How is Tunisia dealing with the threat of returning jihadists?

Sunday 21/05/2017
High vigilance. A Tunisian gendarme stands guard as a journalist leaves a house where two suspected jihadists were killed in Ariana province, last year. (AFP)

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.