Deradicalisation, an imminent challenge for Tunisia

Addressing disillusionment with the state and exclusion from society is a key part of countering extremism, experts said.
Thursday 25/04/2019
This photo dated, Thursday, February 2, 2017 shows the Habib Bourguiba avenue which is the central thoroughfare of Tunis and considered the historical political and economic heart of Tunisia. (AP)
This photo dated, Thursday, February 2, 2017 shows the Habib Bourguiba avenue which is the central thoroughfare of Tunis and considered the historical political and economic heart of Tunisia. (AP)

TUNIS - With the Islamic State caliphate all but defeated, foreign fighters returning to their home countries pose a serious challenge for officials tasked with prosecuting their crimes and reintegrating them into society.

But the broader question of how to confront their extremist ideologies -- and stop them from gaining traction -- is one that analysts fear will be even more complex.

The issue is of particular relevance to Tunisia. Thousands of its citizens travelled to Syria to join the war in support of the Islamic State (ISIS) and extremist ideas appeal to a segment of the Tunisia's youth population, analysts warned.

“Although Tunisia does not have significant levels of religiously conservative Muslims... radical ideologies are nonetheless finding a foothold among a frustrated and marginalised segment of the population,” the International Republican Institute said in a report in 2016.

“These marginalised portions of the population are open to radical, often violent ideology in part because they do not believe that there are viable, nonviolent means of alleviating grievances.”

The radicalisation process, experts said, is varied and complex, involving social, economic, political and ideological components that are different in each case. This makes it impossible, they said, to draw up one distinct profile for extremists or attribute their actions to one motivation.

“Any commentator who boils jihadist mobilisation down to one particular cause should not be taken seriously,” jihadism expert Aaron Zelin wrote in a recent report.

Tunisian citizens travelling to Syria, for example, had disparate motivations -- from political disillusionment, to commitment to a worldwide Muslim caliphate to a desire for personal redemption -- noted Zelin in the report published by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Tunisian foreign fighters are even a diverse group on paper, coming from a wide range of socio-economic backgrounds.

“Tunisia, unlike other countries, saw jihadists come from many parts of the country, not just in the capital or big cities” said Zelin at a conference titled “Tackling Youth Radicalisation Through Post-Revolutionary Tunisia” April 12 in Tunis.

There are some common points, studies indicate. A 2018 report by Tunisia’s state-run Institute for Strategic Studies that surveyed 82 convicted terrorists, including 58 prospective foreign fighters or returnees, said such individuals often share a broad sense of disillusionment with the state and anger at perceived injustice and oppression.

“Tunisia is a country of injustice… a country of confinement/imprisonment,” said one foreign fighter returnee quoted anonymously in the survey.

Another respondent said: “Tunisia has no state. Tunisia has a gang which governs it.”

The view that the Tunisian government is corrupt, abusive and oppressive was prevalent among those surveyed in the study. Nearly all -- 90% -- associated Tunisia, either totally or partially, with the image of “the country of injustice,” wrote the study’s authors.

Addressing this sense of disillusionment with the state and exclusion from society is a key part of countering extremism, especially among youth, experts said.

“This mentality (radicalisation) can only be addressed by providing youth with a new dream, a new social contract,” Islamic scholar Iqbal al-Gharbi said at the Tunis conference.

“Youth are looking for a reason to live,” added Vice-President of the Court of First Instance in Manouba Omar Oueslati, who is an expert in freedom of expression and hate speech. “They need a structure, a framework.”

Tunisia’s recent municipal elections, Zelin noted, could be a step in that direction, providing citizens with greater opportunity to effect tangible change on the local level.

Engagement with civil society and improved religious literacy -- “We need to pass on the real history of Islam to our children,” said Gharbi -- are also part of the solution.

For foreign fighter returnees steeped in extremist ideology, the path is more complex. First, separating them from other inmates in prisons, which are known to incubate more extremists, is critical, noted Zelin. There is also the need to ensure they are “rehabilitated psychologically” before being pushed to reintegrate, said Oueslati.

Ultimately, deradicalisation efforts are largely uncharted territory and whether they succeed in reforming extremists and moving them from disengagement to inclusion in society remains to be seen.