Tunisians wave national flags and shout slogans during a rally in Tunis on 14 January 2016.
Tunisia remains the only country in the Middle East and North Africa to have firmly embarked on a democratic transition in the wake of the 2010–2011 Arab uprisings. Yet, the fledgling democracy faces a number of challenges, not least the growth in jihadi radicalisation. Tackling this persistent threat requires a range of responses from working with civil-society actors to establishing deradicalisation programmes inside and outside prisons.
Tunisia today is home to affiliates of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and ISIS, as well as a pool of uninstitutionalised jihadis. The country is also one of the largest exporters of foreign fighters to Iraq and Syria, as well as to neighbouring Libya. So far, some 800 such individuals are known to have returned home, with this number likely to rise after the fall of ISIS’s proclaimed caliphate in the Levant and the liberation of Sirte in Libya.
A number of structural factors are at the heart of radicalisation processes in Tunisia. Some of these factors were present during the initial years of the transition to democracy. These include the loss of state control over several hundred mosques, which became nodes in the spread of extremist ideas, as well as new-found freedoms of expression and assembly that enabled Salafi groups, such as Ansar al-Sharia Tunisia (AST), to openly proselytise and encourage jihad abroad.
Initial leniency towards a growing Salafi current and AST in particular was replaced by an over-reliance on repressive measures aimed at combatting terrorism, including mass and often indiscriminate arrests. The virtual impunity with which the security forces still operate has also led to instances of torture and mistreatment. Not surprisingly, such excesses have themselves become drivers of radicalisation.
Besides the blowback from the overreach of the security forces, a number of other factors contribute to jihadi radicalisation. Secularisation of society and the systematic weakening of Tunisia’s religious establishment under former President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali have led to many Tunisians growing up without a profound knowledge of Islam, which has facilitated the spread of jihadi ideology and the co-optation of religious identity.
Multiple forms of exclusion have also increased vulnerability to jihadi narratives.
The high hopes of the early transitional phase have given way to disillusionment with the democratic transition, with many young people feeling excluded from the political process. This sense of political alienation is compounded by various types of socio-economic exclusion that have either gone unaddressed or even worsened since 2011, notably linked to youth unemployment and a lack of infrastructural investment in certain regions.
Conflict and instability in the wider region have also acted as pull factors. ISIS in Syria and Iraq managed to attract large numbers of Tunisians with its promises of establishing an Islamic state and coming to the aid of oppressed Sunnis, as well as spiritual and material incentives, all of which fed on the unaddressed grievances of Tunisian youths. When it became harder to travel to the Levant, ISIS encouraged its followers to join its North African affiliate in conflict-afflicted Libya, whose proximity undoubtedly became a facilitating factor for would-be foreign fighters.
To date, Tunisian governments have taken a number of measures, some of which are aimed at addressing these structural drivers of jihadi radicalisation. There has been an effort to regain state control of the religious sphere and reduce opportunities for the promotion of jihadi ideology. However, much work remains to be done to curb the growth of jihadi radicalisation in the country. While such measures need to be owned by Tunisians, international actors should not shy away from lending support where it is needed.
The Tunisian authorities have taken steps to limit opportunities for the open propagation of extremist ideas.
But this may have added to the number of independent Salafi-jihadis operating alone or in small groups, whose activities could go undetected. The state is likely to need to work with civilian actors to prevent ultra-conservative youths from falling into parallel structures. Nurturing community trust through community policing should be a part of this endeavour, as should working with religious groups, to the extent that they are not instigators of violence or hate.
Tunisia also needs to move forward with security-sector reform, which has so far met resistance from the Tunisian administration and from politicians who fear being perceived as soft on terrorism. Tunisia’s international partners should encourage acceptance of measures to reinforce security-sector governance with respect to the rule of law and accountability. Failing to undertake security-sector reform is only likely to feed radicalisation over the long run.
To reduce socio-economic exclusion, Tunisia needs to boost public investment in neglected neighbourhoods and regions and combine it with the creation of social and educational opportunities for youths in these areas. More generally, young people need to be integrated into the formal economy through job creation. To enhance political inclusion, the country must build bridges between the formal political sphere and civil society to encourage youth participation in politics. Here, Tunisia’s partners could help by offering mentoring and training to government and political parties in youth and civil-society engagement.
Finally, a more balanced approach to dealing with returning foreign fighters is required. At present, returnees are either held in overcrowded prisons that can themselves be sites of radicalisation and recruitment or placed under house arrest. Yet, the experiences of other countries suggest that striking the right balance between repressive and softer measures is critical. International actors should encourage steps to reduce overcrowding and mistreatment in prisons as well the creation of deradicalisation programmes inside and outside prisons. Support in implementing a more balanced approach could be offered in the form of transfer of know-how and capacity building among relevant state and civil-society actors. Taken together, these steps would do much to help curb jihadi radicalisation in Tunisia.