasiaa Massaa,” a programme on the Tunisian television channel Attounsiya. Al Tounsi spoke about participating in the Syrian war and killing several people, and stated that he would also participate in “jihad” in Tunisia if such a fatwa were launched. Finally, he called on Tunisian youths to join the armed uprising in Syria. Al Tounsi was arrested on 4 April, and is expected to face trial in the next few weeks on charges of incitement to terrorism.
Al Tounsi’s statements caused nationwide controversy, and the lack of official government response or action increased public outrage. Al Tounsi’s announcement underscored fears stemming from an earlier revelation by the Interior Ministry that AQIM and its affiliates intended to set up a camp just inside Tunisian border with Libya to practice jihad and impose their form of Islamic law.
In 2012, political activist Abdelkarim Ben Boubaker estimated the Salafist plan to implement the ideas of al Qaeda: “The aim was to change the societal model by a coup against the gains of the modern state, leading to the establishment of an Islamic emirate.” Former Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali echoed this estimate, acknowledging that Salafist groups operate security patrols in some neighbourhoods, openly verbalising their desire to replace the state. The groups have a larger presence in neighbourhoods which suffer from poverty and marginalisation, using charity projects to gain public support. Ansar al-Sharia, for example, uses caravans to distribute goods to the needy in mountain villages and small towns. A recent study showed that in Tunisia, people between 19 and 30 years old represent about 80 per cent of the overall percentage of the Salafist movement, and in some regions up to 40% of the population are sympathetic to the movement.
U.S. and Tunisian authorities are increasingly worried. United States Army General Carter Ham, head of the U.S. Africa Command, declared, “It’s very clear to me that al Qaida intends to establish a presence in Tunisia.” Tunisian President Larayedh has spoken of “an inevitable confrontation.”