Hedi Yahmed’s Under the Banner of the Eagle

Friday 12/06/2015

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.