How is Tunisia dealing with the threat of returning jihadists?
Tunis- With the defeat of the Islamic State (ISIS) in the Syrian city of Tabqa, the eventual liberation of Raqqa and the dislodging of militants from western Mosul, the apocalyptic fantasies of the radicals are crumbling. The decline of ISIS, however, does not mean a defeat of extremism.
Indeed, paranoia is running deep with the emergence of the imminent threat of returning jihadists.
Experts said that many foreign fighters have returned to their home countries and, in view of recent developments, the returns are expected to pick up pace.
Tunisian Interior Minister Hedi Majdoub declared in April that “almost 3,000 Tunisian nationals are in hot spots, with 60% in Syria and 30% in Libya.” That estimation stirred new controversy with critics referring to previous UN estimates that had put the number of Tunisian foreign fighters at 5,500.
Ludovico Carlino, a senior analyst with IHS Conflict Monitor, said it is “extremely difficult to have a definitive figure.”
“A figure between 3,000 and 5,000 would be the most realistic estimate, although it is impossible to ascertain exactly how many fighters have been killed in conflict zones,” he said.
Tunisia has been evasive on the policies that should be adopted towards returning militants. Last December, Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi said that those who return would be processed according to the provisions of the 2015 counterterrorism law. However, critics of this approach argue that the law is too focused on security and fails to address the root causes of the phenomenon.
Tunisia is also facing a logistical problem, with few facilities to accommodate new prisoners. Another serious concern is that prisons might turn into radicalisation incubators.
“The treatment of cases related to terrorism is a strenuous process for the lawyers and the judiciary system,” said Fadoua Braham, a lawyer who has been representing retuning jihadists. “The anti-terrorism pole, which involves eight investigating magistrates, is specialised in addressing this phenomenon in terms of intervention, security, investigation and intelligence.”
“One single case can involve up to 90 suspects at a time, which renders the process quite complex and wearing. After the investigation, the cases are submitted to the indictment chamber, which can return them to the anti-terrorism pole or refer them to the court,” Braham said.
She said the obstacles facing the judicial system are multiple.
“Today we know that 800 jihadists have returned. In the absence of witnesses and evidence, the suspects face generally two main charges, either that of joining a terrorist group or that of pledging allegiance to a terrorist group,” Braham said.
She insisted that the real criminals, notably recruiters and those who participated in battles, were slipping through the system.
“Senior members of terrorist groups have the financial and logistical means to acquire fake identity documents. The few who are facing trial are young people with no alternative than to come back and face justice,” Braham said.
She noted that the families were in denial, with most of them arguing that their “naïve” sons and daughters had been manipulated into joining terrorist groups.
“Most of the families are turning a blind eye to the facts. In some cases, a jihadist would return to Tunisia then leave again to Syria. This means that his return is not an act of repentance as some families would like us to believe,” Braham said.
She drew a bleak picture of the situation.
“Some of my clients who come from popular neighbourhoods told me that they returned to a hero’s welcome, with their friends and neighbours commending their actions.
“These returning jihadists have been exposed to a myriad of war atrocities and some of them have admitted to the use of psychedelic drugs. Most of them would only confess to participation in training exercises,” Braham said.
She deplored the absence of a de-radicalisation programme, noting that “the integration of these returning jihadists remains a far-off prospect.”
Some optimistic experts argued that foreign fighters can serve as valuable sources of intelligence and information, provided they renounce jihadist ideology.
Carlino agreed but insisted that Tunisia needs to create “a sound and comprehensive strategy of de-radicalisation.”
Braham said that such an expectation is far-fetched and not viable under current provisions.
“In accordance with the Tunisian law, an accused cannot expect any deal if he testifies against others. By doing so, he only runs the risk of facing the charge of forming a criminal organisation,” Braham said.