No single pattern in radicalisation of foreign fighters, says Tunisian study
The territorial contraction of the Islamic State (ISIS) and the dispersal of its fighters create a particularly dangerous situation for Tunisia, whose foreign fighter population is surprisingly high.
This has led to a wariness about a possible surge in fighters returning to carry out attacks or facilitate financial and recruitment activity in Tunisia. New flows of foreign fighters to nearby hotspots, such as Libya, could add to that country’s chaos and increase the risk of its being used as a springboard towards Tunisia.
It is within this context that the Tunisian Institute for Strategic Studies conducted a study titled “Assessing the Threat Posed by Tunisian Foreign Fighters” to profile Tunisian foreign fighters, provide an understanding of the root causes of the phenomenon and help authorities come to grips with the complexity of radicalisation as they seek viable countermeasures.
The study relied on interviews with 83 individuals — 80 men and three women — convicted of terrorism-related offences. Among them were 58 people who either travelled, attempted to travel, expressed their intention to travel or were prevented from travelling to conflict zones. Some of them perpetrated terrorist attacks in Tunisia in the 2011-16 period.
A systematic identification of convicted foreign fighters was conducted in all high-security prisons where they were being held. All were subjected to face-to-face interviews. They participated in 18 focus groups and were given the opportunity to interact with one another. The research team asked about the subjects’ family, community and institutions, the cultural and social context in which they were raised and the values and events they internalised.
The research team concluded there was no identifiable pattern: They found as many life trajectories as the number of interviewees. Nevertheless, there was a consensus among all interviewees that one or more of the following factors were decisive in their radicalisation:
— A strong feeling of injustice: Rights have become dreams and even dreams are either dashed or unattainable. Interviewees cited bad governance and corruption as being responsible for the lack of economic opportunities and high rate of unemployment, especially among college graduates.
— A deep-seated feeling of hatred towards police and security forces. Most of the subjects recalled instances of injustice and abuse perpetrated by authorities, not poverty, as the driving force behind embracing ISIS’s vision of rights and justice.
— Frustration with political authorities, mainly during the Islamist-led government’s troika period (2011-13). Most interviewees named specific political parties and figures that encouraged them to travel to Syria, which was portrayed to them as an act of inward solidarity that is neither unethical nor illegal. Most claimed they were unaware that fighting in foreign wars or that liking or sharing a terror group’s Facebook page was a crime.
— A conflictual relationship with their home-country. In prioritising their belonging to an entity or group, very few mentioned Tunisia in the first place or at all.
— The failure of the educational system, which, the interviewees said, obfuscates religious education and history, devalues the individual’s effort and downplays soft skills, such as critical thinking.
— Domestic violence is dominant among radicalised women.
— Hatred of and lack of trust in the West: Western intervention in the MENA region is a primary source of anger and grievance for the interviewees. They all mentioned the perceived double standards of the Western powers — mainly the United States as being the evil power. For all of them, the continued occupation of the Palestinian territories and the impunity of Israel remain festering wounds that make ISIS look like a viable alternative to regaining “the greatness of Islamic civilisation.”
It’s worth noting that the overwhelming majority of foreign fighters interviewed seemed to enjoy the active support of their families, who pay them regular visits and back them morally and financially inside the prisons, and the sympathetic feelings of their friends and neighbours. This demonstrates that the radical milieu that sympathises with terrorist groups is a sizeable one and represents a real challenge, and that the foreign-fighter phenomenon is only the tip of a much larger iceberg.