Hedi Yahmed’s Under the Banner of the Eagle
Tunis - Hedi Yahmed is an award-winning Tunisian reporter whose recently published book, Under the Banner of the Eagle, tells of Tunisian jihadists who for two decades have chosen to follow the path of al-Qaeda, the Islamic State (ISIS) and other radical Islamist groups.
The banner of the eagle — or black standard — is the flag that traditionally has been used by militant Islamist organisations, including ISIS, based on their interpretation of Islamic military history.
Yahmed describes his book as “a journey through time and space to find answers about Tunisian jihadist Salafism since September 11th”.
The author interviewed key figures of Tunisian jihadism in Tunis, Cairo, Paris, Gothenburg and Damascus. He said he sees his book as “the first reference work on the phenomenon of jihadism” in Tunisia.
The main question Yahmed tries to answer is why young Tunisians have been so attracted to jihadism that, according to international sources, they form the largest foreign contingent of militants in Syria and Iraq. The author gives no definite answer but offers a discussion of the complex set of factors at play.
Yahmed said he does not believe that repression of religious movements under Tunisia’s former president, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, is sufficient to explain the draw exerted by jihadism on Tunisian youth. Jihadist appeal, he argues, has been strong even in places such as Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt, where followers of Salafism enjoyed “a large degree of religious freedom” compared to many other countries.
Economic factors, such as poverty and marginalisation, play a role in radicalisation, although young people from well-to-do backgrounds in the Arab world and Europe have been attracted to jihadism. In Europe, there have been additional factors, such as racism, Yahmed says.
“The reasons behind the Salafist phenomenon are complex and must be linked to some of the fundamental religious tenets,” says Yahmed. He points out the role played by “traditional Islamic educational and religious teaching programmes” including those legitimising jihad or considering non- Muslims to be infidels.
It is imperative, according to Yahmed, that there be “a real and serious overhaul of these programmes”. He says, “Reform of religious education curricula has become an issue of great importance in the Arab region, particularly in relation to those concepts which continue to breed fundamentalism.”
Yahmed says jihadists have lost most of their constituencies in Tunisia since their involvement in assassinations of political leaders in 2013. That year, leftist leaders Chokri Belaid and Mohamed Brahmi were killed by squads believed to be connected to the al-Qaeda-affiliated Ansar al- Sharia of Tunisia, which was later declared a terrorist organisation by the government. The killings threw the country into turmoil.
Yahmed says Tunisian security services have improved since the assassinations.
Another question Yahmed explores is how the behaviour of jihadist groups changed in Tunisia after the 2011 uprising. For one thing, jihadists have enjoyed a more favourable operational environment. Although it continued to adhere to the same ideological references of its predecessors, the new generation of militants “differed from the pre-revolution generations in the sense that they possessed new skills and operated in political and cultural environments, which offered them new freedom of action,” Yahmed says.
The author also points to security lapses and to policies followed by the Islamist-led coalition that ruled Tunisia from 2011-13. Networks specialising in smuggling jihadists to Syria took advantage of the fraying security system as well as the propitious climate created by government support for the Syrian opposition.
The end of government control over mosques allowed jihadist Salafists to use places of worship as venues for radicalisation and recruitment.
Detailing the affiliation of Tunisian jihadists, Yahmed argues that “the majority of the jihadist movement in Tunisia is connected to the Ansar al-Sharia group, which is both religiously and operationally allied to al-Qaeda.” In recent months, however, some Tunisian jihadists have pledged allegiance to ISIS, he notes, adding: “There are signs the allegiance chart is changing.”
Prisons continue to be another breeding ground for jihadists. Today, there are about 2,000 prison inmates who are known to adhere to jihadist Salafism, says Yahmed. The writer bemoans the fact that “the government has no real programme for reforming them ideologically and for their future reintegration into the society.”
Hedi Yahmed, who also is editor of Hakaekonline, a Tunisian news website, says he intends to continue writing about jihadism in Tunisia and the Arab world at large. “A more active exchange of views between experts in the region and beyond is more crucial than ever,” he says.