Threat of returning jihadists stirs debate in Tunisia

Sunday 15/01/2017
Tunisians demonstrate in Tunis on January 8th against the return of jihadists fighting for extremist groups abroad. (Reuters)

Tunis - The question of whether to admit jihadist Tunisians back into the country has become a hotly debated political and security is­sue.
With the number of Tunisian ex­tremists fighting abroad estimated at about 3,000 by the government and nearly double that number by foreign sources, much of the pub­lic has come out against accepting jihadists’ return. Some insist that such individuals be stripped of Tu­nisian nationality.
About 1,000 demonstrators marched January 8th in Tunis to protest the return of jihadist fight­ers from Syria, Iraq and Libya.
Concerned that a flow of sea­soned fighters could trigger terrorist incidents at home, the demonstra­tors, many of them women, shout­ed: “No return, no freedom for the criminal hands of Daesh” (an Arabic acronym for the Islamic State) and “No pardon for terrorists”.
A similar demonstration occurred December 24th in Tunis.
Many of the demonstrators’ slo­gans were hostile to Ennahda, Tu­nisia’s main Islamist political party, accused by secularists of having facilitated the departure of Salafist radicals from Tunisia during its two years in government from 2011. En­nahda has vehemently denied the accusations.
Often cited as the lone success story of 2011’s “Arab spring”, Tu­nisia has long been embroiled in a fierce ideological battle between modernism and ultraconservatism.
Paradoxically, the North African country has a reputation as one of the most progressive and tolerant in the region but is also being de­scribed at times as the world’s top per person exporter of extremist militants.
Terror incidents in Tunisia have contributed to its economic weak­ness. In 2015, attacks at a museum in Tunis and a holiday resort in Sousse claimed the lives of scores of foreigners, devastating the coun­try’s tourism sector and discourag­ing foreign investment. Tunisian nationals are also suspected of be­ing behind 2016 terror attacks in France and Germany.
Ennahda party leader Rached Ghannouchi has been criticised af­ter seeming to condone the return of jihadist fighters. “Unsold meat is better consumed at home,” he said, using a local proverb. Ghannouchi also floated the idea of proposing legislation that would permit re­turning jihadists to be pardoned.
With growing fears that an influx of Tunisian militants would derail what progress has been made, po­litical leaders have been working to assure the public they are ready to deal with the threat. Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi told an interviewer he was determined to deal with the issue “with resolve and decisiveness” and that return­ing terrorists would be subject to the provisions of the anti-terrorism law.
“But I must make clear that we cannot bar these people from re­turning because the constitution does not allow such a ban,” Caid Es­sebsi said.
Article 25 of the Tunisian consti­tution prohibits the state from re­voking any citizen’s nationality or from forcing citizens into exile or extradition by banning them from entering in the country.
“Nevertheless, they (the ter­rorists) will not be greeted with flowers,” Caid Essebsi said. “We will neutralise them and the anti-terrorism law will be implemented against them.”
“Their number is 2,926, includ­ing four in Yemen and 20 in Mali. Do not listen to speculation putting them at 10,000 or 6,000,” he said.
UN experts have estimated the number of Tunisian jihadists fight­ing in Iraq, Syria and Libya to be ap­proximately 5,500.
Whatever the figure, many worry that Tunisia’s legal system cannot absorb such a large number of ex­tremists.
“Tunisian authorities initially ar­gued that the terrorists would not all be arrested and jailed upon their return, due to a lack of space in the already crowded prisons,” said Samir Abdallah, a Tunisian lawyer and former ambassador.
The Tunisian Interior Ministry has acknowledged that 800 jihadist fighters have re-entered the coun­try; 160 of them are in jail, the Min­istry of Justice said.
Tunisian Prime Minister Youssef Chahed has said any jihadist return­ing would be dealt with by Tunisia’s legal system. “Tunisia signed no ac­cord about the return of terrorists. It is doing nothing about their re­turn. Those who return will be ar­rested and tried in courts based on the anti-terrorist law,” he said.
Yet, with the controversy sur­rounding jihadist returnees front and centre, what many consider to be the root causes of radicalisation in young people — unemployment and poverty — have been put on the back burner.
Official figures indicate that 640,000 young Tunisians are unemployed and 100,000 have dropped out of the education sys­tem. A recent poll by the Tunisian Forum for Social and Economic Rights showed that 45% of young Tunisian respondents were willing to emigrate, even illegally if need be.
One of the estimated 34,000 young Tunisians who illegally mi­grated to Europe in 2011 was Anis Amri, the main suspect of Berlin’s Christmas market attack. Amri is believed to have driven a truck into a crowded market on December 19th, killing 12 people and injuring 49. He was later killed in a shoot-out with Italian police in Milan.
Tunisian officials and other sources say Amri was radicalised while jailed in Sicily.