Deported extremists are ‘like a time bomb’, says Tunisian admiral

Interview with former Tunisian National Security Adviser, retired Admiral Kamel Akrout.
Thursday 05/11/2020
French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin leaves Elysee Palace in Paris after the weekly cabinet meeting , on October 14. AFP
French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin leaves Elysée Palace in Paris after the weekly cabinet meeting , on October 14. (AFP)

TUNIS--French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin is expected in Tunis Friday to discuss a number of delicate issues including a likely request by Paris for the deportation of a number of Tunisian extremist suspects and illegal immigrants from France.

The request is part of new measures taken by France for the purpose of fighting illegal migration and extremist activities in the wake of last week’s gruesome attack against a Nice church during which three people were allegedly killed by a 21-year-old Tunisian illegal migrant.

The attack, which comes on the heels of the brutal killing of French middle school teacher Samuel Paty, has sparked a major outcry in France and put pressure on the government to take tougher measures against extremist activities and illegal migration. Some measures have already been taken, while others are being discussed and are likely to include the deportation of extremism suspects and illegal migrants to their respective countries of origin in the Maghreb.

But as explained by former Tunisian National Security Adviser, Retired Admiral Kamel Akrout in this interview with The Arab Weekly, deportation measures raise many complex issues that will not be easy to tackle. Retired Admiral Akrout puts the issues in their Tunisian and French contexts and explains why it is going to be very difficult for Tunisian authorities to acquiesce to the French requests.

Retired Admiral Kamel Akrout. (TAW)
Retired Admiral Kamel Akrout. (TAW)

 INTERVIEW

 The Arab Weekly: French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin is preparing to visit Tunis, nearly a week after the terrorist attack in which an illegal Tunisian immigrant was involved. What do you expect from this visit?

Kamel Akrout: The visit of the French Minister of the Interior to Tunisia was already scheduled, prior to the attack in Nice, as part of a North African tour taking him to Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia. But the minister had to cut short this tour and returned to France from Morocco, following the assassination of French teacher Samuel Paty. He subsequently rescheduled his visits to the three countries for the end of this week.

The decision to go on with the visit is the result of pressure from the street and the conservative and right-wing extremist parties in France, and their demand that the French government take tougher measures against individuals who are seen as a security threat to France.

The recent terrorist incidents, especially the Nice attack, in which a Tunisian immigrant was involved, inflamed the French street and increased pressure on the Macron government to step up measures against radical Islamists.

And indeed, the Macron government has taken till now several measures, including:

  • Banning bringing mosque imams from outside France.
  • Imposing restrictions on the freedom of movement of political Islam, which the Elysee spokesperson called the “root of the evil.”
  • Closely monitoring mosques.
  • Closely monitoring Islamic cultural centres, which the French president considered a real “Trojan horse” that could spread extremist ideas according to French authorities.
  • Closing down and banning some associations, such as the Ahmed Yassin Society and the Turkish ultra-nationalist “Grey Wolves.”
  • Expelling Islamic extremists from France and deporting them to their countries of origin.

TAW: Besides their security implications, how do you see the consequences of these measures?

KA: The overall atmosphere in which these measures came in France is likely to lead to more restrictions on foreigners, especially those coming from countries like Tunisia, and may be further expanded to include stricter procedures related to immigration and the granting of visas.

Moreover, the atmosphere in France after the Nice incident suggests growing feelings of Islamophobia and racism among segments of society amid talking about protecting the secular and civil character of the state.

TAW: The French press is talking about the possibility that the French minister comes equipped with lists of individuals concerned by requests for deportation to the Maghreb countries. Who do you think would be subjected to such deportation measures?

KA: In France there are about seven million Muslims. The French minister of the interior spoke of about 231 people concerned by deportation (and after the Nice attack, there was talk about the possible deportation of 400 Tunisians). Most of these are foreigners residing in France illegally, including 180 prison detainees suspected of “espousing extremist religious beliefs.”

This raises a number of questions:

  • What are these “extremist religious beliefs”? Can they be defined?
  • Who are these 231 individuals who would be concerned by the deportation measure, and who are these 400 Tunisians who suddenly emerged after the Nice incident? Are these individuals with dual citizenship and what is the percentage of Tunisians among the 231 individuals slated for deportation?

It must be noted here that some of the bi-nationals, especially those of the second generation, do not even speak Arabic and may have never visited Tunisia in their lives.

  • If among the deportees there are women with children in their custody, would the children be deported with them? And if some of the deported men are the sole bread winners of their families, would the whole family be deported as well?
  • Is Tunisia willing and prepared to accept the deportees, especially since France, despite its considerable means, was unable to deter, rehabilitate, and integrate them into society?
  • Is the number of individuals to be deported 231 or 400, or is it likely to be more?
  • Will the deportation take place only from France or will it expand to include other countries?

Answers to all these questions must be clear and their answers must be clear so that they are taken into consideration by the Tunisian side. I’m also convinced that if we, in Tunisia, accept the principle of deportation and acquiesce to the French request, we will not be able in the future to turn down requests for larger numbers of deportations from other countries.

French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin delivers a speech on September 29, 2020 at the National Assembly in Paris.  (AFP)
French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin delivers a speech on September 29, 2020 at the National Assembly in Paris.  (AFP)

TAW: Faced with all these questions and concerns, what should be the Tunisian government’s reactions in your opinion?

KA: After these terrorist operations and the involvement of immigrants from Tunisia in them, it is expected that the pressure on Tunisia will increase from France, as well as from several other European countries. This is all the more true that Europe, where extremist and takfirist groups have grown and matured in plain sight and under everyone’s noses, is now finding itself on a hot tin roof and engaged in an open war with these groups and perhaps also with other groups and anyone who is closely or remotely connected to them. A large part of Europe is now on high alert, and we, in Tunisia, are on the verge of major developments and pressures as a result of this new situation.

The Tunisian position has always been strict on the issue of the return of extremists from conflict hotspots, and it seems unlikely that Tunisia will agree to the French request, especially since neither its capabilities nor its internal and regional conditions would allow it to do so.

TAW: Why fear receiving deported extremists?

KA: The deported extremists are like time bombs, highly explosive and represent danger to the security and stability of our country. Furthermore, monitoring them is a very expensive task that far surpasses Tunisia’s capacities, especially that our security and military forces have been engaged during the last ten years in an open war against terrorism, trafficking, illegal migration, organised crime stemming from the situation in Libya, the Sahel and the Sahara; and are in the final analysis helping protect the southern shore of Europe.

TAW: So what is to be done?

KA: We can monitor and draw conclusions from what other Maghrebi countries will do, as well as look at the decisions of European countries themselves when they were asked to take back their nationals returning from trouble spots.

In this context, it must be kept in mind that most European countries did not agree to the return of their nationals from Syria and Iraq, and even suggested sending people with dual citizenship back to their countries of origin.

Like I said, the Tunisian position has always been strict regarding the issue of the return of militants from zones of conflict, and until now we have no information indicating whether or not Tunisia will accept the request of France or of any other country.

I personally rule out that Tunisia will agree to the French request, or that it will be ready to receive extremists whom France, despite its considerable capabilities, found difficult to deter and contain.

Tunisia’s Foreign Minister Othman Jerandi speaks with his French counterpart Jean Yves Le Drian (R) in Tunis on October 22. (AFP)
Tunisia’s Foreign Minister Othman Jerandi speaks with his French counterpart Jean Yves Le Drian (R) in Tunis on October 22. (AFP)

TAW: Who is the Tunisian party qualified to make the decision?

KA: The issue is a national security issue par excellence, and in my opinion the decision should be up to Tunisia’s National Security Council after its examination by permanent specialised committees, noting that if the French request is met, we will find it difficult to turn down similar demands from other countries. We should also be prepared for the eventuality that accepting to receive five deportees, for example, could quickly turn to having to accept ten times that number if not more.